Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Having recently read Henry James’s The Ambassadors, and having written a few essays over the years on Cynthia Ozick, I could hardly neglect to read Ozick’s 2010 novel, Foreign Bodies. It’s strangely billed on the book jacket as “a photographic negative” of the James novel, in which “the plot is the same but the meaning is reversed.” I say “strangely” because neither novel has a simple, one-dimensional meaning.
In James’s book, a turn-of-the-century American WASP middle-aged man is sent by his prospective wife to Paris to retrieve his soon-to-be stepson; there he finds that the young man has been civilized and refined by his quietly illicit relationship with an older married French aristocrat. Ozick moves the action to the early 1950s. In her story, a middle-aged American Jewish woman is sent by her brother to Paris to retrieve her nephew; she finds that the young man has been initiated into a mature knowledge of death by his marriage to a Romanian Jewish Holocaust survivor.
If “the meaning is reversed” from the earlier to the later book, it may be because James seems to exalt European civilization above mercenary American values, whereas Ozick implicitly condemns Europe for its destruction of the Jews and envisions America as a refuge or haven for the persecuted. To say this, though, is to miss Ozick’s own satire on American crassness—Foreign Bodies portrays assimilated upwardly-mobile American Jews as coarse and shallow—and to ignore James’s eye for the sexual corruption of a European elite that imprisons women in quasi-arranged power-play marriages.
It’s tempting to read Foreign Bodies as a novel in the Wide Sargasso Sea subgenre: rewriting a canonical work from a marginal perspective to reveal the oppressive exclusions of hegemonic narrative. But that isn’t really Ozick’s style, especially because the academic verbiage would make her vomit. I suspect she sees herself as sharing James’s values or at least the inner quarrel between the things he values most—his somewhat contradictory passions for art and for human kindness—but testing them in a very different scenario.
Ozick’s heroine is Bea Nightingale (Anglicized from the German Nachtigall, which means the same thing), a divorced public high school English teacher of about 50 years old who lives in New York City. Her estranged brother Marvin, a wealthy businessman —“a dedicated Californian…a Tory (a Republican, in fact), an American Bourbon, an American Borgia!”—asks her to go to Paris to find his errant son. His daughter Iris, an aspiring scientist, also goes to Europe, ostensibly to bring Julian home but really using his flight as an excuse for her own. In Paris, both Iris and Bea separately discover that Julian has married an older woman named Lili. The mysterious wound on her arm, the furrows between her eyes that look like train tracks, her work at a resettlement agency for displaced persons, the husband and child she’s lost—all these testify, literally and symbolically, that she’s a survivor. As do her nightmares, as Iris overhears:
Lili’s bad dreams made a strange piping, and sometimes a harsh grim grunt, or even a metallic click, like the cocking of a trigger. Only Julian knew why.
Ozick refrains from making it explicit or obscene—she decorously negotiates the famously impossible relation between poetry and Auschwitz—but what we need to know is implied with Jamesian subtlety. And just as James’s hero finds his young quarry elevated by his Parisian affair, so Bea discovers Julian matured out of the California callowness instilled by his father as a result of Lili’s love: “he had married a woman who was teaching him the knowledge of death.”
“My impression is one of enduring gravity and endurance,” she writes to her brother of his son’s transformation, as she reflects that “she had come to side with the party of the far horizon,” where this horizon is presumably more metaphysical—an awareness of death and suffering—than Europe considered in James’s style as a mind-expanding higher civilization. Lili herself affirms to Bea:
“I am already one hundred years, yes! But I am for him. I do him good, is this how you say it? I do him good. […] He becomes less and less a boy. At the same time he is a man.”
Despite this evidence of Julian’s growth, Bea also worries that the poetic young man is somehow preying on his wife’s terrible experiences, reflecting an anxiety that the American artist writing about the Holocaust necessarily exploits its victims for mere aesthetics: “Had he also suckled on the black milk of her nightmares?” The “black milk” image of a corrupted maternity alludes to Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue,”, the most famous of poems about the Holocaust. Celan contrasts ideal German aesthetics in the shining figure of Goethe’s Margaret with Jewish femininity pictured as the Biblical lover Shulamith immolated in the camps:
your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamit
If the black-haired survivor Lili is Julian’s surrogate Jewish mother, nourishing his American innocence on the “black milk” of what has befallen the Jews of Europe, she replaces his blonde mother, the assimilationist Marvin’s mentally-ill WASP wife, whose tragic fate—full knowledge of which Bea spares Julian—reveals the rot below the gilding of gentile success, just as surely as do the displaced persons roaming a Paris where vapid American tourists hope to relive Hemingway’s adventures or find Sartre in a cafe belie the expat dream:
The other foreign contingent—the ghosts—were polyglot. They chattered in dozens of languages. Out of their mouths spilled all the cadences of Europe. Unlike the Americans, they shunned the past, and were free of any taint of nostalgia or folklore or idyllic renewal. They were Europeans whom Europe had set upon; they wore Europe’s tattoo.
