BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 3, 2011
By Cynthia Ozick
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 255 pp., $26)
‘There is no swarming like that of Israel when once Israel has got a start, and the scene here bristled, at every step, with the signs and sounds, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that had burst all bounds. ... It was as if we had been thus, in the crowded, hustled roadway, where multiplication, multiplication of everything, was the dominant note, at the bottom of some vast sallow aquarium in which innumerable fish, of over-developed proboscis, were to bump together, for ever, amid heaped spoils of the sea.” The author of this passage hardly needs to be named: no writer signs his prose quite like Henry James, and even when confronted with the shock of the Lower East Side circa 1905, his adjectives and clauses keep their meticulous fluency. Only the joke about noses sounds, in its banality and its crudity, like a betrayal of the James we know from the novels.
The refinement of James’s prose, in this section of The American Scene, is integral to his argument, which is that the appearance of a “New Jerusalem” in the streets of New York is not primarily a racial or social threat, but a literary and linguistic one. “It was in the light of letters, that is in the light of our language as literature has hitherto known it, that one stared at this all-unconscious impudence of the agency of future ravage,” James continues. In their very intimacy with the American language, he predicts, Jews will “torture” it out of recognition. Eventually “we shall not know it for English—in any sense for which there is an existing literary measure.”
Finally the immigrant Jews, who have earlier been compared to fish and to “snakes or worms ... who, when cut into pieces, wriggle away contentedly,” take on the image of a more dignified and threatening reptile. They are a dragon, James writes, like the one that fought Saint George; and the saint, in this comparison, is played by the American man of letters, who “sits astride of the consecrated English tradition, to his mind, quite as old knighthood astride of its caparisoned charger.”
Cynthia Ozick’s career-long agon with Henry James—which reaches a kind of culmination in Foreign Bodies, a polemical rewriting of The Ambassadors—cannot be fully understood except in the light of this famous passage. Ozick may be the last in the illustrious line of writers whose complicated engagement with James helped to define not just American Jewish fiction, but the American conception of modernism itself. For the stark, often noted irony is that it was precisely the children and the grandchildren of those immigrant Jews, with their dragonish Yiddish accents, who did most to secure James’s place at the center of the modernist canon. In the 1930s, when James’s alleged snobbishness and escapism made him the favorite target of both left-wing and all-American critics, it was the intellectuals at Partisan Review who insisted on defending the Master. They taught readers to appreciate not just his prose style, but also his insight into art, society, and evil. And it was an American Jew—Leon Edel, born in 1907, just two years after James’s American Scene trip, though not in New York—who devoted his life to writing James’s biography.
Ozick, who was born in 1928 and has spent most of her life in the Bronx and its environs, represents one of our last links to that mid-century New York intellectual milieu. (Her sense of having survived into a different, and worse, literary era is pervasive in her recent essays.) The chief inheritance she preserves from that earlier time is its reverence for modernism. For Ozick, modernism does not mean demotic fracture—as it did to its first audiences, appalled or delighted—but supreme authority. “Joyce, Mann, Eliot, Proust, Conrad (even with his furies): they knew,” she writes. “And what they knew was that—though things fall apart—the artist is whole, consummate. At bottom, in the deepest brain, rested the supreme serenity and masterly confidence of the sovereign maker.”
The sovereign of sovereigns, for Ozick, has always been the Master. Only James is immune to the obsolescence that other modernists—notably Eliot—have undergone, she writes in “What Henry James Knew”: “In the ripened Henry James, and in him almost alone, the sensation of mysteriousness does not attenuate; it thickens. As the years accumulate, James becomes, more and more compellingly, our contemporary, our urgency.” Yet Ozick’s own relationship with James has always been a difficult one, oscillating between imitative reverence and ferocious repudiation. She has made her mixed feelings about James one of the central myths of her work, writing about it again and again. There has seldom been a more devoted or self-conscious case of the anxiety of influence.
In the beginning, Ozick says, she was simply James’s slave. She wrote her master’s thesis on “Parable in Henry James,” then left academia in order to write fiction that was meant to channel James’s. “Gradually but compellingly,” she recalls in an essay called “The Lesson of the Master,” “I became Henry James.... When I say I ‘became’ Henry James, you must understand this: though I was a near-sighted twenty-two-year-old young woman infected with the commonplace intention of writing a novel, I was also the elderly bald-headed Henry James. Even without close examination, you could see the light glancing off my pate; you could see my heavy chin, my watch chain, my walking stick, my tender paunch.”
