Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Cynthia Ozick is a favorite of the KfC blog — this is review number four of her works, which ties her for the lead in the “most books reviewed” category. Having said that, I don’t think she did herself (or her readers) any favors with the advance notices of her new novel, Foreign Bodies. To quote the inside cover blurb: “For her sixth novel, she set herself a brilliant challenge: to retrace the story of Henry James’ The Ambassadors — the work he considered his best — but as a photographic negative, in which the plot is the same but the meaning is reversed”. Admirable as that might be as a motivation (and I am sure it was), it adds nothing but obfuscation, useless expectation and distraction to a reader approaching this book. James is another KfC favorite and I had read The Ambassadors (and loved it) well before starting this blog — yes, there are comparisons between the two (which we can talk about in comments) but Ozick is a distinguished enough name to stand on her own. And that is how I will approach this review. If you haven’t read James’ novel, don’t let it stop you from trying this one.

Bea Nightingale is a New York teacher of English, approaching her 50th birthday, in a down-market industrial area — her students literally smell of the working class, but can be induced into reading by the violence in Shakespeare, since it reflects their lives. It is 1952, with the War still a recent memory, but Bea has saved up her money and is making her pilgramage to the beacon city that drove that generation of readers, Paris:

At that time there were foreigners all over Paris, suffering together with the native population, wiping the trickling sweat from their collarbones, complaining equally of feeling suffocated; but otherwise they had nothing in common with the Parisians or, for that matter, with one another. These strangers fell into two parties — one vigorous, ambitious, cheerful, and given to drink, the other pale, quarrelous, forlorn: a squad of maundering ghosts.

You can place Sartre, de Beauvoir, Baldwin, Hemmingway, whomever or wherever you want in that spectrum. That is what Bea wants to explore.

Except.

Her terrible brother, Marvin (an arms manufacturer, wealthy, living in Los Angeles, they haven’t seen each other for decades) has heard of the trip. The siblings have been out of touch for decades, but that does not preclude intervention here. Marvin’s son, Julian, went to Paris on a “gap-year” exploration some months ago (yes, here’s The Ambassadors angle) and hasn’t been heard from since, except for appeals for money. Despite their lack of recent connection and the fact that Bea has never met Julian, Marvin wants Bea to search for his son:

So! A wild goose chase, useless, pointless, it was eating into her vacation time, and all to please Marvin, to serve Marvin, who — after years of disapproval, of repudiation, of what felt almost like hatred — was all at once appealing to the claims of family. This fruitless search, and the murderous heat. Retrograde Europe, where you had to ask bluntly for a toilet whenever you wanted a ladies’ room, and where it seemed that nothing, nothing was air-conditioned — at home in New York, everything was air-conditioned, it was the middle of the twentieth century, for God’s sake!

For those who have read The Ambassadors, that excerpt should be enough to indicate why comparisons are of limited value — different age, different circumstances. James’ novel may be a model, but it is nothing more.

So let’s throw some other plot elements into the picture. Justin has found a lover, Lili, a displaced Romanian, whom he has taken up with. His sister, Iris, whom driven Marvin has high hopes for as a potential Nobel chemistry winner, although she is still a student, enters the picture as a force with influence on her father, brother and aunt. Plus, she has some goals of her own (feminism is part of the “negative” image in the comparison with James). And Marvin has placed his wife, an American Brahmin, in an LA “spa” to deal with her mental disorders. All of this contemporary action brings back memories for Bea of her ex-husband, Leo, now a successful composer of soundtracks for Hollywood movies. Ozick uses all of these elements to remove her novel from the narrative of James.

(I am cheating vistors who want a decent plot outline in this abstract summary. For a much more informative version, visit Trevor’s review at the MookseandtheGripes — it is a fair representation of how the action unfolds. And because he has done such a good job of describing the book as book, let me indulge in a very extended metaphor.)

Picasso Cubist Lady

Consider Ozick’s novel as a literary version of a cubist painting — I’ve chosen a Picasso portrait, but others would do. Now, imagine cutting this image up into a jigsaw puzzle and facing the challenge of putting the resulting pieces together; because that is what Ozick has done with this book. Each of her chapters is a piece of that puzzle; the reader’s challenge is to reassemble them and then figure out the resulting image.

