Our flat, alas, has a purpose other than book storage facility, and so my copy of Henry James’s 1903 novel, The Ambassadors, is elsewhere. That makes checking for Jamesian references in Foreign Bodies, Cynthia Ozick’s Orange-shortlisted novel, more difficult than it might otherwise have been. Fortunately, however, Ozick is fairly upfront about her book’s pedigree – its epigraph is taken from The Ambassadors, and its plot is an inverted lift: Bea Nightingale, a rather proper divorcee teaching literature thanklessly in an inner city New York school, is sent to Paris by her domineering brother, Marvin Nachtigall (he has kept their Jewish surname), to persuade his wayward son, Julian, to return to the USA.
In James, of course, Europe represents freedom and mystery, set apart from the dull vulgarity of America by its ancient culture and rarefied elegance. Ozick sets her novel in 1952, however, and post-war Europe is a quite different place. This contrast was the driving force behind her conception of the novel, she says in an interview at the Daily Beast:
“It had to do with James’s vision of Europe as a shining citadel,” she says. “In 1952, when America was quite imperfect…it was the McCarthy years, and we were in Korea, the civil rights movement had not come and we were still living with Jim Crow. But Europe was just emerging from the gas chambers and the fire and the demons of war. America with all its imperfections, because it had gone into the war and defeated Hitler and saved Europe, was by contrast a shining citadel. I was stuck by how James’s idea had been reversed.” (In a Q&A at the Guardian, she suggests this insight came to her only half-way through the novel. The perdition of influence remains confounding.)
What Ozick sets out to do in Foreign Bodies, then, is not to recapitulate The Ambassadors but refigure it as a kind of Jewish allegory. Whilst in Paris, Julian meets, falls in love with, and marries Lili, a survivor of the Romanian holocaust, and begins to share her feeling that he belongs nowhere – the arrogance of the Jamesian tourist disappears. “If you wait on tables you get to see these outlanders grazing in one café after another all day,” he sneers at one point, before realising: “wasn’t he one himself?” [pg. 58] Ozick suggests in those interviews that she’s simply swapping the US and Europe for one another, but in fact her characters ultimately wind up feeling at home nowhere, seeing the demerits of every location. Even the putative Israel is rejected as “a withered Golgotha […] beside a dried-up Jordan.” [pg. 167]
Foreign Bodies posits, then, that we are all foreign to each other, that in the post-war world the West became more, not less, separated from itself. Bea’s ex-husband, the composer Leo Cooperfield, lives on the other side of the continent (California and New York are as distant from one another in Ozick’s vision as Paris and Boston in James’s), writing incidental music for bad motion pictures; neither Julian nor his younger sister, Iris, have spoken to Bea in years, and the latter’s arrival in Bea’s life she likens to a “calamitous foreign body” [pg. 26]; Marvin’s wife, Margaret, spends her days in a fussed-up sanitorium, placed out of sight of the WASPish networks she opened up to her upstart, brutish husband. When Margaret goes wandering she sees “only this relentlessly rushing road connecting suburban cluster to suburban cluster …” [pg. 205]
Connections are indeed in short supply: in New York, for instance, “no street map could hint at what a mere two miles’ distance might signify.” [pg. 47] Unsurprisingly given this environment, it is withheld knowledge which powers the plot of the novel – letters pass between all of the characters, each partial in their own way, but unlike in Shakespeare (Ozick bows her head with a misjudged “to Bea or not to Bea” joke), the secrets are never revealed – they hang, unspoken and consequential, between individuals who each misapprehend their relationship with the other. Younger characters toy with casting off all ties – “I’m not supposed to be responsible for my brother’s troubles or my mother’s or my fathers,” insists Iris, pretending to be “practical” [pg. 160] – whilst older ones worry at the correspondence of past actions to present conditions – “A woman grown foreign to his life,” Leo thinks of Bea, uncomprehendingly, “erased from his history, obliterated.” [pg. 111] Ultimately, Bea in turn rejects Leo’s vision of music as a universal language. “Words,” she tells herself, “the sovereignty of words, their excluding particularity, this was language.” [pg. 254] It’s in the parenthesis that the kicker lies – as Kevin from Canada writes, the novel’s mosaic is endlessly, if fruitlessly, broken.
This is a novel intensely alive to the Jamesian project, then – “If introspection is thought,” the novel tells us, “Marvin was not introspective,” but it nevertheless proceeds to expose us to his introspection [pg. 152] – and yet it is a far more directly written novel than the late works of the master who inspired it. Nevertheless, and reflecting the “heavy stillness” with which Bea is filled, at times this is a static novel, over-determined and endlessly receptive without always transmitting. It fills itself more with the shibboleths than with their rejection – “Here it was normal to drink wine,” Julian marvels in France [pg. 126], whilst Lili metamorphoses into an impossibly insightful “sybil”, to whom all the other characters are magically “transparent”. In part this is necessary; in part, it is the sign of a novel – to take up the gauntlet of my closing remarks on The Song of Achilles – so complete in its vision and execution that it lacks the messy vitality of Enright’s admittedly less densely allusive The Forgotten Waltz.
“The sentences stretched on and on, and he understood that sentences such as these had been written thousands of times in the history of the world, and in truth carried no redeemable coin, and would be blown like vapor into nothingness.” [pg. 217] Ozick is a writer of sentences with real currency, and Foreign Bodies represents a masterful putting-to-bed of the master; it is therefore a strong contender for the last Orange prize, if it is minded to reward an exquisitely turned literary rumination: few novels will better this one in terms of classical form and style. If, however, the Orange judges seek energy, novelty and unforced fluidity, they may need to look elsewhere.