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Taking Sides

In the publisher's materials that accompany her new book, the novelist Cynthia Ozick is described as having written a "photographic negative" of Henry James's great 1903 masterpiece, The Ambassadors. Her Foreign Bodies is said to offer a "reversal of [James's] meaning." But what is her meaning?

Relevant Links
Who is Cynthia Ozick?  Joseph Lowin, Jewish Women in America. A profile of her life and work, ca. 1997.  
What is Cynthia Ozick About?  Hillel Halkin, Commentary. As a writer of fiction and as an essayist, she is in a class by herself. (PDF)  

Critics have been asking this about Ozick for some time. As Hillel Halkin wrote in Commentary upon the publication of Heir to the Glimmering World (2004), she is a novelist who "continues to puzzle." Born in 1928 in New York—a slightly older contemporary of Philip Roth, Stanley Elkin, and E. L. Doctorow—Ozick may have been the first serious novelist of her generation to write about American Jewish life from the inside, from the standpoint of some­one who lived as a Jew and who was as likely to cite the Talmud as the poetry of T.S. Eliot.

Her literary career has moved between those poles for decades. The title story of The Pagan Rabbi (1971), probably her best-known book, is about a talmudic scholar who scandalously cherishes the English Romantic poets. While she is famous for declaring that literature can lead to idolatry, Ozick herself frankly reveres Henry James, the American novel­ist who came closest to making a religion of literature. He taught her, she has said, to become a "worshiper of literature," to establish it as her "single altar." James is the deepest influence upon her writing and thinking. In her critical essays, which she has collected in six volumes, she has returned to him again and again.

Now in her eighties, Ozick has apparently determined to devote the rest of her life to writing fiction. Not surprisingly, she has inaugurated this phase of her career with a relatively short but thickly woven 250-page novel that both acknowledges the master's influence and throws it off. The result is the most readable of her six novels, and perhaps the best thing Ozick has ever written.

Foreign Bodies retraces the steps of The Ambassadors, but to a different con­clusion. James's ambassador is Lambert Strether, a fifty-five-year-old bachelor editor who is dispatched to Paris to fetch his fiancée's son Chad back home to the family business. Ozick's ambassador—the year is 1952—is Bea Night­ingale, a divorced forty-eight-year-old high-school teacher. She is sent by her wealthy brother Marvin, "a dedicated Californian," to bring home his son Julian, who has spent three years in Paris after dropping out of Princeton. "I want my son out of there altogether," Marvin demands of Bea, "out of Europe, out of the bloody dirt of that place, and back in America where he belongs." When Bea finally tracks down her nephew, she discovers that he is "homeless, jobless, futureless" and that he "reek[s] of chaos." Moreover, he is married to an older woman named Lili, a Romanian refugee with an obscure wound in her arm and "two cut-off railroad tracks" etched in her fore­head.

Here is Ozick's first reversal. In Paris, James's Strether sheds his American ways, with their "illusion of freedom," and comes gradually to realize that Europe represents life, in all its satisfactions and superabundance. Such Americans do exist in Ozick's novel. They are, as she puts it, one of the "two parties" of foreigners who are "all over Paris" that summer, acting out "a kind of self-intoxi­cated theater," chasing the legends of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, intending "to stay young in Paris forever." But the other of the two parties is a "squad of volatile maunder­ing ghosts," speak­ing in "all the cadences of Europe." These foreigners, who torment the city, do not hope for "idyllic renewal" there. They are "Europeans whom Europe had set upon; they wore Europe's tattoo." They are, of course, Holocaust survivors.

Here, then, is the second reversal. James's Paris, that "vast bright Babylon," has become "strewn" with displaced Jews. They choke off the sidewalks, "arguing, shrugging, laughing." They exhale "unhealthy odors." Even those who stoop to assist them look forward to the day when "there should not be a foreign Jew left in Paris." James's cradle of "high civilization," scorched by a ferocious heat wave that assaults Europe from Sicily to Malmö, has become a drain trap for the last bru­talized remnant of its polyglot culture, "as if the continent itself had been turned into a region of hell." For the Jews, Paris is a city to get away from.

And so the final reversal. Bea Nightingale also resolves to change her life. But in doing so, she does not, like James's Strether, abandon her rescue operation. Instead, she helps to extricate Julian and Lili from Europe, repaying the nastiness of Paris with a warm New York bed, finding a transla­tor's job for Lili, and contriving a soothing fiction for Julian about his mother. Turning on the "spigot of fable," sprinkling a pinch of truth into a "craze of invention," Bea fabricates a "clever mother who paints" in place of the desperate madwoman who has actually been struck and killed trying to cross a California freeway. Although she is appalled at her own cor­ruption, Julian believes her fully: "She was feeding him joy." In private, Lili exclaims, "How good you are!" Thus the ambivalent morality of fiction—doing good by doing bad.

Bea ends by disrupting everyone's life. Although her ex-husband is convinced that the "fleeting exultation" she stirs up is "nothing more than an accident," she has performed this "mystical miracle" before. She is an English teacher, "not yet burned out" after nearly a quarter-century in the classroom. She teaches Shakespeare to young "brutes," but despite their errors and wrong turns, she detects in them a "subterranean mindfulness." They have "seen into the tragic," and because of her—because of the literature into which she initiates them—"they would not live paper lives."

The Jamesian encounter between America and Europe is turned upside down in Ozick. The American principle, the principle of freedom, overpowers the European principle, the principle of cultural refinement, of a "delirium of knowing and unknowing" that leaves the human heart "in its cage a foreign body." Whether the encounter has been for good or for bad, Bea "come[s] to side with the party of the far horizon."

The Jewish theme in Foreign Bodies may appear at first to be strangely muted for an Ozick novel. But the appearance is deceiving. European refinement is called into question forever by the Holocaust, and European knowing and unknowing must now include the ghosts and their survivors who haunt Ozick's pages. They are the real foreign bodies for whom America—and Israel, just over Ozick's "far horizon"—are where the heart can be freed from its cage and lives can be rewritten on more than paper.

D.G. Myers, a critic and literary historian, is the author of A Commonplace Blog and of The Elephants Teach, a study of creative-writing instruction in America. 

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Patrick on November 29, 2010 at 11:26 pm (Reply)
This calls to mind another novelistic commentary on James: Colm Tóibín's "The Master." It's a literary biography about the nature of creativity, language, and identity.

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