There is a story line that pulls the book together, but, like Cubist paintings, while the elements of it all have consistency, they don’t really fit together in a coherent whole once you have done that work. The author emphasizes that by setting each chapter in different places (New York, Paris, Los Angeles, even in transit) and narrating each from a different point of view. The “glue” — if there is one — that holds them together are chapters which consist of correspondence between the various narrators — Bea, Iris, Marvin.

Like Picasso, each of the pieces of the puzzle is developed in exquisite detail. And there are enough hints, like a good jigsaw, to put them together. But when you have completed the task, the final image is much like Picasso’s portrait — there is much to admire, but you have only begun the task.

For this reader, that is the beauty of this novel. Each of its elements is sketched in the kind of realist detail that you can only expect from an exceptional short story writer (which Ozick, winner of four O Henry awards, certainly is). But when you follow the outlines and stitch them together, and then step back, the resulting picture requires a whole new layer of interpretation.

I certaintly enoyed that and it only adds to my high valuation of Ozick. Having said that, if you have not read her before, I would not start here. She is a wordsmith of the first order (and the short stories show it) but when she writes novels she does take the reading experience to a whole new dimension and that calls for some work. To appreciate that experience, I would advise starting with the shorter works (you could try The Shawl, but you would be starting with her best) — as much as I think Foreign Bodies is a signifcant achievement. This latest novel may require a revisit before I start to understand just how good it might be.

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20 Responses to “Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Great review, Kevin, and your final sentence is how I feel about this book, too.

    I’m currently reading more Ozick. It would be hard to find a more different work than The Puttermesser Papers (absurd, highly comedic, etc.). I didn’t know she was so versatile since many of the ones I’ve read have been more serious. All have her superb wit and wordplay, though. I look forward to the Ozick titles I have left, and then I’m going to venture into her criticism.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I know from her short stories that she does do humor (a couple in Dictation show that very well). I have been saving The Puttermesser Papers since reviews indicated that it was lighter in tone — I expect to get to it later this year and look forward to reading your review.

  2. Liz from Literary Masters Says:

    Kevin, your review is wonderful, and perhaps I just couldn’t reach the necessary dimension to fully appreciate this novel. I loved Ozick’s writing, but I didn’t swoon over her book. My personal book club read it; this is how we felt:

    http://whirlbooks.blogspot.com/2011/01/should-your-book-club-read-foreign.html

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      As you’ll see from the comments below, I can understand why people might not like this novel. That’s part of the reason that I chose the metaphor of a Cubist painting — some people can’t stand cubism either.

  3. Lee Monks Says:

    A superb writer I haven’t read enough of. I will rectify that soon enough, probably with this.

  4. anokatony Says:

    Have you read the two dueling reviews of “Foreign Bodies”? Thomas Mallon gave the book a very glowing review. James Walcott gave the book and author probably the meanest review I’ve ever seen. Walcott specializes in these terrible reviews; I suppose they sell magazines.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Tony: Thanks for those names — I knew there were divided opinions on this book but, given that I know I like Ozick, I haven’t gone looking for them. I certainly can understand the division — see my response to Mary below.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Tony: Now that I have checked it out, I would not characterize the Walcott column as a review in any way (actually, he does not indicate whether he has even read the book). It is certainly an attack on Ozick’s public persona — if I didn’t know her work, I suspect reading this would actually have caused me to look it up rather than avoid her.

  5. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin, thank you for this and it arrived at a serendipitous moment because just this week a book arrived with a glowing puff on the cover from Cynthia Ozick and I had made a mental note to pull some of her books off the shelf. I remember coming a little unstuck with The Bear Boy whilst realising I was reading a great author who deserved my full attention eventually. You mention The Shawl… it looks harrowing, is it?
    The puff incidentally was for Today by David Miller and reads as follows…

    ” Out of this small sorrowing and muted hour, David Miller draws, with pellucidly unadorned purity almost of Genesis, humankind’s grand eternals, the death of the patriarch, the squabbling of unlike siblings, the hymnal majesty of burial rites, the mounting disclosures of grief and love. Today is a lens of quietly burning feeling that sees into – and enlarges – yesterday, today and certainly tomorrow.”

