They’ll Always Have Paris
Cynthia Ozick’s intricate and artful new novel Foreign Bodies echoes the majesty of Henry James’s late period
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.”)
Chad remains in Paris, determined to cleave to Mme de Vionnet (as he puts it) “to the death”, and the prospect of Strether’s own financially-transforming marriage to Mrs Newsome has vanished. But, for Strether, to have been “successful” in those terms would have been more desperately to have failed. As a result of the “drama of discrimination” into which he has wandered, Strether has been led into a richer field of life, and is now able to understand and judge the wasteland of his own earlier years. The advice he gives to one of Chad’s friends — “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” — is a melancholy comment on his own failure to grasp life when it seemed to be offered to him, and of which now he hears only its “receding whistle…miles and miles down the line”. It is not a comfortable realisation. But Strether’s embracing of it indicates his escape from previous constrictions, and his emergence into an atmosphere at once thinner and more spacious. To have returned to America, drawing Chad in chains behind him, to have married Mrs Newsome, and to have subsided once more into the moral rigidities of Woollett, the Massachusetts town of the Newsome factories and thus the source of the Newsome wealth, would have been a much more abject failure.
Ozick transplants the seed of this Jamesian drama from the late 19th century to the mid 20th. James’s Paris was a “vast bright Babylon”, home to a distracting profusion of languages (Mme Vionnet is said to have “a language quite to herself”). Like the city of antiquity, it is a seductive place which subdues and captivates those who presume to enter it as conquerors. Ozick reaches into a different part of the Bible for her Paris. It is a modern Nineveh, a place marked out for disaster, a “desolation’ of which God eventually makes an “utter end”. The Paris of Foreign Bodies is not the gilded playground of the fin de siècle. It is the shell of the city which survived the Nazi occupation, and which draws to it not the rich and talented so much as the rootless and dispossessed, the jetsam of a continent which war has turned into “a region of hell”. In particular, the Jewish diaspora — both that phase of it following the Second World War, and earlier waves of dispersal which had preceded it — throws a long shadow over this novel.
Julian Nachtigall, the son of a wealthy Californian industrialist, had come to Paris for a year as part of his undergraduate degree. However, Julian repeatedly postpones his return, and after three years his father, Marvin, despatches Julian’s aunt, Bea, to Paris to retrieve him.
In these years, still marked by postwar confusion, Paris is thronged with foreigners who fall into two groups: “one vigorous, ambitious, cheerful, and given to drink, the other pale, quarrelsome, forlorn: a squad of volatile maundering ghosts”. The former are young Americans, “besotted with legends of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein”. To begin with Julian naturally befriends this group. He sits in cafés trying to write a series of immoral fables, but he knows it is hopeless:
. . . he’d run with them and drunk with them, but he wasn’t one of them, he didn’t belong; he was always on the periphery. He tried and tried, he flattered them and scurried to catch up with them, he tried to deserve them, but finally they were sick of him or he was sick of them, he couldn’t tell the difference. Either way it left him out.
But in the course of this charade Julian meets Lili, who belongs to the other group of foreigners in Paris, the “volatile maundering ghosts” who have been displaced by war. A Romanian whose husband and son were shot, and who bears on her own upper arm an unhealed bullet wound, Lili embodies the dreadful truth of what Europe has become. Julian falls in love with Lili, marries her, and pursues a hand to mouth existence with her in a series of cheap rooms and borrowed accommodation.
Bea, a middle-aged divorcée who works as a teacher of English in a rough New York school, enters this situation rather as Strether embarked on his own embassy. Like Strether, her past is stamped with disappointment and desertion — a failed marriage to a now— prosperous Hollywood composer, and her younger self’s callow ambition to “make my mark in the world” lost to sight beneath years of sterility and undramatic immiseration. Initially she misreads Lili as nothing more than “human debris discharged from the diseased bowel of Eastern Europe”. But slowly she comes to understand the truth of Lili’s claim about her marriage to Julian, that (as Lili herself puts it) “I do him good.” It dawns upon Bea that what Lili taught Julian was “Europe”, and that “she thickened his mind”. The ghost of James hangs over these words with a particularly attentive superintendence. Mme de Vionnet also claims that she does Chad “good” and in the preface to The Ambassadors James stated his creed that “it’s only into thickened motive and accumulated character, I think, that the painter of life bites more than a little.” In contrast with those in this Parisian inferno who pretend and lie, Lili has a straightforward relationship with language. Her maxim is “You should say what you know.” In consequence, Bea marvels at Lili’s paradoxical security in a world which has dealt her such savage blows: “How matter-of-fact she was; how formed and finished; how unperturbed and unsurprised. She was used to everything, and ready to expect anything. The world was as it was.”
To locate a moral centre of gravity in Lili is to begin to see how Foreign Bodies stands in a relationship of criticism towards The Ambassadors, as well as a relationship of affectionate imitation. If James’s novel dramatises a process of moral emancipation, a journey from the closed and absolute values of Woollett to the nuanced and ambiguous situations of Paris — from, that is, Victorianism to pragmatism— then Foreign Bodies is set in a world which has paid the devastating reckoning for that moral glissade. The impact of the First World War on James is well-understood — it was a body-blow to the ideal of a European culture he had so scrupulously documented, for better or worse, in so many novels. Accordingly it was a reversal as much aesthetic as ethical. It is difficult to imagine what of James’s moral and aesthetic worlds could have survived the atrocities and systematic barbarisms of the Second World War.
Yet Lili, for all her bitterly-won attachment to simple truth, and the superior discernment she derives from this allegiance, is complicated in her turn by the “difference” of Bea. She too has to welcome and accommodate the “foreign body” which at first distresses, then releases, and ultimately strengthens. When Bea, to protect Julian, tells a lie about the state his demented mother was in before her death, Lili both senses the lie and approves the motive: “How good you are!” she exclaims. This is just the latest in a whole series of deceptions Bea has practised in the course of the novel. She is educated into the pragmatism which the novel as a whole views askance, and yet the novel eventually rewards her for this. She climbs clear of earlier commitments, notably to her husband, and as a result, in the closing words of the novel, “In the long, long war with Leo, wasn’t it Bea who’d won?” It is a conclusion hard to place: the calculated return of Jamesian sophistication, or the blurring of focus which arises from powerful themes which have to some extent escaped the control of the author?
Foreign Bodies in its own unexpected way also conforms to and displaces the “dreadful little old tradition” that “people’s moral scheme does break down in Paris”. In the way that it both embraces and critically remodels that tradition, it can without inappropriateness be compared to The Ambassadors. Like that triumph of the late phase of James’s career, the intricate construction of Foreign Bodies is a demonstration of a “process of vision” as it disrupts the order of time to show how perception and judgment travesty truth. Its narrative of artfully delayed clarification exemplifies and vindicates the confession of unqualified literary faith with which James concluded the preface to his own tale, when he explained that the “moral involved” was “not that the particular production before us exhausts the interesting questions it raises, but that the Novel remains still, under the right persuasion, the most independent, most elastic, most prodigious of literary forms.”