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When more is less

If you know anything at all about Cynthia Ozick — an officially accredited grande dame in America, less famous in Britain — you won’t be surprised to hear that her new novel is influenced by Henry James.

25 June 2011

12:00 AM

25 June 2011

12:00 AM

Foreign Bodies Cynthia Ozick

Atlantic, pp.255, 16.99

If you know anything at all about Cynthia Ozick — an officially accredited grande dame in America, less famous in Britain — you won’t be surprised to hear that her new novel is influenced by Henry James.

If you know anything at all about Cynthia Ozick — an officially accredited grande dame in America, less famous in Britain — you won’t be surprised to hear that her new novel is influenced by Henry James. Throughout Ozick’s career, James has hovered over her fiction and featured heavily in her essays. Now, in Foreign Bodies, she goes for, among other things, a full-scale recasting of The Ambassadors.

In James’s novel, the middle-aged Lambert Strether is dispatched by a New England matriarch to bring home her son from Paris, where he’s apparently fallen for an older woman. In Ozick’s, the middle-aged Bea Nightingale (née Nachtigall) is dispatched by her overbearing brother Marvin to do the same for his son Julian, whose own older woman she soon finds out about.

Unlike Strether, though, Bea certainly isn’t beguiled by the superiority of Europe. It is, after all, 1952 — when a Parisian heatwave seems ‘a remnant of the recent war, as if the continent itself had been turned into a region of hell’. The city is also packed with Jewish survivors. These include Lili, Julian’s Romanian wife, who’s clearly learned the dark lessons that America has been spared. (‘There is something different in the faces of Americans,’ another survivor reflects. ‘A look of — how to name it? — exemption.’)


Even so, Bea’s rescue mission fails. Marvin’s mood, never very cheery, is then further blackened when his daughter Iris joins Julian and Lili in the Old World. From there, the narrative darts in all directions, setting up any number of moral dilemmas, and providing back-stories for everybody concerned, however peripherally. Even the quack doctor with whom Iris has a brief affair is given a full psychological and social analysis. So is Bea’s ex-husband Leo, who once dreamed of writing symphonies, but now composes film music in Hollywood.

The same slightly mad abundance applies to the novel’s themes. In some books, the post-war relationship between Europe and America might be enough for 255 pages. Here, it’s combined with the ignorance, sometimes wilful, of American Jews about the Holocaust; the irreducible difficulty of getting life to turn out as you’d hoped; the difference between New York and California; and the nature of true art.

And all this in prose that’s almost ferociously determined to glitter. Virtually every sentence here is an undisguised attempt at fine phrase-making — and while the success rate is high, that still leaves plenty which try a bit too hard. Leo’s music, for example,

had taken root in what he presumed were the wrinkly lobes of his brain, though too often it flashed down to inflame the tender secret testicles that lurked like darkened planets between his legs.

In theory, of course, it does the heart good to see a respected octogenarian writer still going flat out like this. In practice, while there are plenty of individual pleasures on offer, the overall sense is of characters, themes and prose that are piled up rather than integrated. We’re told, for instance, that ‘what Lili taught Julian was Europe’ and with it ‘the knowledge of death’. Yet, there’s no sign in Julian himself that these lessons have taken place. Instead, like many of the characters, he remains distinctly overshadowed by the ideas he’s there to signify.

In 1987, Ozick’s friend Saul Bellow wrote to her about her novel The Messiah of Stockholm. ‘I felt you might have depended too much on your virtuosity,’ he told her with perhaps unwelcome candour, ‘and that you wanted more from your subject than it actually yielded.’ Readers of Foreign Bodies will know exactly what he meant.


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