What inspires an artist? Cynthia Ozick’s new novel, “Foreign Bodies” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is in part an attempt to answer that much vexed question, though as we know from her prior writing, there is never one simple answer. Inspiration can come as an angry bang on a piano is translated to a symphony, as it does in this novel.
Ozick being Ozick, one of the literary masters she is indebted to, Henry James, will also be involved somehow in any discussion of art. In her most recent collection of essays, “The Din in the Head,” one of the final essays involved an imagined attempt to bump off the master. Here, she does the trick more subtly, in rewriting James’ masterpiece, “The Ambassadors,” to give the entire work a different narrative force.
In James’ story, Americans go to Europe to become refined. For Ozick’s characters, Americans in Paris in 1952, the effect of European civilization on Americans is entirely opposite. America is seen as the more refined and civil society, and Europe viewed as more harsh and brutal.
As befits a novelist of Ozick’s stature, she continues to explore new material. “Foreign Bodies” is a departure from her other work. Because this novel is written partly through the epistles of its characters, their voices give “Foreign Bodies” its cadences and narrative muscle. For a reader enthralled by the languid yet chiseled prose in other works by Ozick, both fiction and essays, this work has an entirely different timbre.
The main family constellation here is that of the Nachtigalls/Nightingales, Marvin and Beatrice, a brother and sister. Marvin, a striving child of hard-working Jewish hardware store owners in New York, attends Princeton on scholarship and marries the sister of one of the brothers in the fraternity that admitted him as its token Jew; to honor his diligence they bestow on him the nickname, “Dilijew.” Margaret Breckinridge marries Marvin Nachtigall to annoy her brother and because she “likes what other people don’t.”
Bea marries Leo Coopersmith, a musician and composer who she expects to write symphonies. Though Bea herself changes her name from Nachtigall to Nightingale, Leo tells her that in fairy tales, nightingales sing no better than crows. She is not attuned to music herself, though she keeps Leo’s piano in her apartment years after they have separated. Bea is a woman who yearns to make her mark in the world by creating a dictionary of feelings, she tells Leo as they are courting. Ozick writes: “Moods. Smells. Feelings that everyone’s somehow felt, only there’s no name for them.”
The question Ozick poses is whether Bea succeeds at this. Bea does ultimately inspire Leo to write a Symphony in B Minor. She also meddles in the lives of her brother and his family in ineradicable ways.
Marvin and Margaret spawn two children, Iris and Julian. The novel opens when Marvin attempts to summon Julian, living in Paris and trying to create a life as a writer, back to America. He involves both Bea and Iris in this errand to return his son, which ends in failure.
Julian is not alone in Paris; he has married Lili, a woman from Bucharest who is a Holocaust survivor. The counterpoint of Lili’s life as an adult woman who has already buried a husband and son, to the lightness of the troubles of California-born Julian, creates one of the important points of tension in the novel. Lili herself is one of the foreign bodies inhabiting these pages.
In Ozick’s eyes, the tensions between Europe and America are particularly acute in 1952, the period in which the novel is set. Europe, Paris in particular, is an ironic destination for a half-Jewish American at this time. No longer the Paris of Henry James and the Americans who go to see the Old Masters, or even OF the “Lost Generation” of American writers and artists who flocked there in the aftermath of World War I, this is a Paris that exists after the Shoah. For Ozick, Paris is no longer the place of romance it had been, but a place of killers and collaborators. It is a place where Lili is fired from a job translating for “displaced persons” like herself at a Centre des Emigrés due to her weeping at an inopportune moment. One of Lili’s tasks in the novel is to awaken Julian to a sense of the largeness of history; in doing so, she does finally return him to America.
Julian’s sister Iris, sent to Paris to fetch him, leaves her graduate program in the sciences in California. She she falls in with a man who is a healer, who, shaman-like, provides a mirror for his patients. Ozick describes him this way: “It wasn’t what he gave them to chew or swallow or rub on their skins or between their toes; it was how he got their imaginations to work. Mostly it was his own imagination at work.”
Ozick’s task as a novelist, of course, is shared with that of the healer — to create a full and meaningful world that needs only a reader’s imagination and attention to be wholly vivid. See
Ozick’s description of Leo composing his symphony:
“It was exultation he was after. He sat at the Bluthner hour after hour, hunting it down. … No such chimera in the work as a lost chord, that silly old song by a fool who aspired to grand opera, and got famous through jiggling tunes for jingles. The lucky hit, the accident, the mystery, was there shut up in the Bluthner, undisclosed; he had only to seek out the operative combination. It existed, it was alive in the keys … it was there.”
This attempt to reach exultation through the inspiration of a bang of a piano chord is at the heart of the novel. Characters journey to Paris in search of a better and more art-filled world, yet seem to experience America as more noble, less tainted than Paris.
Ultimately, the characters are fetched home, yet that home has changed radically due to the machinations of Aunt Bea. Bea makes her mark by forcing emotions and ideas on others, not by allowing their imaginations free rein, as the shaman/healer, and ultimately the artist, does. as well. We are fortunate to have another work by Ozick, which gives us the ability to exult in our imaginations as we read.
Beth Kissileff’s most recent publication is a story in JewishFiction.net.