Foreign Bodies

Several years ago the octogenarian novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick was told by a young interviewer that her fiction didn't engage with contemporary culture. The complaint angered Ozick, and Foreign Bodies seems to be her reply. Although set in 1952, the novel has characters that could easily have stepped out of an up-to-date fiction by Philip Roth: a rich and domineering Jewish father named Marvin Nachtigall, his depressed WASP wife Margaret, their hapless son Julian and dull-witted daughter Iris, Marvin's poor and schlumpy 48-year-old sister Bea, and some minor eccentrics—a B-movie music composer, a mountebank "doctor," an anti-Semitic philanthropist. From this mostly unlikable crew, Ozick squeezes predictable comedy and—after introducing a character who could not be contemporary, a young woman who survived the Holocaust—unanticipated emotional satisfaction.


To contrast the low culture that her characters represent and the high culture of the early twentieth century that Ozick has praised in her five books of essays, she rewrites and extends Henry James's The Ambassadors, a novel she once called her "talisman." In that 1903 book, the middle-aged editor Lambert Strether is dispatched to Paris by his wealthy fiancée to bring back to the United States her culture-accumulating son. After weeks immersing himself in social niceties and foreign subtleties, Strether finds the "remarkable" and "wonderful" young man in immoral "intimacy" with a married woman, and the failed ambassador returns alone to America. Although one need not invest a week or a year in reading The Ambassadors to "get" Foreign Bodies, those who know James's novel will savor Ozick's many ironies—sometimes directed against her expatriates, sometimes against the James who largely ignored people without drawing rooms.


As Ozick's title suggests, her characters lack Jamesian refinement. The brutish Marvin orders Bea from New York to Paris to convince the 23-year-old Julian, an unemployed waiter and undistinguished writer, to return home, but he has secretly married Lili, a Romanian widow wounded and deformed by Nazis, who wants to live in Israel. To complicate Bea's mission, Julian's sister runs off to join her brother in Paris, where she takes up with a fake healer familiar with "astral bodies." Evaded and insulted, Bea loses "interest in these young people's lives, their plots and intimacies, their alien bodies and whatever effluvium might pass for their souls. Iris and Julian, niece and nephew, flesh of her flesh, who had never cared to seek her out, or she them. They were mutually incurious and mutually superfluous." Bea, like James's ambassador, returns home a failure.


But Bea's experiences in Paris do inspire her fitful liberation back in the United States, where James does not take his readers. Like one of Joan Didion's globe-wandering, late-awakening women, Bea decides to act, to do. She deceives her brother, starts exorcising the influence of her former husband, travels to Los Angeles to spy on Marvin's life and wife, helps Julian and Lili, and becomes the only likable character in the novel, at least until she indirectly causes an accidental death and deprives Julian of a "royal inheritance." In Ozick's world, no sin or good deed goes unpunished, but Bea, absorbing will power from the prickly Lili, comes through like a feminist heroine of the 1970s, and earns the author's final words: "wasn't it Bea who'd won?"


Ozick's revelation of her young characters' moral failings is where the novel is most contemporary in its perspective. The youths' ethical lassitude seems to indict the current "whatever" generation. The psychological displacements Ozick gives her geographically displaced people are incisive, and her depiction of her Holocaust survivor is complex. But Ozick diminishes her novel's authority and contemporaneity by associating bodies with "foreign matter," as if humans were helium-balloon souls injected with heavy metals.


Physical ugliness abounds: the hairless body of the libertine Alfred (modeled on Ozick's college friend and writer Alfred Chester), the "bisonlike" Marvin, the fat neck and dripping nostrils of Julian, Iris stiff as an ironing board when having sex. Hammer-toed Bea thinks of her own body as "a latticed basket leaking stale lost longings" and "as a floating vitrine":

You could see into it, she imagined it as a movie, the movie music swirling upward, the camera trundling in for the close-ups, you could watch the heavings of the ovaries and the uterus contracting, and the shining slime of liver and spleen … one of the medieval humors.

One might argue that Ozick's negative presentation of bodies represents her characters' 1950s Puritanism or that the author uncovers what was veiled by layers of fancy clothes and delicate sentences in The Ambassadors or even that the Nazis had turned bodies to meat in the popular imagination. Yet none of these possibilities—or even all, taken together—quite explain the physical revulsion and spleen that circulate through the novel.


Foreign Bodies may be retrograde in its physiology, but the novel is contemporary in its designed accessibility. In her last collection of essays, The Din in the Head, Ozick said that "readers nowadays will hardly tolerate long blocks of print unbroken by dialogue or action" or language that is not "familiar, speedy." In place of "long blocks," Foreign Bodies has fifty-seven short chapters, some of them letters by the principals, told through multiple but clearly identified points of view, including those of minor characters. With so many of them at cross purposes, the dialogue in Ozick's brief scenes is quick and sharp. The style is "familiar," even colloquial and ugly in the letters, rarely decorated with Ozick's usual extended and original metaphors. We occupy Bea's consciousness more than other characters' minds, and as a high school English teacher she is capable of literary allusion and witty kvetching, but she's no obsessively meditating, compulsively qualifying Strether. And, thankfully, Bea does not turn into a postmodernist figure who realizes she is a feminist alternative to James's dithering protagonist.


In the interview mentioned earlier, Ozick insisted on her "history-consciousness." Foreign Bodies includes references to new televisions, loyalty oaths, and the Korean War, but her generational conflicts between working elders and slacker youths and her pointed prose are quite contemporary, certainly not foreign to our age. Only the notion of bodies, which seems Platonic. Overlook that and the novel gives considerable pleasure: what Bea calls "grieving hilarity" and the play of contrasts among three periods—James's, the 1950s, the contemporary—and three locales—America, France, and the empyrean.

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