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Book Review: A Symphonic Tale

Conjuring the ghost of Henry James.

Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By EDITH ALSTON
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Foreign Bodies
by Cynthia Ozick
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
272 pp., $26

Book Review: A Symphonic Tale

Cynthia Ozick

ulf andersen / getty images

Young Iris Nachtigall, recently returned from Paris, sits alone in a Los Angeles movie theater watching a cartoon feature in an audience of children, pondering the score and what she knows of its composer, Leo Coopersmith, a highly successful Hollywood hack once married to Iris’s Aunt Bea. Close to the end of Foreign
Bodies
, the scene returns the story to a moment near the beginning: Stopped for a night in Bea’s cramped New York apartment on her way to Paris, Iris struck a note on the huge old piano left behind by Leo that resonates to the story’s end.

Throughout a long career, Cynthia Ozick has become known for what John Leonard once called her “by now familiar love-hate relationship” with Henry James. The late novels of James were the subject of her master’s thesis, she has measured her own prose through several volumes of highly regarded essays against the standards set by James as a literary stylist, and extended some of her writerly arguments with him by making him a character in her fiction. So, in her sixth novel, it is no surprise that she might want to reengage with The Ambassadors, which James viewed as his best of the late novels. What surprises is her intention, as declared on the cover of Foreign Bodies, to follow the same plot as The Ambassadors but make its “meaning” a “photographic negative” of what James wrote.

But in a Paris at a 50-year remove from James’s setting at the turn of the 20th century, Ozick has more on her mind than a literary wrestling match with nothing more interesting to watch than where the skins of the stories will meet on the way to the mat. And Bea Nightingale turns out to be a tidy mirroring of James’s Lambert Strether, the small town New England gentleman of modest means sent by his august mentor, Mrs. Newsome, to bring home her son, Chad. Like Strether, Bea is in her fifties, a high school teacher of English literature (who has anglicized her name for easier dealings with students), sent by her brother Marvin, a West Coast industrialist, to retrieve his son Julian, who has been in the City of Light, and out of touch with his parents, for three years.

The sweltering European heat wave at the time Bea arrives is nicely rendered in Jamesean detail, which sharpens quickly to the point of crucial severance between the two stories:

Hot steam hissed from the wet rings left by wine glasses on the steel tables of outdoor cafes. In the sky just overhead, a blast furnace exhaled searing gusts. .  .  . [N]ow and then the terrible heat was said to be a general malignancy, a remnant of the recent war, as if the continent itself had been turned into a region of hell.

Far from James’s belle époque of cosmopolitan grace, Bea has landed in a city still psychologically cratered, where post-Holocaust refugees search for footing against lingering undercurrents of surly anti-Semitism seven years after the end of World War II. And Julian had not been found, Bea writes in an exchange of letters with the boorish Marvin as she is returning to New York, and the story triangulates to encompass California. But once Iris has arrived to strike her ambiguous piano note, Bea will return to France on her own, stirred by a long-dormant sense of family and the past, when she finds not just her niece and nephew but the war-scarred Lili, a Romanian refugee and
Julian’s wife.

Reading Foreign Bodies, I confess, I realized it was awhile since I’d dipped into anything by Henry James, and I had never read The Ambassadors. For a while the James novel was slow going—like trying to follow the yarn through stitches on the inside of a sweater—with the long convoluted sentences sending my eye back to the top of the paragraph in search of a subject, and pair upon pair of commas jerking and tugging at my mind. Then, after about a hundred pages, I found the rhythm of it—inside the Jamesean bubble, pierced but not burst, I was breathing its air—and moved through its delicate moments of social lightness with the characters, witness to every hesitant and elliptical expression of manners so carefully circumscribed, so shrewd and very
occasionally fierce.

But in 1903 Paris, at the tantalizing peak of its glow, James’s American “ambassadors” are off their cultural territory, thrown into postures of defense by the singular Madame De Vionnet, so elegant to Strether, but to others so horrifyingly fitted to her role in transforming young
Chad Newsome into a paragon of urban sophistication and charm. In Foreign Bodies, charm as a goal has been dispensed with, but Lili, with her history of ravaged sensibilities, may bring greater substance to Julian’s life.

But if James’s radiant characters suggest silken figures under a bell jar, Ozick’s wander in emotional isolation through a shattered world of bitter disconnection, never seeming to gain much from exposure to light and air. And when Bea is moved to act in ways Strether can not, the results are only disastrous, neither telling nor comic. Returned from seeing
Coopersmith in California, Bea opens a package to find his new symphony—in the key of “Bea minor,” she notes—The Nightingale’s Thorn. Wondering if this is just another way Leo has found of belittling her significance in his life, she spreads out the pages of the composition and reflects:

Music the universal language, vibrations that speak—what a lie. Words, the sovereignty of words, their excluding particularity, this was language. What was she to make of these scatterings of blotches moving up and down the staff lines like bugs on an escalator? .  .  . She understood nothing. What did he want from her?

What are we to make of what Ozick wants? Recalling the confrontation in California that goaded Leo into finally achieving the symphony—the dream of his youth—Bea seems only to be drinking the dregs of the marriage gone wrong long ago. At the end of The Ambassadors, when Strether, by his own nature, is left alone, James’s particularity gives the moment the lift of a hot air balloon.

Edith Alston is a writer and editor in New York.


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