This is comedy, but it is also a kind of horror—indeed, it could be a horror story by James, one of his parables of mastership and impersonation. And Ozick cannot repress a sense of horror, and of abiding anger, at the toll that her James-worship exacted from her. For many years she failed to publish or even finish her projected novels; her friends outpaced her, her rivals did not even know she existed. “All around me writers of my generation were publishing; I was not,” she writes in “Henry James, Tolstoy, and My First Novel.” “I held it as an article of faith that if you had not attained print by twenty-five, you were inexorably marked by a scarlet F—for Folly, for Futility, for Failure. It was a wretched and envious time.” One of her best essays, “Alfred Chester’s Wig,” turns on the tortoise-and-hare competition between her and the now-forgotten writer Alfred Chester, her NYU classmate. In the late 1940s, Ozick remembers, Chester went to Paris and “was well into the beginnings of an international reputation—he was brilliantly in the world—while I ... had nothing of the literary life but my trips on the bus to the Westchester Square Public Library.”
The climax of Ozick’s early James-worship, and its fiasco, was the publication of her first novel, Trust, in 1966. After two decades, she had finally come out with the big, ambitious, immaculately literary novel she dreamed of—and it was inert, virtually dead on arrival. (It is, among other things, perhaps the only book published in 1966 that unself-consciously uses the word “withal”: “Even his haircut had a vaguely shaggy air, so that he emerged, withal, a wonderful bison.”) Ozick continues to speak of it with the defensiveness of wounded pride. In an interview in 2004, she joked, “I will have struck a gold medal, for anybody who can give me evidence that they actually finished this book.”
The failure of Trust also represented, for Ozick, the failure of Henry James. While writing it, she recalled, “I kept on my writing table ... a copy of The Ambassadors, as a kind of talisman,” but the talisman had brought bad luck. Other writers might have been silenced by such a disappointment after so many years of expectation, or at least refused to talk about it. But Ozick, on the contrary, has made it central to her literary image, because she clearly relishes the double irony involved. The first irony is that it was the wreck of her early worship of literature, and of James, that released the energies—the ruthless, angry, often satirical energies—of her great stories of the 1970s and 1980s. The second irony is that her Jamesian error—her attempt to “become” Henry James—was itself a supremely Jamesian error, the kind of mistake James cautioned against in some of his most famous stories.
It is out of this recognition that Ozick titled her confessional essay after “The Lesson of the Master.” That is the story of James’s in which a young writer, Paul Overt, befriends a successful older writer, Henry St. George, whose best work is long behind him. The reason, St. George tells his disciple, is that he gave in to the temptations of the world—he married, had children, yearned for social status, and so had to write for money. Heeding this advice, Overt decides to give up Miss Fancourt, the woman he hopes to marry, and goes abroad for two years to finish writing his next book. When he returns, however, it is to discover that St. George, whose wife has died in the interim, has swooped in and married Miss Fancourt himself. By blindly submitting to the older writer’s authority, Overt realizes, he has allowed himself to be deceived, neutered, cuckolded. The parallels with Ozick’s own situation were clear to her: “Trusting in James, believing, like Paul Overt, in the overtness of the Jamesian lesson, I chose Art, and ended by blaming Henry James.”
In 1971, five years after Trust, Ozick published The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories. In the title alone, two major course corrections are announced. After investing so much effort in one massive novel, Ozick became in the next decade a writer of stories—this first collection was followed by Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976) and Levitation: Five Fictions (1982). The shift was partly inspired, she wrote, by reading the stories of Frank O’Connor, which offered an appealing alternative to the “style both ‘mandarin’ and ‘lapidary’” of Trust: “how simple, how human, how comely and homely!” Ozick’s own stories are none of those things—they are complex, ghost-ridden, allegorical—but the new form did release her genius. Ever since, shorter or longer stories have been the mainstay of Ozick’s fiction. Not until Heir to the Glimmering World in 2004 did she produce another full-length novel. (An edition of Ozick’s Collected Stories was published in Britain five years ago, and is much needed here.)
