- Turning the Jamesian Novel Upside Down
Cynthia Ozick can now count herself among the few contemporary American writers formed by the aesthetics of high modernism. In her eighties Ozick has kept the faith as waves of postmodernism challenged (or is it threatened?) everything once held [End Page xlii] dear: the supremacy of art over ideology, the careful attention to craft, and, perhaps most of all, the cultivation of a sensibility on which, in James's words, "nothing is lost." She also had to deal with the downside of James's snobbery and his thinly veiled anti-Semitism. To side with high art was, for Ozick, not to ignore aspects of a given artist's biography, whether he be Henry James or T. S. Eliot, but to value the work despite the artist.
Ozick has documented the assets and liabilities of her long stint as an acolyte of the Master. She claims that decades of diligent work went into a long never-published Jamesian novel and that she read (and reread) James's The Ambassadors during the writing of her first published novel, Trust (1966). Most reviewers agreed that Trust is too Jamesian. As someone who has read the book in its entirety (three times no less), I concur: Trust is largely inert and almost unreadable.
By contrast Foreign Bodies works on every level that James felt important. As with Trust, the novel is closely modeled on The Ambassadors, albeit with the novel's international theme turned consciously upside down. The plot both echoes and inverts Lambert Strether's rescue mission to Paris in ways that turn Foreign Bodies into a "photographic negative" (Ozick's words) of The Ambassadors. This is true enough, but to capture the novel's playful dimension I prefer to invoke the spirit of Moishe Kapoyer, the Yiddish comic figure whose name translates as "Moses Upside-Down." Why so? Because in James's novel, the whole point of Strether's initiation is that he came to Europe to scoff and stayed to pray. Foreign Bodies throws that venerable equation into question.
Ozick's novel opens during the summer of 1952 as its protagonist, a schoolteacher named Bea Nightingale, describes the Paris she encounters on a rescue mission to save her bohemian nephew, Julian, and to return him to America and her brother, Marvin. Given the oppressive heat, what Paris badly needs—and lacks—is air-conditioning: "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."
Bea soon finds herself caught uncomfortably between two worlds: she does not fit into the thin culture of young American writers "besotted with legends of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein," nor is she part of the postwar influx of those who "wore Europe's tattoo." Bea Nightingale belongs to neither group and, as such, the question about whether "to Bea or not to Bea" is both witty and entirely open.
She could, of course, count herelf as "one of that ludicrously recognizable breed of middle-aged teachers [Bea is forty-eight] who save up for a longed-for summer vacation in the more romantic capitals of Europe," but Bea is in Paris as an envoy, an ambassador sent by her wealthy brother, Marvin. She sends her reports—a mixture of truths and half-truths—by post. Foreign Bodies is awash in irony, wit, and a certain amount of hard-won wisdom. As a teacher in New York City Bea [End Page xliii] Nightingale changed her last name from its original Nachtingale because it would roll off students' lips more easily; by contrast her thoroughly assimilated brother, Marvin, retains the original European spelling. In an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood, he lives in a palatial house once owned by a silent-movie star—all of which gives Bea, who travels there, yet another chance to level upon him much the same withering criticism she had earlier heaped on Paris.
Among the more important loose ends...