Foreign Bodies [NOOK Book]

Overview

In her sixth novel, Cynthia Ozick retells the story of Henry James’s The Ambassadors as a photographic negative, retaining the plot but reversing the meaning.

 

Foreign Bodies transforms Henry James’s prototype into a brilliant, utterly original, new American classic. At the core of the story is Bea Nightingale, a fiftyish divorced schoolteacher whose life has been on hold during the many years since her brief marriage. When her estranged, difficult brother asks her to ...

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Foreign Bodies

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Overview

In her sixth novel, Cynthia Ozick retells the story of Henry James’s The Ambassadors as a photographic negative, retaining the plot but reversing the meaning.

 

Foreign Bodies transforms Henry James’s prototype into a brilliant, utterly original, new American classic. At the core of the story is Bea Nightingale, a fiftyish divorced schoolteacher whose life has been on hold during the many years since her brief marriage. When her estranged, difficult brother asks her to leave New York for Paris to retrieve a nephew she barely knows, she becomes entangled in the lives of her brother’s family and even, after so long, her ex-husband. Every one of them is irrevocably changed by the events of just a few months in that fateful year. Traveling from New York to Paris to Hollywood, aiding and abetting her nephew and niece while waging a war of letters with her brother, facing her ex-husband and finally shaking off his lingering sneers from decades past, Bea Nightingale is a newly liberated divorcee who inadvertently wreaks havoc on the very people she tries to help. 

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ozick's somber latest (after Dictation) pursues the convergence of displaced persons in post-WWII Paris and New York. In the summer of 1952, Bea Nightingale, a divorced middle-aged high school English teacher in New York, has been dispatched by her bullying brother, Marvin, a successful businessman, to Paris to bring home his wayward son, Julian, who turns out to be an ambitionless waiter now married to an older Jewish woman, Lili, who lost her husband and young son in the war. Ozick deftly delineates these fragile lives as they chase their own interpretations of the American dream: the son of Jewish-Russian immigrants, Marvin has remade himself in the WASP mold required of Princeton and his blue-blooded wife; his well-educated but rudderless daughter, Iris, is also on Julian's trail and hungry for the feminist inspiration her Aunt Bea imparts; Julian and Lili grasp each other like a mutual life raft; while Bea herself is intelligent and clear-eyed about everything but her own heart. Unfortunately, Ozick doesn't make a convincing case for all the fuss over Julian, and the perilous intersections this novel sets up derail into murky and, for the reader, frustrating sidetracks. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
"Ozick’s heady fiction springs from her deep critical involvement in literature, especially her fascination with Henry James, which emboldened her to lift the plot of his masterpiece, The Ambassadors, and recast it in a taut and flaying novel that is utterly her own….Ozick’s dramatic inquiry into the malignance of betrayal; exile literal and emotional; the many tentacles of anti-Semitism; and the balm and aberrance of artistic obsession is brilliantly nuanced and profoundly disquieting."—Booklist , starred review

From Kirkus :

Julian Nachtigall, son of a tyrannical and imperious businessman, has gone to Paris but has shown no interest in returning home. While there, he links up with Lili, a Romanian expat about ten years his senior. Marvin, the father, is furious that Julian wants to waste his life playing around in nonserious matters (e.g., writing essays and observations of French life), so he sends his sister Bea (who’s Anglicized her name to Nightingale) to Paris to bring him to his senses as well as bring him home. Bea teaches English to high-school thugs who mock her love of Wordsworth and Keats, and Marvin has always held her in contempt for what in his eyes is her impractical and useless profession. Bea is complicit in tricking Marvin by sending Julian’s sister, Iris, to Paris instead. Iris is the apple of Marvin’s eye, a graduate student in chemistry and a promising scientist—in other words, all that Julian is not. But unbeknownst to Marvin, Iris is also happy to escape the imperatives of her authoritarian and oppressive father, so she goes to Paris more in the belief that she will stay there rather than bring her brother back home to California. Through flashbacks we learn of Bea’s unhappy and brief marriage to Leo Coopersmith, a composer who has pretensions of being the next Mahler, though he winds up something of a Hollywood hack, composing music for cartoons. We also meet Marvin’s long-suffering and brow-beaten wife, Margaret, whose neurasthenia is directly attributable to her husband’s iron-fisted despotism. Ozick brilliantly weaves together the multiple strands of her narrative through letters, flashbacks and Jamesian observations of social behavior.

