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Review: Cynthia Ozick's Foreign Bodies, The Times of London, June 2011

The Times of London, June 2011

It is 1952 and in Cynthia Ozick’s breathtaking new novel, Bea Nightingale (née Nachtigall) is bullied by Marvin, her wealthy brother, into fetching his son Julian from a life of bohemian dissipation in Paris to improve the mental health of Marvin’s wife, Margaret Nachtigall (née Breckinridge), who is doing art therapy at a sanatorium. If the plot sounds familiar, there is cause.

Decades ago, a writer told me that there are only two types of stories: a man takes a trip, or a visitor comes to town. Ozick and her publisher say that Foreign Bodies is the “photographic negative” of Henry James’s The Ambassadors, in which a wealthy American mother deputises her milquetoast fiancé — the ambassador on her behalf — to retrieve her wayward son under the sway of an older married woman in Paris.

Foreign Bodies, like The Ambassadors, is the kind of story where characters take trips that force changes. The analogies are clear: Bea stands for James’s impressionable Lambert Strether; Julian for James’s prodigal Chad; and Lili, the displaced person who has lost her husband, son and parents in the Holocaust, for James’s suffering Madame de Vionnet.

Although the mechanical plot symmetry is salient, Ozick is not writing an homage to the novel that James felt was his most accomplished. She has instead taken on his “international theme” — James’s obsessive interest in the relationship between the ingénue raw America and the elder, cultivated Europe. If James’s Paris of 1903 was a glittering finishing school to expand the naive yet morally straitened American, Ozick’s 1952 postwar Paris in July is a “furnace ... the terrible heat was said to be a general malignancy, a remnant of the recent war, as if the continent itself had been turned into a region of hell”.

For Ozick’s Lili, the Romanian Jewish Holocaust survivor, Paris is nothing short of Nineveh, the wicked city worthy of destruction in the Old Testament book of Jonah. America in 1952 is virtuous and air-conditioned, while the warm stench of genocide lingers thick on the guilty continent. Through the scorecard of history, Ozick reverses James’s international theme.

In epistles and alternating third person points of view, the Jamesian method of narrative, the reader follows Iris, Julian’s sister, Leo Coopersmith, Bea’s ex-husband, and the whitewashed and brutish Marvin and his wife Margaret, the imperious anti-Semite. But what makes us turn the pages, fascinated and absorbed, are the surprising and cruel meddlings of Bea, a 48-year-old English teacher who has been made the family ambassador. The shocked and amused reader learns that Bea has been simmering with rage for too long. This intelligent, sober, angry woman makes for a terrific main character wreaking havoc on unsuspecting relatives.

Thematically, Ozick embeds the hunger for an authentic identity and wholeness in the marriage of Julian, a young Jewish American literary expatriate-wannabe, to Lili, the persecuted émigré. In this plotline, the resemblance is stronger with George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda where the title character falls in love with Mirah Lapidoth, a Jewish girl who has lost her mother and brother, and in the process discovers his own secret Jewish identity.

Ozick, who wrote her master’s thesis on Henry James, has confessed her lifelong obsession with his work. He is a curious object of fascination since, like his contemporaries, he was an anti-Semite of the “garden-variety” sort, as Jonathan Freedman points out in his insightful book, The Temple of Culture. The late Alfred Kazin, the literary critic, explained that to be accepted in modern culture, Jewish intellectuals valorised the very writers, including Henry James, who diminished and excluded Jews: “How we love them [anti-Semitic writers] though they love us not!”

In Foreign Bodies, Ozick does not venerate James. She exploits his plot frame and engages his international theme to tell a superb story about the reversal of world order and identities. No longer the student and never the simple admirer, she has neither resuscitated nor abandoned her ghostly tutor; if anything, through her moral and historical lens, she has enlarged his subject.

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