The Celan allusion is only one of Ozick’s patterns, motifs, and references in this deceptively simple, deceptively high-spirited novel. There are Jewish folktales and magician-mountebanks and Disneyfied folklore, Doctor Faustus and pianos and symphonies (the ironically unmusical Nightingale’s ex-husband is an ambitious composer turned Hollywood hack). We go from New York to Paris to California. A mysterious be-wigged Alfred, who killed himself before the novel opens, appears in several characters’ recollections: “a yellow wig (no exaggeration!) wobbling on his shiny pate, Alfred knew them all, George Plimpton and Jimmy Baldwin and the rest of them.” Devoted readers of Ozick’s essays will know him from one of her best, “Alfred Chester’s Wig: Images Standing Fast,” her generous, poignant tribute her first literary rival and a sensibility enormously different from her own, an avant-gardist opposed to her historical sobriety (if not literary solemnity). There are flowers (Lili and Iris, whom Julian collectively calls “the Botanicals”) and more birds (Julian the aspiring poet likewise hails the refugee women, disparaged as pigeons by callous Parisians, as “the doves of the Marais,” the latter being the city’s old Jewish quarter). There are fine phrases, as when Bea is grading a stack of student essays and thinks of the experience—the honest teacher will understand—as “a starvation of words.”
If The Ambassadors is restricted entirely to its protagonist’s point of view and written in the late-Jamesian style of maddening circumlocution, Foreign Bodies gives us Ozick at her most Woolfean, her most Forsterian, soaring from chapter to chapter in exclamatory prose among the perspectives of all the major and some of the minor characters, and Ozick at her most Bellovian, immersing us in the world of sensation, making us feel what it is to live on earth, in the body. The novel’s polysemous title may refer to the displaced persons of Paris, the Jews of Europe, and Judaism within Christian civilization, but it surely means also the way our bodies are foreign to ourselves, rebellious in their needs and desires to our conscious wishes and moral choices.
Not many great novelists are also equally great essayists. When it does happen—Woolf might be the 20th-century paradigm case, at least in the Anglophone world—the novelistic and essayistic visions tend to agree, as, say, when Orlando narrativizes A Room of One’s Own or A Room of One’s Own codifies Orlando. With Ozick the great essayist—the great moralist!—and the great novelist—the great sensualist!—are at odds, a conflict she herself pictures as Jerusalem vs. Athens with the “after Auschwitz” stakes as high as they could possibly be. The sensually explosive Foreign Bodies certainly worries over the problem. It’s a novel of childless marriages—Bea has no children; Lili lost one child and aborts another; Iris resolves never to procreate—perhaps, therefore, of a sterile civilization. What are we to think when Ozick—the stern lawgiver of those early essays that looked so askance on the childless Edith Wharton, on the gay E. M. Forster—grants this to Iris as the girl’s final epiphany?
She wished she could wish away her woman’s thighs and the underground factory that was her woman’s groin. She would never again plummet into the folly of coupling, she would never have a husband. She would live with her father forever. She wished she could be free. She wished she could be Bea.
There is no procreation in the novel, only artistic creation. Bea finally fathers the child of a symphony in the womb of her theretofore creatively stymied ex-husband:
The sound was tremendous, the sound was august, it was a thunder, a chorus of tragical gods, it was out of the deeps, it was out of the sky, it was hail, it was flung stones, it was majesty!
Ozick wouldn’t have the bad taste to mean this as a self-appraisal of her own novel, and Foreign Bodies is written in a somewhat more comic key than these superlatives suggest—the word “scherzo” recurs—but as a description of the author in perennial confrontation with herself and with the massive historical forces she embodies, we could do worse.