Fic­tion

For­eign Bodies

  • Review
By – September 26, 2011

Cyn­thia Ozick is on email now. She wasn’t when I reviewed her pre­vi­ous book, A Din in the Head, an essay col­lec­tion, for this pub­li­ca­tion four years ago.

This book feels more mod­ern, speed­ed up, Hen­ry James for the Twit­ter era. What I mean by that, less glibly, is that this book feels dif­fer­ent from Ozick’s oth­er nov­els, most notice­able in its for­mat. The sto­ry is told in a series of let­ters between char­ac­ters, as well as episodes describ­ing their activ­i­ties in Paris, New York, and Cal­i­for­nia. Ozick’s choice of locales is pur­pose­ful, to rep­re­sent poles of Europe and of America.

The Europe of her set­ting is not the glam­orous, art-filled Europe that Hen­ry James expe­ri­enced in con­trast to the sense James had of Amer­i­can as a cul­tur­al back­wa­ter. The Europe that Ozick’s Amer­i­can char­ac­ters escape to is one that is in recov­ery from the hor­rors of the Shoah, rather than a place of artis­tic greatness.

Part of the book’s plot con­cerns a composer’s jour­ney from being a hack writ­ing for the movies to one whose music will con­vey seri­ous mat­ters. Leo mar­ried Bea because she was the sin­gle mor­tal on earth who had expect­ed him to write sym­phonies.” Though she is a nightin­gale (her last name) with the ear of a crow, she reject­ed him, but he final­ly gave her the gift of his music, the thing she had hoped for long ago.” The irony is that the great music is com­posed in Cal­i­for­nia by a man known for his com­po­si­tions for children’s cartoons.

The book’s con­clu­sion is when a char­ac­ter says, How hard it is to change one’s life.” The corol­lary, And how ter­ri­fy­ing­ly sim­ple to change the lives of oth­ers.” Ozick’s won­der­ful nov­el again demon­strates the pow­er of a gift­ed author to let us in to the changes char­ac­ters make in one another’s lives.

Inter­view

Cyn­thia Ozick is the acclaimed author of five pre­vi­ous nov­els and numer­ous sto­ries and essays.

Beth Kissileff: How did it feel to rewrite James?
Cyn­thia Ozick: Hen­ry James in The Ambas­sadors saw 19th cen­tu­ry Europe as the trea­sury of an achieved and pol­ished civ­i­liza­tion teem­ing with art, his­to­ry, and beau­ty, while Amer­i­ca in that peri­od he deemed provin­cial and raw, a naïve cul­tur­al back­wa­ter. Though I scarce­ly intend­ed to rewrite” James, I did wish to reassess his vision through the lens of post­war Amer­i­ca — explic­it­ly post- Holo­caust. In James’s nov­el, it’s Europe that refines his Amer­i­can char­ac­ters; by con­trast, in the 1952 of For­eign Bod­ies, Europe is seen as a cor­rupt­ed bloody Nin­eveh. By then, a tremen­dous rever­sal has occurred: it’s the seem­ing­ly shal­low Amer­i­ca that has saved civ­i­liza­tion and the reput­ed­ly ele­vat­ed Europe that has destroyed it. But James him­self sensed the begin­ning of Nin­eveh: he was obsessed by the Drey­fus case, though it nev­er entered his fic­tion. Europe for James’s pro­tag­o­nists had a gold­en light. Not so for mine.

BK: I thought that in some ways this was a less Jew­ish book than your ear­li­er works.
CO: Well, maybe, if you’re think­ing of overt Jew­ish sym­pa­thies— though it’s true that sto­ry-telling thrives more on vil­lainy and its ironies than on the tra­di­tion­al attach­ments of sen­ti­ment. Mar­vin Nachti­gall, him­self a Jew, is a fero­cious­ly anti-Jew­ish char­ac­ter. He car­ries his hos­til­i­ty to a kind of extreme that even the most estranged Jews tend to shun: he is utter­ly with­out a shred of feel­ing for a sur­vivor of the Shoah; he is repelled by the pos­si­bil­i­ty of such a per­son enter­ing his fam­i­ly through mar­riage. And there’s a French baron who works out his anti-Semi­tism through expelling refugees while appear­ing to assist them.— Were you, by the way, shocked by Mar­vin? 