    Now I’m not sure what may have earned David Miller this accolade, except that I note he is the director of a literary agency, Rogers, Coleridge & White, perhaps they have a connection with Ozick? But nevertheless her beautiful words convince me that reading this book is an absolute must, I just hope I am not disappointed.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Well, that quote (from a blurb, yet!) illustrates one of my minor issues with Ozick — her language can soar to the level of opaqueness and she does love what I call the “cascading” sentence which can end up in quite a different place from where it started.

      I don’t check out enough American fiction to know whether Ozick is a frequent blurb name, so can’t say if her presence on the Miller work is unusual or not. I think you are on the right track with your speculation — relationships with publishers or agents tend to be what leads to endorsements.

  6. mary gilbert Says:

    Cynthia Ozick is probably a clever and talented writer but just one novel was enough to convince me that I wouldn’t want to read another. It was Heir to the Glimmering World or The Bear Boy. There wasn’t a single plausible event or convincing character and the women in particular were passive to the point of invisibility. I think I read it about three years ago and I still feel irritated by the phoniness of it.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: I loved Glimmering World as you will find in the review elsewhere on this site, but I won’t be lashing you for hating it :-).
    What you found “phoney”, I found to be pleasingly “baroque”, if I can be permitted another artistic reference.

    I do that is an issue with how one takes to Ozick and certainly applies to Foreign Bodies. As I tried to indicate with my Cubist metaphor, there is a layer of deliberate implausibility (at least, I think it is deliberate) that the author keeps returning to as she builds the structure of the novel. If it grates with you at first blush, I am sure it becomes increasingly annoying as the novel moves on.

    If you get the chance without too much investment of time or money, try some of her shorter fiction. The Shawl is exceptional, although heart-breaking. As I noted above, some of the stories have a great sense of humor to them — look out for “Dictation”, a quite hilarious story about the secretaries of Henry James and James Conrad playing a prank on their author masters.

  8. Lee Monks Says:

    Duly noted. That it may be a somewhat difficult example of the Ozick oeuvre makes me all the more likely to get hold of one.

  9. Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland Says:

    [...] Kevin From Canada reviews Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick which has long been on my to read list. The publishing blurb of this book and other reviews mentions that it is a retrace of Henry James The Ambassadors (only reversed) so I was putting off reading the novel so I could read The Ambassadors first. Kevin feels that while James served as a model, Foreign Bodies stands well enough on its own – so I might just have to move it up on my list. Beatrice (love this nameĀ  – it is the name of my 6th grade teacher) Nightingale is planning on a trip to Paris in 1952. Her brother asks her to look for his son who has taken up residence in the city. Ozick is an accomplished short story writer having won four O Henry Awards and she has also been short listed for the Booker Prize. This seems like it will be a complex read but well worth the effort. [...]

  10. (Diane)BibliophileBytheSea Says:

    What a great review. I’ve been curious about this one, so happy to see that you enjoyed it.

  11. Shelley Says:

    Excellent review. But why would Ozick mention James at all?

    That seems like setting yourself up to fail.

    Henry James is a planet. Anything in the vicinity is just going to be drawn into the orbit of the greater body.

  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Nice review Kevin, I found the cubist comparison illuminating.

    That blurb does it no favours. It makes it sound a dry intellectual exercise.

    That said, that Ozick blurb for Miller is just terrible. The whole paragraph is awful but “with pellucidly unadorned purity almost of Genesis” – really? That to me smacks of bad writing in a way the quotes in the review didn’t at all.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I agree that the blurb is so opaque that it would drive me away from the book — then again, maybe it means that I should pay attention.

    I do think that the story line of The Ambassadors is one that invites attention from authors and that Ozick does it justice. I am giving nothing away when I say that I admire her talent and I think that this book is an excellent example of her worth. I would be more inclined to compare this one to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom than Henry James — and I found this one much better than Franzen.

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