The James of the Jews: Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies

Posted on | November 24, 2010 | 3 Comments

When I sat down to read Foreign Bodies, the new Cynthia Ozick novel that purports to be a “photographic negative” of Henry James’s The Ambassadors, I had two assumptions: 1) that I would like it less than The Ambassadors and 2) that the novel would lend itself to a fun game of who’s who.  The first assumption, to my surprise, doesn’t hold.  While The Ambassadors doesn’t rank among my favorite James novels, matching its subtle grace is still no easy feat, and Ozick can certainly go head-to-head with the master.  As for the second, sure: mapping out the correlations between the two novels is doable—Julian Nachtigall, prodigal son and wayward expatriate is Chad Newsome; his Romanian wife Lili the novel’s Madame de Vionnet; and so on—but it’s a much less interesting reading than the novel deserves.  What turns out to be most compelling about Ozick’s novel is neither its homage nor its delicate rebuke to James.  It’s how little it has to do with him.

In an interview with the Daily Beast, Ozick cast Foreign Bodies as an effort to shed the anxiety of influence once and for all.  Poaching a plot from one’s literary hero seems an odd way to go about this, and sure enough, the novel is not without a certain Jamesian aura.  There is, of course, the setting: the American(s) in Paris.  Too, there is the Jamesian vocabulary: traduce and importune are not twenty-first century words. But that, for the most part, is where it ends.  Ozick has set her characters loose in a house that James built and left the front door unlocked.

As befits her title, one of Ozick’s greatest departures from The Ambassadors is her book’s very bodiliness.  Of Julian and Lili she writes, “What she taught him was Europe.  She thickened his mind.  And he entered her body, gratefully.”  Or later, more disturbingly, when sex follows an abortion: “[W]ith his man’s body and his boy’s fear he bore down on her, pleading, and she yielded, she opened to him, dry-eyed, dry-mouthed, surprised and unsurprised, hurting in the place where they had combed her that day with an iron comb, he hurt her, he hurt her, until they lay breathing, breast to breast.”  It is not like James to talk about sex.

But even more pronounced than the reality of the body is what those bodies imply.  In Ozick’s Paris, the specter of the Holocaust—then too recent to have a name—is everywhere.  As she told the New York Times regarding her decision to set the novel in 1952, “You could say that in Europe then the fumes of the death camps were still in the air.  And the DPs were all over the place.”  These DPs—displaced persons, or in Julian’s more poetic language, “the doves of the Marais”—are Ozick’s real subject.  Her Europe vs. America is the Europe vs. America of the Jews, the shtetl-born survivors pitted against the deracinated meritocrats who refuse to acknowledge them.  Ozick is at her most forceful when censuring assimilated Jews for their self-loathing. real gambling systems

Ozick has spoken before of her failure to recognize the Holocaust in its own time, and it’s with respect to the trans-Atlantic Jewish community that the Jamesian dichotomy between old world and new is most stark.  Unlike The Ambassadors, Foreign Bodies is a multi-perspectival novel, and Ozick’s flitting between the consciousnesses of her characters allows her to inhabit both sides of the continental divide.   On one side, there’s Lili, the displaced, “one of those wandering European weeds,” her language “the weary guttural of one of those unimaginable hells.”  On the other, Julian’s father Marvin, a third-generation striver who marries into blue-blooded money.  “She was to be his America, his newfound land, the sloughing off of a skin too tight to breathe in,” he thinks of his wife.

For all its ruthlessness, Ozick’s depiction of American innocence is not quite an indictment; she can’t bring herself to categorically condemn her characters for their neglect.  That untempered anger she reserves for Europe itself.  “I have an unending, unforgiving, implacable self-devastating rage against Europe” she has said, and it’s not a coincidence that this rage carries her farthest from Jamesian turf.  The character at the greatest remove from the narrative action—Baron Guillaume de Saghan, Lili’s boss at a resettlement center and a cousin of Proust “unfortunately on the Weil, or maternal, side”—devotes himself, even with the war since over, to ridding Paris of Eastern Jews: “The unseemly remnants of these persecuted tribes had not all been carried off—he saw every day Paris still teemed with them and their polyglot garble and the melancholy hungers in their alien faces…He had put his money into the Centre solely that it might disintegrate itself: in five years there should not be a foreign Jew in Paris.”  The baron’s only function to allow for a purer kind of blame.

It occurs to me, reading over what I’ve written, that I haven’t escaped reading Foreign Bodies though a Jamesian lens as much as I meant to.  But if anything, it’s a kaleidoscopic lens, where everything gets fragmented and broken, and somehow more beautiful for it.


3 Responses to “The James of the Jews: Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies

  1. Kinna
    November 25th, 2010 @ 4:11 am

    I’m even more eager to read this book after reading your review. Thank you.

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  2. judy
    December 19th, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

    the review was percetive and insiteful
    and i found myself in agreement with the depth of the Ozicks contmept for the creator of the Center.
    He represents Europe in its post WWII attempts to finish what the war had succeeded in doing
    It had eliminated teh populations that it found foreign
    The Center was dedicated to completing the task
    Great irony and great tragedy

  3. Sunday Thoughts and Updates: I’m still here | Kinna Reads
    June 2nd, 2013 @ 12:50 am

    [...] Fiction by Henry James.  Reviews of Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies (2010), especially the one at Apostrophe has me looking for James’ work.  Ozick’s book, apparently, is a homage to James and [...]

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