BK: I always find some kind of shock­ing or inter­est­ing plot twist in your work. Leo, the for­mer hus­band of Bea, your cen­tral char­ac­ter, accus­es her of not want­i­ng any­thing for her­self but for others.

CO: Bea sur­ren­ders any per­son­al ambi­tion she might have had to her hopes for Leo, a com­pos­er who dreams of sym­phonies but instead spends his life writ­ing banal music for Hol­ly­wood B movies. Leo sees an empti­ness in Bea’s dis­placed aspi­ra­tion: she is, accord­ing to him, a musi­cal imbe­cile” who hasn’t a ten­dril of capac­i­ty for music, and no access to it. But when they are first mar­ried, Leo mes­mer­izes and enchants her; she means to soar on another’s wings. Whether it is in fact pos­si­ble to accom­plish this, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the realm of artis­tic pas­sion, is a ques­tion that my nov­el both asks and (per­haps) answers. 


BK: What is the mean­ing of Bea’s last com­ment: How hard it is to change one’s life. And how ter­ri­fy­ing­ly sim­ple to change the lives of oth­ers.” CO: Leo’s accu­sa­tion, that Bea wants noth­ing for her­self but only for oth­ers, turns out to be a seri­ous moral charge rever­ber­at­ing through­out the nov­el. Too much altru­ism can lead to dan­ger­ous manip­u­la­tion. Bea, begin­ning as a sym­pa­thet­ic and even an endear­ing char­ac­ter, and cer­tain­ly a prin­ci­pled one, is final­ly revealed to be a mas­ter of deceit. Mean­ing well is not the same as doing good. The ear­li­est read­er of For­eign Bod­ies con­fessed that he rec­og­nized Bea’s true nature only on a sec­ond read­ing. 


BK: Do you want to com­ment on the state of Amer­i­can Jew­ish let­ters today? The mag­a­zines, the prizes? 
CO:
The mag­a­zine world, and the print world in gen­er­al, are in such major tran­si­tion that any­thing one dares to utter today will be obso­lete tomor­row morn­ing. As for Jew­ish writ­ing in Amer­i­ca, it’s reveal­ing, and inspir­ing, to note that the estimable Irv­ing Howe was rad­i­cal­ly mis­tak­en when he assert­ed that Jew­ish fic­tion would dry up when the immi­grant expe­ri­ence reced­ed. Quite aside from the cur­rent real­i­ty that we now have a fresh cohort of high­ly gift­ed young immi­grant writ­ers from the for­mer Sovi­et Union, we old­er native-born writ­ers find our­selves in the impres­sive com­pa­ny of a daz­zling new crew of young writ­ers four or more gen­er­a­tions removed from steer­age and steeped in the Amer­i­can ethos. And still near­ly all are writ­ing out of a rec­og­niz­able Jew­ish instinct and sen­si­bil­i­ty. Whether there lurks among us a sub­lime lit­er­ary pow­er equal to the genius of, say, Saul Bel­low, remains so far undisclosed.

A Note on Cyn­thia Ozick…

By Evan Fal­l­en­berg

Cyn­thia Ozick has been pub­lish­ing— nov­els, poems, sto­ries, essays and plays — for the past half cen­tu­ry, and writ­ing, I sus­pect, quite a bit longer than that. Her work has won most of her profession’s top awards, as well as acco­lades from read­ers and writ­ers and aca­d­e­mics alike. She is a notable pres­ence on the con­tin­u­um that runs through nov­el­dom itself, the writer who picked up where Hen­ry James left off and spawned a gen­er­a­tion of younger writ­ers like David Fos­ter Wal­lace, who called Cyn­thia Ozick one of the three great­est liv­ing writ­ers of the Eng­lish lan­guage. As far as a lit­er­ary lega­cy is con­cerned, Ms. Ozick’s is as grand as they come. 