At the same time, The Pagan Rabbi marked an intense new engagement with the subject of Jewishness. Even in Trust, Ozick was exploring Jewish subjects, especially the Holocaust. Starting with The Pagan Rabbi, however, Ozick became an emphatically Jewish writer, and in a way that was quite unusual for that golden age of American Jewish fiction. It’s not just that Ozick stopped writing about characters named Enoch Vand and Gustave Nicholas Tilbeck, and started writing about characters named Kornfeld, Edelshtein, and Bleilip. Saul Bellow had done as much long before, and in fact the influence of Bellow seems to have helped drive out the influence of James at this stage of Ozick’s writing.
But Ozick is quite different from Bellow in the way she treats Jewishness in her fiction. For Bellow, Jewishness is a condition of experience: in writing about his childhood, he is inevitably writing about an immigrant Jewish world. His boldness lay in declining to see this as a literary disadvantage, in the supreme self-confidence that allowed him to embrace every detail of his own experience as universally significant. (This is, of course, a very American trait, an Emersonian accomplishment.) He was so certain he belonged to English literature that he never worried English literature might not belong to him. To return to James’s metaphor, he was already Saint George, so he could not possibly be the dragon.
With Ozick, things are different and less comfortable. Starting with The Pagan Rabbi, she begins to experiment with the idea that James’s metaphor might actually be correct—that there really is a necessary friction between being Jewish and being an English writer. This is not because the Jew is incapable of mastering literary English. As a living refutation of that idea, Ozick could not possibly entertain it herself. Indeed, in her essay “The Question of Our Speech: The Return to Aural Culture,” she pounces on another instance of James’s linguistic snobbery—a speech that he delivered at Bryn Mawr, lamenting the way “our quickly assimilated foreign brothers and sisters ... dump their mountain of promiscuous material” into the American language. Ozick remarks that the novelist had, ironically, forgotten about the power of imagination, which allows immigrants to enter into a seemingly foreign literary tradition. She instances her own mother, an immigrant child who memorized “The Lady of the Lake” and never forgot it until she died.
If writing fiction is somehow forbidden to Jews, Ozick proposes, it is not because Jews cannot do it, but because they should not do it. And that is because the literary imagination, seen in a certain light, is a double sin against Judaism: it is a form of lying and a form of idolatry. “An idol is a thing-that-subsists-for-its-own-sake-without-a-history; significantly, that is also what a poem is,” Ozick declares. She puts the idea into parable form in “The Pagan Rabbi,” where a pious Jew named Isaac Kornfeld takes his first step toward damnation simply by beginning to appreciate beauty in the natural world. From noticing brooks and flowers, he soon moves to worshipping them—that is, to paganism; and from there it is a short step to falling in love with an actual wood-nymph or dryad, whose name is Iripomonoeia. Kornfeld goes so far as to have sex with this spirit—“Scripture does not forbid sodomy with the plants,” he nicely observes—before he ends up committing suicide.
A less subtle writer than Ozick might make this a clear-cut tale of obsession leading to insanity, and cast Kornfeld’s suicide as a kind of self-inflicted punishment. But Ozick does not want us to see the nymph as a delusion, and it is not Kornfeld’s paganism that does him in. It is, rather, his discovery that, as much as he loves Nature’s beauty, Nature can never love him back—because while his body might be pagan, his soul is incurably Jewish. Granted a vision of his soul as the dryad sees it, he finds it is “a quite ugly old man,” trudging down the road holding a “huge and terrifying volume”—a tractate of the Talmud; “His cheeks are folded like ancient flags, he reads the Law and breathes the dust.” Ozick makes the portrait as repulsive, even offensive, as possible. But she does so with the sly knowledge that the Law is absolutely on her side. For her image of a pious Jew who “passes indifferent through the beauty of the field” is actually a reference to an ancient statement in the Ethics of the Fathers: “Rabbi Yaakov would say: One who walks along a road and studies, and interrupts his studying to say, ‘How beautiful is this tree!’, ‘How beautiful is this ploughed field!’—the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life.”
This idea would have been quite familiar to the Hebrew writers of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, who agreed that traditional Jewish education led to physical ineptitude, and rebelled against it for that reason. Ozick’s provocation is to reverse the terms of that judgment: for her, the homely soul is desirable, the beautiful body reprehensible. “We are not like them,” says Kornfeld’s pious widow. “Their bodies are more to them than ours are to us. Our books are holy, to them their bodies are holy.”
