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A Poor Second
on 5 July 2012
Cynthia Ozick, Foreign Bodies
The plot is borrowed from Henry James's The Ambassadors, but there the resemblance ends. This is a book that was shortlisted for the Orange Prize (2012) and it comes with many commendations, including The Times `s assurance that Ozick's eleventh novel is `breathtaking ... a superb story about the reversal of world order and identities.' I'm inclined to agree with the Guardian that `Ozick is possessed of a voice distinctly her own', but when that voice grates on the reader's nerves as this one does most would prefer Henry James's. True, someone should have taught Henry James how to write simple English, just as someone should have told Dickens that sentimentality in fiction is nauseating. Never mind the Orange Prize nomination, the book must be a contender for the greatest number of rhetorical questions in a work of fiction.
The plot, like the prose, is somewhat convoluted, but, to simplify, it deals with the contrast between a heavy father, Marvin Nachtigall, a self-made man of business with no time for aesthetic sensibilities and his no good son, Julien, who escapes from American materialism to the softer, easygoing life of Paris. The angry father then orders his sister, Bea, to bring his son back. When this venture fails his daughter, Iris, repeats the abortive attempt. Both women, however, become seduced by Parisian culture, although Aunt Bea is at first rejected by her niece, who shelters her brother and his new waif-wife, Lili, a Romanian refugee.
The story is told mainly through the eyes of Bea, who, as her name implies goes about doing good - or, rather, trying to - much to the fury of her control freak brother Marvin, an impotent rage-filled observer, whose ambassadors consistently fail him. There are constant letters between the two, as Marvin vents his frustration not only with his son, but the whole Communist-thinking world - watch out little Lili, who has stolen the useless Julien!
My main quarrel with the novel is with its excruciating prose, often disguised as internal monologue. Open any page at random and, no matter which character has the viewpoint, you find whole swathes of portentous twaddle, such as Lili's reflections on her man-boy husband: `She looked at the boy: a bodily gaze, every pore an eye. A longing struck her - a pang. His head had an unexpected beauty, even in the tender curve of the full chin. His flesh held the weight of his feeling; his appetite for meat, she suddenly knew, was a hunger for feeling. She recognised him as someone she had missed; misjudged; passed over. And she had inflicted on him a pitiless blight. Her hand was as gory as Lady Macbeth's. Her hand was a guillotine.' This is Romantic Fiction at its worst and Henry James would surely find it cringe-making.
However, this novel contains much to admire - the scenes with the bullied wife, Margaret and her final demise are beautifully handled, but the demerits of the book detract: wavering point of view between omniscient, internal monologue and oratio obliqua; the laying on of imagery as with a trowel (`A heaving sea brooded in her head ... her head ... waxworks ...or ... or ... or ... something volcanic.' [Author's ellipses]); a plethora of one-word sentences or non-sentences; and the constantly hysterical overwriting. It's certainly a mile away from The Master.