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Critical Jamesian: Cynthia Ozick (Ulf Andersen) 

The language of literary criticism is rich in words to describe the relation between one literary work and another — imitation, parody, pastiche, homage, even that antiseptic coinage of modern theory, "intertext". We need so many words when we think about literary relations because of the plethora of possibilities they contain — a plethora embracing affection, distaste, mockery, admiration, and all shades of emotion in between. Nor is it the case that motive and treatment are always easily aligned in these relations between works of literature. Gratitude may express itself — sometimes, must express itself — through defacement. The old exaggerated paradox, that the truest way to imitate the Ancients was to be completely original and to shun imitation, as the Ancients had been forced to do for want of models to imitate, still ekes out a dwindled life in the fact that the most sincere tributes to an earlier work may involve a violent reshaping of it. In the realm of literature, the richest inheritances often must be stretched or inverted before they can be made to hand over their wealth.

In the case of Cynthia Ozick's Foreign Bodies (Atlantic Books, £16.99) the inheritance to be violently seized comes from the masterpiece of Henry James's late period, The Ambassadors (1903). Foreign Bodies, like The Ambassadors, is written around the circumstance of a young rich American boy becoming involved with a woman in Paris. Ozick takes her epigraph from James's novel, choosing a quotation which puts the potential ambiguity of such an entanglement — does it involve corruption or improvement? — squarely before the reader:

But there are two quite distinct things — given the wonderful place he's in — that may have happened to him. One is that he may have got brutalised. The other is that he may have got refined.

Like the plot of The Ambassadors, the plot of Foreign Bodies sets itself against the background of what James referred to disparagingly as "the dreadful little old tradition, one of the platitudes of the human comedy, that people's moral scheme does break down in Paris." Disparagingly, but also gratefully: because without that crude backdrop, the subtlety of what James achieved in The Ambassadors would have been unnoticeable.

In The Ambassadors Lambert Strether is sent to Europe by a rich American widow, Mrs Newsome. The task she has set her emissary is to reclaim her son Chad from an unknown woman with whom he has become entangled during a period of residence in Paris. A complicating factor is Mrs Newsome's indication that, if Strether is successful, she will marry him. Strether travels to Europe, but what he discovers there is not at all what he had expected. As James put it in his plan for the novel, Strether "finds himself sinking...up to his middle in Difference — difference from what he expected, difference in Chad, difference in everything". At the end of the novel, and enmeshed in complications and subtleties of which, at the outset, he had had no inkling, Strether has, at the practical level, failed in his mission; he has been bewildered by "a sense of names in the air, of ghosts at the windows, of signs and tokens, a whole range of expression all about him, too thick for prompt discrimination". (As James says in The Art of the Novel, "if we were never bewildered there would never be a story to tell about us.")  

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