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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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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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