Foreign Bodies – Cynthia Ozick

Foreign Bodies tells the story of 48 year old Bea Nightingale (changed from Nachtigal because she doesn’t think the working class young men she teaches will be able to pronounce it) and various members of her family almost estranged from her.  Bea’s brother Marvin asks her to help find his missing son believed to be in Paris while she is there on a holiday.  She fails to unearth him and so starts a tale of family interactions which are often ugly, characterised by deception, hidden agendas and unspoken dreams.  Not only are members of the family at odds with each other, their expectations often opposed, but the settings of 1950s Paris and the USA also bring into focus the post-war differences of these nations.  Paris is where refugees from all over Europe have come to congregate after the war, trying to figure out their futures.  Educated people, previously in positions of respectability, reduced to menial work and poverty. Paris is where Marvin’s son and eventually his daughter seek refuge from his stifling hold on them and their futures.  Bea herself finds refuge in Paris, although she dislikes it, it takes her away from the disappointments of her life; a broken marriage, years of stagnation as a teacher in the same school, no real friends or lovers to speak of.  Ozick gives the impression of a post-war shroud hanging over Paris making it stale and shabby. Bea gets very uptight with its foreignness.

“Here in Paris, what was it to be mad about Proust….or bookishly familiar with history and kings and revolutionaries and philosophers?  It counted for nothing when you were puzzling over how to get from the IXth to the VIIth on an unexceptional Tuesday in the middle of your unexceptional life, and when you were feeling dismissed by the conscientious weekday faces streaming past, faces that had mundane tasks and were set on exactly what they were and how they were to be done.  She could not understand this city, it was an enigma, or else it was Paris that comprehended whatever passed through its arteries, and it was she, the interloper, who was the enigma”

In contrast, the USA is full of possibility.  Her brother has done well in business and has a large property with a pool.  Her ex-husband is doing well as a composer of music for Hollywood movies, an industry on the up.  He too lives in a large property in L.A.  The sheen is only surface deep with these two, it hides personal failures and the embarrassments of a wife supposedly gone mad, a (supposed) drop-out son, failed marriages and potential not realised.

The narrative switches between family members telling their part of the story.  Ozick’s skill is in providing each character with a distinctive voice and part to play in what is a pretty uncomplicated story.  None of the characters are particularly likeable, they all have failings.  Sometimes it is difficult to like a book where the characters don’t endear themselves, but then again, this is a story of human and family interactions, which can often be unsavoury.  Familial expectation and responsibility is an underlying theme in Foreign Bodies and it did make me think about how suffocating that can be sometimes.

I can imagine Foreign Bodies not being to everyone’s taste.  It is emotionally descriptive but the writing is superb and incredibly measured.  A couple of people I know who also read it said they felt she used 10 words where she could have used 1.  I don’t agree.  You don’t spend four years writing a book only for 90% of it to be superfluous.  I think every word has been agonised over to ensure maximum emphasis.  There is a passage not far from the end, in chapter 45 and too long for me to transcribe, where Bea attempts to exorcise herself of the hold her ex-husband has on her.  This passage is beautiful, you really feel her anguish.

Foreign Bodies is a book about exile.  Characters are exiled from their families, their homelands, their emotions and their wished-for futures.  It takes some effort to read it, but the superlative writing is reward enough.

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