A novel, according to this puritanical logic, is a book that is really a body—not a book of the Law, but a book that replaces the Law by creating a lying, beautiful, desirable world. Ozick presses this notion to an extreme in “Usurpation (Other People’s Stories),” one of her best and most difficult fictions. The usurpation in question is, first, a kind of plagiarism. The story opens with the narrator, who is more or less Ozick, attending a reading by a writer who is more or less Bernard Malamud, at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. Hearing this writer read a story called “The Magic Crown”—a deliberately uncamouflaged allusion to Malamud’s “The Silver Crown”—leads the narrator to feel that she could do a better job with it, that it was really meant for her.
In Ozick’s version, which goes on to unfold with dream-like illogic, it becomes a story about a crown which grants the wearer immortal literary fame. One of the writers who have worn it in the past, we learn, is Saul Tchernikhovsky, the early twentieth-century Hebrew poet who was notorious for his literary paganism. Tchernikhovsky, in other words, was a writer who defied the moral of “The Pagan Rabbi.” He accepted that secular literature is a kind of idolatry, and therefore a sin, but in a Nietzschean spirit he made that evil his good.
His heavenly reward, Ozick writes in the last paragraph of “Usurpation,” is to get everything he wished for in life: “Tchernikhovsky eats nude at the table of the nude gods, clean-shaven now, his limbs radiant, his youth restored, his sex splendidly erect.... Then the taciturn little Canaanite idols call him, in the language of the spheres, kike.” It is the story’s last word, and it is genuinely shocking, because it turns anti-Semitism and Jewish alienation into cosmic principles. There is no escape, in this world or the next, for the Jewish writer; she is trapped between duty and desire, forever.
The catch, though, is that this despairing rejection of literature is offered in a short story. “When we enter Paradise there will be a cage for story-writers, who will be taught as follows: All that is not Law is levity,” Ozick writes. But she is left in the position of the Cretan liar: to write a story whose message is that stories are frivolous is to raise the suspicion that this message is itself frivolous, because a writer who seriously believed it would not have written the story in the first place. Sometimes Ozick tries, in her fiction and essays, to find a way out of this paradox. The most notable of these is “Toward a New Yiddish,” a talk she delivered in Israel in 1970. Here Ozick proposes that the only honorable course for a Jewish writer is to write in a Jewish language, and since the language of American Jews is English, English can or should become a Jewish language, a “New Yiddish.”
It is not hard to see that this odd suggestion, which Ozick herself later abandoned, served her at the time as a form of psychic revenge on English literature. She announces her “revulsion ... against what is called, strangely, Western Civilization”: “I no longer read much ‘literature.’ I read mainly to find out ... what it is to think as a Jew.” Finally, she makes the wild assertion that “There have been no Jewish literary giants in Diaspora.... there are no major works of Jewish imaginative genius written in any Gentile language, sprung out of any Gentile culture.” The statement is too obviously false to require refutation. What is important is the complex emotion that could have led Ozick to make it in the first place.
It is out of her rage and disappointment with literature—with the specifically Anglo-American tradition of the novel, associated by her with Henry James—that she turns to Jewishness as a subject, an identity, and a vindication. For other writers, Jewishness can be autobiography, sociology, religion, ethics; for Ozick, it is all those things at times, but it is primarily a way to think about, and against, literature. Which means that literature remains the master term of her imagination, even or especially when she is rejecting it.
This explains why nearly all of Ozick’s best fiction is about writers and writing. She alludes to this, ironically, at the beginning of her story “Levitation,” where she refers to “the importance of never writing about writers. Your protagonist always has to be someone real, with real work-in-the-world—a bureaucrat, a banker, an architect ... otherwise you fall into solipsism, narcissism, tedium, lack of appeal-to-the-common-reader; who knew what other perils.” The joke is that “Levitation” is itself a story about a pair of married writers. (They are the ones who believe that you should never write about writers.)