This is superb, dazzling fiction. Ozick richly observes and lovingly crafts each character, and every sentence is a tribute to her masterful command of language.

*Starred Review* An extraordinary novel, loosely based on The Ambassadors—but Ozick (Dictation, 2008, etc.) manages to out-James the master himself.
"Cynthia Ozick is one of America’s greatest living writers... The "leaving" — of parents, of a spouse, of a child, of a family, of a country, of a continent, of all we thought our lives were for — follows every character through this brilliant story of how we mark others without knowing it, revealing how we are all tattooed by other people’s ambitions." - - Dara Horn, The Forward

"It is pure pleasure to encounter Cynthia Ozick: a morally brilliant comic master whose plots keep the pages turning and whose every sentence sings. Ozick's latest novel is billed as a 'photographic negative' of Henry James' The Ambassadors, with the same plot and the opposite meaning. Readers put off by James' baroque style have nothing to fear; part of Ozick's inversion of James is the crisp bite of her prose, and the story, ultimately, is fully hers." - Ms. Magazine

"...her vision of Europe and its tragic history is profound; and Lili is a creation of stunning depth. It is not Jamesian, it is Ozickian."—Richard Eder, Boston Globe

"Ozick has achieved another success. Henry James—the master—would not be displeased."—Miami Herald

"This is vintage Ozick; she is, perhaps, our most classical contemporary novelist, with a strong sense of literary heritage."—LA Times

Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $26). Bea Nightingale, a teacher in the Bronx in the nineteen-fifties, is in a rut when her peevish brother entreats her to retrieve his son and daughter from Paris, where they sought refuge from his oppressive ways. Ozick’s taut, sparkling novel is billed as a retelling of Henry James’s "The Ambassadors," and she transforms James’s cultivated Europe into a "scarred and exhausted" landscape teeming with the ghosts of war. Bea is a reluctant ambassador: at first she strives to do her brother’s bidding, but soon the "romantic agony" of Paris awakens feelings she has long kept subdued. Embroiled in a family drama, careful Bea meddles where once she stood idle, and she confronts a vexing paradox: "how hard it is to change one’s life" and "how terrifyingly simple to change the lives of others."—The New Yorker

"What makes this novel such an absorbing achievement is not so much its slanted replications of the story line of 'The Ambassadors'...but the witty, fierce way in which it goes about upending the whole theme and meaning and stylistic manner of its revered precurser....'Foreign Bodies' is a nimble, entertaining literary homage, but it is also, chillingly, what James would have called 'the real thing.'" - The New York Times Book Review

Four out of four stars:

"Who would dare to rewrite Henry James? Ozick proves up to the task, recasting The Ambassadors with Jewish Americans in post-war Paris—a city of displaced, battered souls. Asked by her brother to retrieve his errant son Julian from France, divorcée Beatrice acquiesces and becomes entangled in a web of deceptions. She’s like King Midas in reverse: All she touches turns to ash. A profound sadness lies just beneath the polished prose of this affecting tale." – S. C. - People Magazine

Library Journal
Ozick reworks Henry James's The Ambassadors, setting it in 1950s Paris, a seedy, impractical place for well-to-do and disaffected youth. Bea is a divorcee, long shut off from her feelings, who is bullied by her unbearable brother into traveling to Paris to bring back his errant son, Julian. While Bea begins to break through her emotional morass, her actions lead to dreadful results for her niece, her nephew, and his Jewish wife with a tragic past. While it is difficult to comprehend why everyone is so obsessed with Julian, the other characters are beautifully delineated with great sensitivity. Tandy Cronyn is the perfect reader here. Her portrayal of Bea's emotional fog, the ennui of the Americans in Paris, and the bully Marvin is simply superb, and the pacing is excellent. This audiobook belongs in every public library. [See Prepub Alert, 6/11/10; the Mariner pb will publish in November 2011.—Ed.]—B. Allison Gray, Santa Barbara P.L., Goleta Branch, CA
Kirkus Reviews

An extraordinary novel, loosely based on The Ambassadors—but Ozick (Dictation, 2008, etc.) manages to out-James the master himself.

