Oct 28 2010

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

Matthew Shaer

web exclusive


Foreign Bodies, the sixth novel by Cynthia Ozick, is being billed by the publisher as a "photographic negative" of The Ambassadors—"the plot is the same, the meaning is reversed." Hardy is the soul who scans that description and does not feel a tingling at the base of his spine! For The Ambassadors is not just any Henry James novel, but the work—a towering, virtuosic portrait of turn-of-the-century Europe—that James himself considered his most-accomplished. Is there not something audacious in the suggestion that it could now, even a hundred-plus years later, be re-envisioned? And yet Ozick has produced something truly remarkable in Foreign Bodies—a novel that compliments and elevates the moral and political complexities of The Ambassadors, while taking on a fervid emotional life of its own.

Ozick's heroine is Beatrice Nightingale—née Nachtigall—a "resilient, intelligent, not inexperienced" school-teacher, forty-eight years old, but "graying only a little," and gripped by the certainty that the splendored life has passed her by. Once upon a time, Bea was married to an ambitious young musician named Leo Coopersmith, but Leo decamped for Hollywood, where he made a fortune scoring movies; he left a hulking grand piano and Bea behind. As the book opens, in the early 1950s, Bea has been dispatched to Paris by her older brother, Marvin, an airplane-parts mogul living in Los Angeles. Her assignment is to locate Marvin's wayward son, Julian, and haul him back to the US, where he will be inaugurated—however unwillingly—into the family business.

The epigraph of Foreign Bodies is a warning delivered to the fretful Lambert Strether (Bea's analogue) early in The Ambassadors, as he prepares to cast off for Paris: "But there are two quite distinct things—given the wonderful place he's in—that may have happened to him. One is that he may have got brutalized. The other is that he may have got refined." The lines, which refer specifically to the young New England scion Chad Newsome, are particularly portentous ones. Among the great themes of the James canon—perhaps the greatest of all—was the fate of the American abroad. "Very special and very interesting," James once wrote, "the state of being of the American who has bitten deep into the apple of 'Europe' and then been obliged to take his lips from the fruit." For James, Europe could be ingested, like the Edenic apple; it could civilize even the coarsest American. It could also be the cause of great ruin.

This binary conceit was tied to opposing notions of time: Americans were forever chained to it, James suggested, while Europeans had learned to revel in its fluidity. In The Ambassadors, first Newsome and then Strether take the former tack—they cast aside the anxiety and prejudices of the New World and embrace the sensory richness of the Old. Strether returns to the US a changed man, able at last "to take things as they come."

Julian and Bea are not so lucky. Paris has changed since Chad and Strether left it—it is now a spoiled paradise, teeming with charlatans, anti-Semites, and "literary tourists," who gather at once-grand cafes to "savor the old tales of the lost generation, and to scorn what they had left behind." There is still civilization in this "Nineveh," as one character calls it, but there is too much civilization; it accumulates in layers, like dirt and grease on the skin. Wandering through the "pinched and used up" streets of the Marais one afternoon, Bea encounters the modern "ghosts" of Europe—the waves of displaced persons, who have "washed up in Paris," the war "still in them."

Bea soon learns that Julian has taken up with one of these ghosts, a pale and maimed Romanian refugee named Lili; the couple have been joined in Paris by Julian's older sister, Iris. Bea is disgusted by Julian and Iris—"their alien bodies and whatever effluvium might pass for their souls"—but she is fascinated by Lili, "a woman completed…used to everything, and ready to expect anything. The world as it was." Lili becomes a portal, an electrified conduit, a stand-in for the army of survivors that have found the mutant strength—through will or simple reflex—to persevere in the years after the war. Ozick writes elegiacally and beautifully of Iris, who is repeatedly described as a kind of injured bird, battered but not yet broken by the bloodshed.

"What she taught [Julian] was Europe," Ozick writes of Lili. "She thickened his mind. And he entered her body, gratefully. He forgot pity. She, who had less of it (because in truth he deserved less), forgot it too." There is an echo here of the work of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who once remarked that "they do not know how one pays—those abroad do not know. They do not know what one buys, and at what price." Ozick and Milosz wrote of very different circumstances, but their point is the same: No one who has weathered consumptive violence has ever emerged unscathed. All experiences are not equal.

We are a good distance from The Ambassadors here, of course, both chronologically and psychically. Henry James died in 1916, two years after the outbreak of the first World War and two decades before the pyretic chaos of the second, and although he understood that Europe could be poisonous—in his novella Daisy Miller, the title character wanders among the spidery rot and ruin of Rome, before succumbing to malaria, or "Roman fever"—he remained forever enamored by the glimmering world on the other side of the Atlantic. (James, Ozick has written, "never did take his lips from the fruit; he died an American bachelor who was also a patriotic British subject.")

Foreign Bodies thus can be read as a kind of corrective, written with the benefit of hindsight: This is what war did to the Eden of The Ambassadors, Ozick seems to be saying. Behold the shattered city. "His Paris was no more than the platitudes of the postcards, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe," Bea thinks of her brother, Marvin. "And grimly below, diseased and bloody dungeons engulfing his boy. Beneath those famed public monoliths were interiors a visitor could never fathom; and in Marvin's naked grasp of it, his son, no longer merely a visitor, had penetrated that unnatural dark."

As the previous excerpt indicates, the border between brutality and civilization in Foreign Bodies is a muddy one. Unlike James, who imagined the two outcomes to be flip-sides of a single coin, Ozick sees them as comingled; one cannot have one without the other. There are no purely good motives here, just as there are no purely good characters. Everyone—including good-hearted and steadfast old Bea—has his or her own secrets.

For that reason, Foreign Bodies is a raucously multifarious affair. Ozick regularly switches perspective, devoting chapters to Bea, Lili, Iris, and even to Marvin and Leo. (By comparison, The Ambassadors was narrated solely by Lambert Strether.) The backdrop barrels by in great big vivid bursts: New York to Paris to California—where Bea encounters Leo for the first time since their divorce—and then back to Paris. Ozick proves, as always, to be an expert portraitist, often to the degree that the inner lives of the characters and external realities of the cityscape become painfully intertwined. Witness Iris peering down at a "bare-shouldered woman tugging at a whining child" walking under the terrace of the Paris apartment where she is staying:

The whine a universal language. Everything else oddly wrong: the width of the pavement, the snout-nosed cars (at home they had winglike fins, like big metal sharks), the very bricks of the building opposite, and the languid tallness of its windows. Even the light seemed out of kilter, as if the sun has started out that morning mistakenly angled, a ship in the hands of an erratic navigator. This light was different from California light: it fell out of a sky so much smaller, so much older: an old old sky, drooling wrinkled clouds.

The action finally chugs to a close back in the States, where the bulk of the characters have returned, some under duress and some by their own volition. Suffice it to say, without spoiling the bravura ending orchestrated by Ozick, that by the final pages of the book, no less than three of these characters have been brutalized.

Only one has been refined.

Matthew Shaer has written about books for The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, among other publications.

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