Variations on the haunting theme of love gone wrong
In her latest novel, Cynthia Ozick confirms her position as our sorceress of disenchantment, our wizard of lost illusions, the closest we will ever come to the irretrievable magic of broken spells woven by her idol Henry James. Both Foreign Bodies and her recent novella “Dictation” show Ozick to be smitten by James to the last degree. Now she has thrown off all restraint in her passion for The Master, lifting wholesale the plot of James’ later novel, The Ambassadors, and fashioning from it her own fable of hapless Americans in Paris a few years after World War II.
With uncanny fidelity, Ozick’s obsession with Henry James recapitulates an abiding theme of his own fiction: Our loves continue to haunt us long after they are gone, far beyond the point where they might have eased our pain. This predicament torments each one of the central characters of Foreign Bodies. The fascination of the novel lies in how many different variations on the theme there can be.
Ozick opens a window onto unhappy lives lived below the dignity of tragedy, and set pathetically in relief against its overwhelming historical background. Such is the plight of the novel’s unlikeliest of heroines, Bea Nightingale, whose ex-husband Leo refuses to make an exit from her life. Making things worse, Bea’s brother Marvin (even the names are denied the dignity of tragedy!) barges onto the scene, forces himself back into Bea’s life, and plunges her straight into the lives of his wayward children, who have gone off to Paris and broken his heart.
Renunciation is another great Jamesian theme at the heart of this novel. Consistently, characters in James and Ozick relinquish desire. They close up like flowers at night, or (to invoke the image of James’ last novel) they crack like fragile bowls, no longer fit for the world of human affairs. Ozick goes further than James with this alarming idea, revealing the way an older state of mind can infect the young. Such renunciations are lessons either to be learned or deplored. Sphinx-like—and with all her paradoxical generosity—Ozick does not tell us which.
The title Foreign Bodies projects an oddly coarse and unsettling synonym for James’ The Ambassadors. It has an almost clinical ring to it, preparing the reader for the visceral immediacy of Ozick’s art. Every emotional insight in this novel arrives with a concomitant shock of physical recognition, ranging from the comic to the horrific. Ozick beats James at his own game, proving beyond any metaphysical doubt that our deepest feelings are always embodied events, as concrete and transformative as the crashing chord Bea gives to Leo to launch his great symphony.