In her long and prolific career, Cynthia Ozick has created a literary oeuvre of impressive complexity in the form of essays, short stories, novellas, drama, and poetry, ornamented with five deliriously inventive novels all resting on a foundation formed during the restive intellectual ferment of New York of the 1950s.
Ozick, who grew up in the Bronx during the 1930s, arrived at New York University just as the post-war nexus of intellectual life was shifting from the Paris of Sartre to the Manhattan of Lionel Trilling, from the Left Bank to the West Village. At 82, she is one of the last direct heirs of that era, and her sixth novel, Foreign Bodies, carries a tinge of nostalgia for those long ago days.
Set in the early 1950s in Paris, New York, and Los Angeles, Foreign Bodies also revisits the two overarching themes of much of Ozick’s fiction: the alienation of Jews in America, and the struggles of women to assert their intellectual and social power.
When we first meet Beatrice Nightingale (née Nachtigall), she is one of the trudging crowd of American tourists in post-war Paris, on vacation from her thankless job teaching the English Romantic poets to boisterous boys in a Manhattan public school. But she’s also on a mission, forced on her by her demanding, materially successful, and caustically lacerating brother in California who’s bidden her to find his feckless son whom, he fears, has fallen in with undesirables in the City of Light and wants fetching home.
If the plot sounds familiar, that is because Ozick has borrowed from Henry James’ The Ambassadors, a touchstone for her and also the inspiration for the florid language and complex plot of her first published novel, Trust, in 1966. In this new work, however, Ozick has flipped James’ characters. Instead of the proper Yankee Lambert Strether in search of Chad Newsome amid the Parisian demimonde, Ozick gives us Beatrice, the unwilling ambassador to a nephew, Julian, whom she’s never met.
Armed only with a photograph, her brother Marvin’s vague notion that Julian waits tables at a café, and Marvin’s bribe of $500, Beatrice understandably fails to locate the wayward boy and returns to New York empty-handed. “You simply didn’t try hard enough,” complains Marvin in one of the letters that serve as the only communication between the estranged siblings. “I realize you don’t know Julian, but if you haven’t got any family feeling, why not a little family responsibility?”
And so Ozick’s fertile imagination is off and running as Beatrice becomes further entwined in a family history from which she’s tried to liberate herself as she, like James’ Strether, opens herself to a new and more complex world. Part of that discovery is her power as a woman, set among a cast of equally richly drawn female characters inspiring our sympathies and compassion (Marvin’s trophy WASP wife has retreated into semi-madness); but, alas, the males are uniformly either shiftless, abusive, or selfishly cruel and never achieve the complexity of their feminine counterparts. Unlike Beatrice, they are unable to break the bonds of their private demons and are ultimately helpless at the hands of their women.
This, too, has been a common facet of Ozick’s fiction. One is reminded of the female golem created by the heroine of a series of short stories that Ozick collected in novel form in 1997 as The Puttermesser Papers. The golem (another inversion of character, as in Jewish tradition a golem is always male) wreaks havoc on the male-dominated municipal government of New York to such effect that her creator, Ruth Puttermesser, becomes the city’s first woman mayor.
The foreign bodies of the title of Ozick’s new work are various. Bea herself ventures into new territory, both geographically and psychologically, in the course of the story; but Ozick also populates her book with people who are literally displaced, as Julian has married a Romanian immigrant who works for an agency attempting to place similar war-driven refugees in new homes, while Julian’s sister escapes their domineering father by arriving in Paris and taking up with a charlatan natural healer who passes himself off as “Dr. Phillippe Montalbano” but is actually Phil from Pittsburgh. And, back in Los Angeles, Marvin, the son of a Jewish immigrant hardware store owner, has elbowed his way into gentile society and built a profitable airplane parts industry, far from the lower East Side, a relentless campaign that compels his hapless wife to seek refuge in a clinic.
The pleasures of reading Ozick lie in her glittering prose, sly humor, surprising plot twists, and, in the case of Foreign Bodies, an acerbic, snarky heroine whom we nonetheless find appealing, courageous, and sensible.
“Sometimes an ambassador serves as a spy,” Beatrice muses, “sometimes a spy is appointed ambassador.” In Foreign Bodies, we enjoy being both.