In 1984, I read her new­ly pub­lished sec­ond nov­el, The Can­ni­bal Galaxy, which Michiko Kaku­tani, writ­ing in The New York Times, described as dense with ideas and philo­soph­ic speculation…[and] also an organ­ic and beau­ti­ful­ly told sto­ry of one teacher’s attempts to dis­cov­er his place in his­to­ry and the mean­ing of his vocation.” 

For the twen­ty-three year old teacher I was then, the book became, in turns, a wake-up call, a muse, and a men­tor. En route to Israel I spent two weeks in my beloved Paris, using The Can­ni­bal Galaxy as a kind of guide to the Marais, the old Jew­ish quar­ter. I retraced the steps of the pro­tag­o­nist, Joseph Brill, through the Rue des Rosiers and the Rue Vieille du Tem­ple, and spent a day at the Musée Car­navalet, where, like Joseph him­self, I stood enrap­tured before a por­trait of the Madame de Sévi­gné so lush­ly described by Ms. Ozick: Her stout neck was encir­cled by a wreath of very fat pearls— they resem­bled lit­tle turnips… — but the lips and eyes were ves­sels of wit; the small curled mouth had just swal­lowed a bon mot, and shone with appetite for more.” The more I delved into the book, how­ev­er, the more ter­ri­fied I became. How much of me was there, I won­dered, in this well mean­ing but delud­ed ped­a­gogue, a man who had tried to bring about the fusion of schol­ar­ly Europe and bur­nished Jerusalem”? 

On my way out of the muse­um, I bought a post­card of the Sévi­gné por­trait on which I wrote a note — my only fan let­ter ever — and sent it to Ms. Ozick, who respond­ed with her own type­writ­ten post­card some weeks lat­er, reveal­ing to an aston­ished me that she had nev­er actu­al­ly set eyes upon the paint­ing she had described so precisely. 

I nev­er made it back to Paris to live; with the help of Ms. Ozick, I chose a new path that even­tu­al­ly brought me to her own pro­fes­sion, so that when, in my mid-thir­ties, I was final­ly ready to write, it was quite nat­u­ral­ly to Cyn­thia Ozick that I looked for inspi­ra­tion. I read and reread The Can­ni­bal Galaxy, will­ing her to teach me, and teach me she did: by unrav­el­ing it I learned struc­ture; by focus­ing on its major char­ac­ters I learned the impor­tance of choos­ing the right trait or quirk to define a char­ac­ter in the most ele­gant, eco­nom­i­cal man­ner; by pay­ing close atten­tion to the words — oh those gor­geous words, how she makes the Eng­lish lan­guage sing! — and the sen­tences and the para­graphs, I learned how to lis­ten, how to com­pose, how to orches­trate. She even taught me when to stop lis­ten­ing to her: There is this mix-up most of us have between our­selves and what we admire or tri­umphant­ly cher­ish.… To be any sort of com­pe­tent writer one must keep one’s psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tance from the supreme artists.” And while I nev­er set out to copy Cyn­thia Ozick’s writ­ing, I did find her whis­per­ing through the words I was com­mit­ting to the pages of my first nov­el, most cer­tain­ly as I was breath­ing life into its pro­tag­o­nist, not coin­ci­den­tal­ly named Joseph Licht. 

A writer’s lit­er­ary lega­cy gen­er­al­ly refers to the influ­ence she wields over future writ­ers and read­ers, but for me per­son­al­ly (to para­phrase the Tal­mud), Cyn­thia Ozick has man­aged to shape an entire world by shap­ing a sin­gle soul. My life as a human being and as a writer changed — some­times painful­ly, always rich­ly — thanks to a sin­gle nov­el writ­ten by Cyn­thia Ozick. If that isn’t a lega­cy, I don’t know what is.

Beth Kissileff is in the process of fundrais­ing and writ­ing grants to devel­op a pro­gram to assist rab­bis of all denom­i­na­tions with writ­ing and pub­lish­ing books. Kissileff is a rab­binic spouse and author of the nov­el Ques­tion­ing Return as well as edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Read­ing Gen­e­sis: Begin­ings.

Discussion Questions