Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cynthia Ozick writes a novel inspired by Henry James’s The Ambassadors

I was interested by the James connection here, and although Cynthia Ozick is not one of my favorite novelists, I thought this project sounded interesting.

Foreign Bodies

Cynthia Ozick makes explicit her reference in Foreign Bodies (255 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26) to Henry James's novel about Americans abroad, The Ambassadors. Ozick takes her epigraph from James’s novel, in which he speaks about the possibilities of refinement and brutalization that face Americans in Europe, and she tells a tale that is similar enough to The Ambassadors in broad outline to make the vivid distinctions from the earlier novel truly telling.

Bea, the middle-aged heroine of the novel has lived alone in New York since her husband left her many years before the narrative opens in the early 1950s. She has in fact been asked to go to Europe to find her nephew, who seems to have defied his self-important Californian father by staying abroad longer than he was meant to. After a half-hearted attempt at finding him during her first trip abroad, Bea is roundly upbraided by her brother, who urges her to return to Europe to find his son. He cannot go himself, he tells her, because he has too many concerns at home. His work is demanding, and his wife is in a home for the mentally unstable, primarily, it seems, because she cannot accommodate the absence of her son.

When Bea is equivocating as to whether she can go or not, her niece, Iris, comes to New York purportedly to persuade her; but Iris goes to Paris herself, both admitting that she has been in communication with her brother, Julian, and promising that she can bring him back if anyone can. Bea enters unwillingly into a kind of league with this girl—she keeps her trip from the girl’s father—but still she worries that she should let her brother know what’s going on.

Rather than do that, she takes herself to Europe to discover what has happened to both these younger people. There she confronts a situation that is more complicated than she can handle. Julian seems to be involved with an older woman, a Romanian, and Iris has been aiding and abetting this pair rather than doing anything to extricate Julian from his European entanglements. Bea almost immediately realizes that she can do nothing for the youngsters either, and she again returns to New York with nothing to show for her trip.

This time, though, she slips out to Los Angeles, and she sees both her hospitalized sister-in-law, who makes intermittent sense to Bea, and her ex-husband, who turns out to live nearby. This trip opens Bea’s life to quite a lot, and afterwards she could be said to be more on the side of the young people than she was before.
The novel winds itself around the complexities of this situation, and although Bea ends up marginally better than she was at the opening of the novel, she has no more sense of her nephew or her niece and even less contact with her hideous brother.

It is hard to read a novel when so many of the characters are unlikeable. Ozick seems to have tolerance for this rum group, and even the feckless Julian seems to warrant some understanding. I found myself impatient with the whole procedure. But that doesn’t mean that Ozick does not write very well—she does—and that the novel doesn’t repay close reading. I think you have to be in an acerbic mood to appreciate it. But if you are, I bet you will like it a lot.

Cynthia Ozick

A copy of Foreign Bodies available at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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