Ozick knows better. Her two masterpieces are the story “Envy, or Yiddish in America” and the short novel The Messiah of Stockholm, and both are about writers—specifically, about thwarted writers. Edelshtein, in “Envy,” is an aging Yiddish poet who is left readerless by the extinction of Yiddish. Its death in Europe was a murder, the result of the Holocaust, but its death in America is more like a case of terminal neglect, as young Jews grow up to speak English instead. “What right had these boys to spit out the Yiddish that had bred them, and only for the sake of Western Civilization?” he fulminates about some young acquaintances. “Edelshtein knew the titles of their Ph.D. theses: literary boys, one was on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the other was on the novels of Carson McCullers.”
Ozick’s master’s thesis was on Henry James, and she is writing this story in English, the usurper language. What allows her to sympathize so deeply with Edelshtein is her bitter knowledge of literary frustration, of the rage of the neglected writer at his feckless non-readers. When Edelshtein meets a young woman who actually knows Yiddish, and begs her to translate his poems, she spits back: “It isn’t a translator you’re after, it’s someone’s soul.” She is right, and Ozick’s readiness to acknowledge this is what makes “Envy” so brilliantly unsentimental, despite the subject’s many temptations to sentiment.
But it is in The Messiah of Stockholm that Ozick offers her most ingenious solution to the perceived incompatibility of Jewishness and literature. Lars Andemening, the story’s protagonist, is a middling literary critic for a Swedish newspaper—another one of Ozick’s frustrated writers. The form his literary longing takes, however, is not to be a great writer himself, but to be the son of one. He is convinced that he is the secret child of Bruno Schulz, a Jewish writer killed in Poland during the Holocaust. (Schulz, incidentally, who wrote in Polish, serves all by himself to refute Ozick’s earlier claim that there have been no Jewish literary geniuses “in any Gentile language.”)
Lars confides his belief, which the reader is inclined to call a fantasy, to an old woman who runs a used bookstore. To Lars’s shock, she introduces him to Adela, who also believes she is Schulz’s child, and who seems to have the proof: she possesses the manuscript of Schulz’s last, lost work, a novel called The Messiah. Schulz really is supposed to have written a book with that name, though it is presumably lost forever. By introducing Schulz’s book into her own, Ozick gives herself the chance to recreate it in her own image—much as she did with Malamud’s story in “Usurpation.”
In Ozick’s version, The Messiah is a bizarre fable, in which the town of Drohobycz—Schulz’s home and the setting for his work—has been totally depopulated, its people replaced by ambulatory idols: “The streets and shops were packed and milling with all these remarkable totems of wood, stone, pottery, silver and gold.” But in the absence of human beings to worship them, the idols are forlorn—until they begin to worship one another, which means sacrificing to one another: “The town was on fire, idols burning up idols in a frenzy of mutual adoration.” Through the dark glass of this parable, we can see Ozick’s oldest concerns at work. The empty town is a vision of the Holocaust, which really did annihilate the Jews of Drohobycz; the idols are a fantastic rebus for literature itself, which survives in a ruined world by engaging in sterile self-admiration. Yet the masterstroke in Ozick’s fable is that the Messiah, when he finally comes, is also a book, a book that is at the same time a horribly living body:
Its locomotion was dimly frightening, but also somewhat hobbled and limited: it had several hundred winglike sails that tossed themselves either clockwise or counterclockwise, like the arms of a windmill. But these numerous “arms” were, rather, more nearly flippers—altogether flat, freckled all over with inky markings, and reminiscent, surely, of turning pages.... When examined with extreme attention ... the inky markings showed themselves to be infinitely tiny and brilliantly worked drawings of those same idols that had taken hold of the town of Drohobycz. It was now clear that Drohobycz had been invaded by the characters of an unknown alphabet.
Literature, in this vision, is not the enemy of redemption; it is a mistaken, aborted apprehension of redemption, which worships the parts of a greater whole because it does not know they are meant to be only parts. It is not necessary to reject “Western civilization,” or the secular literature that Ozick never really did forsake. One must only to refuse to idolize it, by recognizing that there is an inconceivably greater and more comprehensive reality. At the end of Ozick’s fable, the book-Messiah gives birth to a bird, which proceeds to touch the idols and dissolve them. Having grown too proud, having served their purpose, the idols of the imagination are humbled and dismissed.
