'Foreign Bodies': Disappointing ambassador for Henry James

By Donna Rifkind
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; C05

The story behind the story in Cynthia Ozick's new novel - her sixth - is Henry James's "The Ambassadors," whose plot Ozick has repurposed in a different time period with a new set of characters. This venture will come as no surprise to Ozick's many longtime admirers, who know that she wrote her master's thesis on "Parable in Henry James," that her long first novel, "Trust" (1966), was a self-consciously Jamesian enterprise and that she archly explained in a well-known 1982 essay called "The Lesson of the Master" how James ruined her youth.

Ozick is now in her 80s, and James is ruining her still. In the title story of her last book, "Dictation" (2008), she imagined James's young amanuensis, Theodora Bosanquet, forming a mischievous alliance with Joseph Conrad's typist. And now Ozick offers this palimpsest of "The Ambassadors," the groundbreaking 1903 novel that James regarded as his best.

Regrettably, "Foreign Bodies" is far from Ozick's best, displaying few traces of the searing authorial command she has demonstrated in the past, most notably in her stories "The Shawl" and "Envy: Or Yiddish in America." The new book is an overworked and cramped affair, whose prose reads as if it were being tweezed out of a tiny hole. And worse, the characters here are brittle, shadowy creatures. Despite evident effort, Ozick has not managed to infuse them with a breath of life.

In July 1952, Bea Nightingale is a 48-year-old high school English teacher living alone in a small apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Long divorced from a once-serious composer who's now a Hollywood hack, Bea is equally estranged from her brother, Marvin, a wealthy manufacturer of plastic airplane parts living in California with his wife and two children.

Enter unpleasantness: Marvin suddenly and imperiously dispatches Bea to Paris to retrieve his wayward 23-year-old son, Julian. Bea has never met her nephew and has no wish for involvement in this family drama, but Marvin is a bully, so an ambassador she reluctantly becomes.

The Paris that Bea encounters is worlds away from the refined fin-de-siecle metropolis that seduced James's hero, Lambert Strether, in "The Ambassadors." Ozick's mid-20th-century Paris is shell-shocked and tremulous, overrun with traumatized refugees from every corner of war-ravaged Europe. Bea learns that one of those refugees, a Romanian Holocaust survivor in her mid-30s named Lili, has taken up with Marvin's son, supporting him with her meager wages as a translator at an immigration center. This is nothing but bad news for Marvin, who got himself through Princeton and married a girl from the WASP-iest family he could find in order to remove himself completely from his European Jewish heritage.

If only this Paris and this Lili were the main events in "Foreign Bodies." They are dramatic and they are riveting. Yet they're also frustratingly peripheral, pushed by Ozick into the background while she lavishes attention on the mutually spiteful behavior of pallid Bea and angry Marvin, each of whom uses Julian's defection as an opportunity to incriminate the other for poor life choices.

Despite Ozick's attentions, though, Bea and Marvin remain obliquely and sometimes mystifyingly represented. Of Bea and her middle-age discontents, the author writes: "Her entire body was no better than a latticed basket leaking stale lost longings." Marvin, for all his pugnacity, is equally dimensionless. "A virtuoso of self-interest," he manifests only fury and inspires in others only an urge to flee, sending his wife into the safe haven of an upscale Beverly Hills mental institution and his son, followed shortly by his once-dutiful daughter, all the way to Europe.

Without these flaws, so much would be impressive here: Ozick's ambition to recast James's novel, with its New World-Old World tugs of attraction and its indelible admonition to "live all you can; it's a mistake not to"; her intention to carve her stylus into the waxwork ideal of Paris, transforming it from James's city of light to a city of ghosts; and her eagerness to show, through Marvin and Bea, how willfully we go about manipulating others while refusing to change ourselves.

But novels rise and fall on execution, not intention. Too many passages make the reader want to beg Ozick to write plain English. At one point, for instance, she attempts to explain how European relief agencies dispensed with their refugees, "harrying the displaced willy-nilly onto ships headed for Haifa and whatever other dingy ports lay along the newly Hebraized Levantine littoral."

If only Ozick could have swapped some of this verbal complication for more complexity in her characters, all of whom are always only one thing: tyrannical Marvin, passive-aggressive Bea, gravely wise Lili, frivolous Julian. Where "The Ambassadors" suggests the limitless variety of emotional experience, "Foreign Bodies" offers only a dispiriting narrowness.

Rifkind is a critic in Los Angeles.


By Cynthia Ozick

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 255 pp.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company