Julian Nachtigall, son of a tyrannical and imperious businessman, has gone to Paris but has shown no interest in returning home. While there, he links up with Lili, a Romanian expat about ten years his senior. Marvin, the father, is furious that Julian wants to waste his life playing around in nonserious matters (e.g., writing essays and observations of French life), so he sends his sister Bea (who's Anglicized her name to Nightingale) to Paris to bring him to his senses as well as bring him home. Bea teaches English to high-school thugs who mock her love of Wordsworth and Keats, and Marvin has always held her in contempt for what in his eyes is her impractical and useless profession. Bea is complicit in tricking Marvin by sending Julian's sister, Iris, to Paris instead. Iris is the apple of Marvin's eye, a graduate student in chemistry and a promising scientist—in other words, all that Julian is not. But unbeknownst to Marvin, Iris is also happy to escape the imperatives of her authoritarian and oppressive father, so she goes to Paris more in the belief that she will stay there rather than bring her brother back home to California. Through flashbacks we learn of Bea's unhappy and brief marriage to Leo Coopersmith, a composer who has pretensions of being the next Mahler, though he winds up something of a Hollywood hack, composing music for cartoons. We also meet Marvin's long-suffering and brow-beaten wife, Margaret, whose neurasthenia is directly attributable to her husband's iron-fisted despotism. Ozick brilliantly weaves together the multiple strands of her narrative through letters, flashbacks and Jamesian observations of social behavior.

This is superb, dazzling fiction. Ozick richly observes and lovingly crafts each character, and every sentence is a tribute to her masterful command of language.

The Barnes & Noble Review

Several years ago the octogenarian novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick was told by a young interviewer that her fiction didn't engage with contemporary culture. The complaint angered Ozick, and Foreign Bodies seems to be her reply. Although set in 1952, the novel has characters that could easily have stepped out of an up-to-date fiction by Philip Roth: a rich and domineering Jewish father named Marvin Nachtigall, his depressed WASP wife Margaret, their hapless son Julian and dull-witted daughter Iris, Marvin's poor and schlumpy 48-year-old sister Bea, and some minor eccentrics -- a B-movie music composer, a mountebank "doctor," an anti-Semitic philanthropist. From this mostly unlikable crew, Ozick squeezes predictable comedy and -- after introducing a character who could not be contemporary, a young woman who survived the Holocaust -- unanticipated emotional satisfaction.

To contrast the low culture that her characters represent and the high culture of the early twentieth century that Ozick has praised in her five books of essays, she rewrites and extends Henry James's The Ambassadors, a novel she once called her "talisman." In that 1903 book, the middle-aged editor Lambert Strether is dispatched to Paris by his wealthy fiancée to bring back to the United States her culture-accumulating son. After weeks immersing himself in social niceties and foreign subtleties, Strether finds the "remarkable" and "wonderful" young man in immoral "intimacy" with a married woman, and the failed ambassador returns alone to America. Although one need not invest a week or a year in reading The Ambassadors to "get" Foreign Bodies, those who know James's novel will savor Ozick's many ironies -- sometimes directed against her expatriates, sometimes against the James who largely ignored people without drawing rooms.

As Ozick's title suggests, her characters lack Jamesian refinement. The brutish Marvin orders Bea from New York to Paris to convince the 23-year-old Julian, an unemployed waiter and undistinguished writer, to return home, but he has secretly married Lili, a Romanian widow wounded and deformed by Nazis, who wants to live in Israel. To complicate Bea's mission, Julian's sister runs off to join her brother in Paris, where she takes up with a fake healer familiar with "astral bodies." Evaded and insulted, Bea loses "interest in these young people's lives, their plots and intimacies, their alien bodies and whatever effluvium might pass for their souls. Iris and Julian, niece and nephew, flesh of her flesh, who had never cared to seek her out, or she them. They were mutually incurious and mutually superfluous." Bea, like James's ambassador, returns home a failure.

But Bea's experiences in Paris do inspire her fitful liberation back in the United States, where James does not take his readers. Like one of Joan Didion's globe-wandering, late-awakening women, Bea decides to act, to do. She deceives her brother, starts exorcising the influence of her former husband, travels to Los Angeles to spy on Marvin's life and wife, helps Julian and Lili, and becomes the only likable character in the novel, at least until she indirectly causes an accidental death and deprives Julian of a "royal inheritance." In Ozick's world, no sin or good deed goes unpunished, but Bea, absorbing will power from the prickly Lili, comes through like a feminist heroine of the 1970s, and earns the author's final words: "wasn't it Bea who'd won?"

