Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cynthia Ozick – ‘Foreign Bodies’

Paris in the 1950s. An American family settled in California, the father having made a fortune by marriage and then business. Marvin Nachtigall is practical, a scientist by education, and doesn’t hold with music, novels, or anything that doesn’t advance one in some solid, demonstrable way. He is intolerable both as husband and father, driving his wife to an asylum, and his two children to Paris, which as far as he is concerned are roughly equivalent. Because Paris in the ’50s, as everyone knows, was not so much a city as a playground for American rich kids who wanted to forget about the hard work that earned their money and indulge their artistic side. Julian, the son, has this chat-up line, ‘So which one are you, Gertrude or Alice?’, and at first inspires the contempt of Lili, who will soon become his wife:
Paris was infested with these imitation baby Sartres and Gides sitting in cafés over their inky manuscripts, an apéritif placed just so at the nearest knuckle to authenticate the parody (p. 101)
Just like The Magnetic Fields’ ‘I Don’t Want to Get Over You’ – ‘I could dress in black and read Camus / Smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth’. It’s a cliché, as both song and novel know, and the problem with the novel is that it coasts along on this cliché, describing but never escaping it.

In The Guardian recently, Ozick was candid about the inspiration for Leo Coopersmith, the composer and ex-husband of Marvin’s sister Bea. ‘“Yes, it’s a snow job,” she says. “Bullshit. It’s just a transposition of one kind of passion to another.”’ Some kind of false modesty double bluff, perhaps? But it turns out to be entirely accurate. There is some mighty clunky imagery, for a start – a grand piano left by Leo in Bea’s New York apartment after their brief marriage, which takes up practically all of the living room, for twenty years. Bea herself can’t play, has no musical aptitude at all, but has the piano tuned regularly, keeps it polished. She never touches the keyboard. Her niece, Iris, staying with her overnight before going on to Julian in Paris, hits a single key, causing consternation and reverberations for her aunt. She, in turn, hits a larger selection of notes on Leo’s current piano, improbably opening his ears:
How had she done it, how exactly had those polyphonic antiphons, if that’s what they were, come into being, and from no recognizable system – what could you call that sound? When he tried to imagine it (he was always trying), it was scarcely stable, it was a fleeting exultation, or else a hideous hollow, like an anus, or a growly scrabbling of animal claws. (p. 179)
I don’t think there is a musical version of the Bad Sex in Fiction award, but if there were, Foreign Bodies would do pretty well. The bit about the ‘tender secret testicles that lurked like darkened planets between his legs’ might win both. The resulting symphony, The Nightingale’s Thorn, is in B minor, causing Bea to wonder, ‘Bea minor, is that what he meant?’ I am not making this up.

Of course, I could be missing the point*. Foreign Bodies is a re-imagining of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, which I haven’t read. Bea is Marvin’s ambassador in the sense that she is supposed to bring Julian and Iris home from Paris. She is always hiding bits of information in both directions, which sounds like good ambassadorial behaviour – sometimes to keep the peace, and sometimes in accordance with her own agenda. It isn’t much of an agenda really – she wants to keep Marvin at a distance (just as Julian and Iris do), and she wants some kind of re-acquaintance with Leo, though she doesn’t want him back. The grand piano finally gone from her apartment, and his symphony on her table (she can’t read it, of course), she ends the novel in a better position, psychologically speaking, than she started out with. But it isn’t nearly enough.


* From the Guardian piece, here is the point I missed: ‘Foreign Bodies is, Ozick has said, a sort of inversion of James’s The Ambassadors, in which Americans in Paris are charmed and restored by the European sensibility. In Ozick’s telling, they encounter a postwar city of dark, grim truths.’

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