This extended passage, with its nightmarish atmosphere, serves as a kind of catharsis in Ozick’s work. For Lars, however, the problem is to decide whether to trust its wisdom—that is, whether to believe that the manuscript Adela has shown him really is the work of Bruno Schulz. Dr. Eklund, who claims to have smuggled the manuscript out of Poland, assures Lars of its authenticity. But when Lars sees Eklund take Adela by the shoulders and put his forehead against hers, he has a sudden intuition: such an intimate gesture means that they must know each other, that they must be closer than Lars had believed. “Something had been compounded between them,” he muses, and all at once he realizes that Eklund is really Adela’s father—which means that Adela has no connection to Schulz, and that he is the victim of an elaborate con. Enraged, he seizes the manuscript and sets it on fire.
The scene is highly reminiscent, but not of Schulz. It is an allusion to, or a reincarnation of, two famous moments in the novels of Henry James. In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer sees her husband, Gilbert Osmond, remain seated in the presence of Madame Merle—a breach of etiquette from which she begins to deduce that they are lovers. In The Ambassadors, Lambert Strether runs into Chad Newsome and Madame de Vionnet boating in the country, and suddenly realizes that their friendship is not, as he had been led to believe, a platonic one. The Ambassadors, of course, is the book that Ozick says she kept on her desk while writing her first novel. With this allusion, Ozick’s relation to Henry James comes full circle. His ghost, first adored, then feared and hated, can be readmitted to her fiction on friendly terms, now that it has been vanquished.
Foreign Bodies, Ozick’s new novel, is a coda to this family romance of the intellect. It often reads, in fact, like a review of themes and characters from across Ozick’s body of work, giving it a slightly melancholy, almost valedictory feeling. Bea Nightingale, the novel’s middle-aged and divorced schoolteacher heroine, could be a cousin of Ruth Puttermesser, the middle-aged, unmarried, civil-servant heroine of The Puttermesser Papers. Bea remembers her parents’ little hardware store in terms that echo “A Drug Store Eden,” Ozick’s memoir of her own parents’ little drugstore. Alfred Chester surfaces as a minor character in the novel, complete with “yellow wig ... wobbling on his shiny pate.” One of the settings is a refugee resettlement office in Paris, on Rue des Rosiers, the main street of the Jewish quarter in the Marais; and in The Cannibal Galaxy, the father of Joseph Brill, that novel’s Franco-Jewish protagonist, has a fish shop on Rue des Rosiers. Lili, the frail but nurturing Holocaust survivor who works in the refugee office, is a version of Rosa, the mother who suckles her baby during a death march in Ozick’s unforgettable story “The Shawl.” When Bea reflects, “Sometimes an ambassador serves as a spy, sometimes a spy is appointed ambassador,” there is a faint allusion to Trust: Enoch Vand is, literally, a spy who is appointed an ambassador.
And, in the end as in the beginning, there is Henry James and The Ambassadors. In Foreign Bodies, Ozick does not imitate or parody James so much as she turns him inside out. James’s novel begins when Lambert Strether, a refined but ineffectual New England WASP, arrives in Europe to bring back young Chad Newsome, the heir to an American fortune, who has taken up with an unsuitable Frenchwoman. Ozick’s novel begins with Bea Nightingale coming back to America, having failed to make contact with her nephew Julian in Paris, where he has similarly strayed. To drive home the point that she is writing as an anti-James, Ozick makes sure to include, on the very first page, a glaring grammatical error: “I did the best I could to track him down—tried all the places you said he might be working at.” Ozick is no more likely than James to mar her prose with a dangling preposition. She means us to notice how different the forthright Bea is from the reverberant Strether.
The differences continue with their respective targets. Chad Newsome is improved—morally, socially, aesthetically—by his life in Paris, and by his affair with Madame de Vionnet. It is because Strether sees this so vividly that he is eventually seduced away from his mission and becomes the defender of Chad’s rebellion. From our first glimpse of Ozick’s Julian Nachtigall, on the other hand, he appears as a revolting slob: “Inner life? The boy was no better than a savage. He was surprisingly plump, even his eyelids, swollen pink and fat as petals. A random drop hung from the tip of his broad nose. The stretched nostrils dripped mucus.”
Eventually, though, Julian does show improvement in Paris, enough to convince Bea that she should help him escape the power of his father, her brother Marvin. Marvin has kept the original family name, which Bea has Anglicized. In every other respect, however, he is a dedicated social climber: he goes to Princeton, marries a blue-blooded WASP, and makes a fortune in business in southern California. “How happy he would have been,” Bea says, “... to have been sired by a Bourbon, or even a Borgia. A Lowell or an Eliot would have done nearly as well.” Marvin’s sin, in other words, is to want to join the very class that Henry James always wrote about, the class to which Chad Newsome belongs.
