- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2011

FOREIGN BODIES
By Cynthia Ozick
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 255 pages

Harold Bloom may not be Cynthia Ozick’s favorite literary critic - she famously attacked him for idolatry - but she is a fascinating case study in his pet theory, the “anxiety of influence” by the

“covering cherub” of a major writer, in her case Henry James. But she is unquestionably, in Bloomian terms, a strong writer who brings, to borrow from the title of one of her fiercely wrought essay collections, sufficient art and ardor to triumph over the shade of her great predecessor.

Ms. Ozick’s struggle against the overwhelming influence of the master has not been an easy one: it took her years to produce her first novel, “Trust,” almost foundering in the spell he had cast over her. But now decades later, with several novels, many short stories and fiery essays in a voice distinctly her own, she shows that it is now she who is the master. So much so, that she is able joyously to cock her snook at Henry James and at his late masterpiece “The Ambassadors,” not so much to rewrite it, but to give us a variation on its theme, as later composers are wont to do on the great figures of the musical past, as, say, Brahms did so magnificently on Haydn.

Make no mistake; this is no weak echo of James or a mere cheeky riposte to his orotund splendors. It is authentically all Ozick, its clear-cut writing and forceful energy giving it a power all her own. And what a pleasure it is to read her muscular sentences, which show that a lifetime of engagement with the edifice of her pompous predecessor has allowed her in a very real sense to have seen through him. Consider the very first words of “Foreign Bodies”:

“Well, I’m back. London was all right, Paris was terrible and I never made it down to Rome.”

The reader will know at once that he is light years away from the prevarications and endless refinements of James‘ Lambert Strether. The motto of this novel’s narrator, Bea Nightingale, is more likely to be “cut the crap” as she performs a mission similar to her predecessor’s, rescuing an innocent - or is he? - American from the temptations of Europe.

But Ms. Ozick’s Europe a few years after the end of World War II is not the charmed continent of castles, aristocrats and superior civilization that it seemed to the enchanted James before two terrible wars had devastated it. Ms. Ozick uses the horrors of a heat wave without the relief afforded by the air-conditioning that gives some relief to Bea’s New York apartment to introduce the Europe where she finds herself:

“In the sky just overhead, a blast furnace exhaled searing gusts, or else a fiery geyser, loosed from the sun’s core, hurled down boiling lava on roofs and pavements. … People made this comparison and that - sometimes it was the furnace, sometimes the geyser, and now and then the terrible heat was said to be a general malignancy, a remnant of the recent war, as if the continent had been turned into a region of hell.”

The language is deliberately infernal, and it is clear that in the world of this novel, there are specters far more sinister and malign than anything mere climate can bring forth. The shadow of man-made evil, of mayhem and slaughter - genocide even - lies like a pall over what was once referred to as the City of Light.

So Bea’s nephew is not ensnared by the kind of glamorous aristocrat who represented Europe in James‘ fiction, but by a scarred, displaced and damaged woman who has nonetheless managed to emerge from the terrible crucible of her devastated homeland in southeast Europe with some of her humanity intact. But to a soft, over-privileged, nihilistic California boy, this mysterious creature is as alluring as any Jamesian siren and his bemused aunt has to fall in with, rather than restrain, their folie a deux.

Ms. Ozick has made Bea not merely an archetypal American - even her German or Yiddish sounding name Nachtigall has been Americanized to accommodate the boorish students whom she struggles to teach the glories of literature - but the ultimate New Yorker, to whom her native city is the true America. As she is drawn into the hitherto unknown web of her brother’s family, her quest takes her to California, which she finds just as alien as France:

“It was another country. Deep summer ruled autumn … Los Angeles haphazard and fragmented, as if an entire city had been dropped from the sky to be broken into shards and scatterings, the pieces flung miles apart. She had expected mountains, blue cones merging into a gray horizon. Instead, only these shards of towns with their Old World names and their New World obstreperousness.”

With its strong, evocative prose and starkly delineated characters, “Foreign Bodies” is indeed light years away from “The Ambassadors,” which makes it a relief as well as a joy to read.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.