Ozick's revelation of her young characters' moral failings is where the novel is most contemporary in its perspective. The youths' ethical lassitude seems to indict the current "whatever" generation. The psychological displacements Ozick gives her geographically displaced people are incisive, and her depiction of her Holocaust survivor is complex. But Ozick diminishes her novel's authority and contemporaneity by associating bodies with "foreign matter," as if humans were helium-balloon souls injected with heavy metals.

Physical ugliness abounds: the hairless body of the libertine Alfred (modeled on Ozick's college friend and writer Alfred Chester), the "bisonlike" Marvin, the fat neck and dripping nostrils of Julian, Iris stiff as an ironing board when having sex. Hammer-toed Bea thinks of her own body as "a latticed basket leaking stale lost longings" and "as a floating vitrine":

You could see into it, she imagined it as a movie, the movie music swirling upward, the camera trundling in for the close-ups, you could watch the heavings of the ovaries and the uterus contracting, and the shining slime of liver and spleen … one of the medieval humors.

One might argue that Ozick's negative presentation of bodies represents her characters' 1950s Puritanism or that the author uncovers what was veiled by layers of fancy clothes and delicate sentences in The Ambassadors or even that the Nazis had turned bodies to meat in the popular imagination. Yet none of these possibilities -- or even all, taken together -- quite explain the physical revulsion and spleen that circulate through the novel.

Foreign Bodies may be retrograde in its physiology, but the novel is contemporary in its designed accessibility. In her last collection of essays, The Din in the Head, Ozick said that "readers nowadays will hardly tolerate long blocks of print unbroken by dialogue or action" or language that is not "familiar, speedy." In place of "long blocks," Foreign Bodies has fifty-seven short chapters, some of them letters by the principals, told through multiple but clearly identified points of view, including those of minor characters. With so many of them at cross purposes, the dialogue in Ozick's brief scenes is quick and sharp. The style is "familiar," even colloquial and ugly in the letters, rarely decorated with Ozick's usual extended and original metaphors. We occupy Bea's consciousness more than other characters' minds, and as a high school English teacher she is capable of literary allusion and witty kvetching, but she's no obsessively meditating, compulsively qualifying Strether. And, thankfully, Bea does not turn into a postmodernist figure who realizes she is a feminist alternative to James's dithering protagonist.

In the interview mentioned earlier, Ozick insisted on her "history-consciousness." Foreign Bodies includes references to new televisions, loyalty oaths, and the Korean War, but her generational conflicts between working elders and slacker youths and her pointed prose are quite contemporary, certainly not foreign to our age. Only the notion of bodies, which seems Platonic. Overlook that and the novel gives considerable pleasure: what Bea calls "grieving hilarity" and the play of contrasts among three periods -- James's, the 1950s, the contemporary -- and three locales -- America, France, and the empyrean.

--Tom LeClair

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547504551
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 11/1/2010
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 499,004
  • File size: 233 KB

Meet the Author

Cynthia Ozick

CYNTHIA OZICK is the author of numerous acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction. She is a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker International Prize. Her stories have won four O. Henry first prizes.

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Read an Excerpt

1
July 23, 1952
Dear Marvin,
 Well, I’m back. London was all right, Paris was terrible, and I never made it down to Rome. They say it’s the hottest summer they’ve had since before the war. And except for the weather, I’m afraid there’s not much else to report. The address you gave me—Julian left there about a week ago. It seems I just missed him by a few days. You wouldn’t have approved, a rooming house in a rundown neighborhood way out toward the edge of the city. I did the best I could to track him down—tried all the places you said he might be working at. His landlady when I inquired turned out to be a pure blank. All she had to offer was an inkling of a girlfriend. He took everything with him, apparently not much.
 I’m returning your check. From the looks of where your son was living, he could certainly have used the $500. Sorry I couldn’t help more. I hope you and (especially) Margaret are well.
 Yours,
 Beatrice

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    Gorgeous prose.

    In many ways, this is an unromantic book. Several scenes are set up as to suggest that true love's about to prevail and resolve the conflict, but then characters (realistically) lash out instead or become withdrawn. The unique thing is, it's so unromantic that on the few occasions where a character does something out of love, that minor victory becomes highly romantic. An interesting interplay of emotions. You'll be surprised by this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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