When it comes to writing, Ozick is quite willing to brave James’s snobbery and assert her equal rights to the English language. But Marvin’s arrivisme is not an assertion of equality; it is a plea for acceptance, which means an admission of inferiority. It must be punished, and Ozick makes the punishment fit the crime: as Marvin flees Jewishness, his son Julian embraces it—literally, for the Madame de Vionnet figure in Foreign Bodies is Lili, the survivor, whom Julian secretly marries. To Marvin, the idea of losing his American prince to a Jewish refugee is intolerable: “I know what’s coming, I’ve seen the films like everybody else, and I can’t have one of those, not in my own family.”
Yet Bea comes to realize that Lili is just the education that Julian needs. An American, he must be educated in Jewishness; spoiled and rich, he must be educated in suffering. “Little by little he was becoming another Julian,” Ozick explains. “He had married a woman who was teaching him the knowledge of death.” By the end of Foreign Bodies, his moral sense has been stung into wakefulness, and he even talks about studying theology. Here is Ozick’s latest overturning of the Jamesian scale of values. Chad Newsome needed the love of a rich French woman in order to become a gentleman; but Julian Nachtigall needs the love of a destitute Jewish woman to become, for want of a better word, a mensch.
Ozick is by no means blind to the fact that, in both cases, the woman is only an accessory to the moral career of a man. To see Ozick’s fiction as primarily concerned with the ethics of literature and Jewish identity makes her sound not just like a “writer’s writer,” but a Jewish writer’s writer—a narrow niche, though not for that reason an unimportant one. The truth, however, is that Ozick is just as engaged with a much larger, even universal cause. She is as sharply perceptive about feminist questions as she is about Jewish ones.
Ozick has been ambivalent about the development of feminism—“more and more, women are urged to think of themselves in tribal terms, as if anatomy were the same as culture,” she complained in Ms. in 1977—but there can be no doubt that she is one of the most authentically feminist writers of her time. And her understanding of what it means to be a woman, like her understanding of what it means to be a Jew, is shaped centrally by her experience as a writer—by the allure and frustration of the literary calling. In her early story “An Education,” a young woman’s scholarly career is destroyed by her naïve admiration for a fraudulent male genius. In the strange, sad story “Puttermesser Paired,” the middle-aged Ruth Puttermesser’s attempt to model her life on George Eliot’s goes disastrously awry, as she is forced to replay Eliot’s sexual humiliation at the hands of a younger man. And in “Dictation,” the female secretaries of Henry James and Joseph Conrad conspire to transpose passages from their employers’ new books. This prank is the only way they can imagine to “leav[e] behind an immutable mark—an everlasting sign that they lived, they felt, they acted!”
It is every writer’s ambition—but for many women such a self-assertion must be made in the face of strong imperatives to helpfulness and self-effacement, not to mention the claims of marriage and children. This is surely why, whenever female schoolteachers appear in Ozick’s fiction, she writes about them with an odd contempt: they represent the fate that could have claimed her, the fate of sensibility subdued to usefulness. That is what happens to Bea Nightingale, who marries Leo Coopersmith, an ambitious young composer, and becomes a teacher—temporarily, as she thinks—in order to support him. At their very first meeting, when Bea confides her ambition to Leo—“I want to make my mark in the world”—he tells her, “You’re well on your way to being a run-of-the-mill high school teacher. English lit, possibly—all that sensibility.” At the end of Foreign Bodies, when Leo, now a middle-aged Hollywood hack, finally composes a real symphony, he sends the score to Bea, and she feels triumphant: “It was a gift—a kind of gift. Leo’s mind! It was the thing she had hoped for, long ago.”
But if serving as a handmaiden to art is Bea’s victory, it could never have satisfied Ozick. Here, too, it is possible to trace the genealogy of her passions back to Henry James, and to “The Lesson of the Master.” In that story, Paul Overt tries to argue with Henry St. George’s verdict that “an artist shouldn’t marry”: “Not even when his wife’s in sympathy with his work?” But St. George will not allow it: “Women haven’t a conception of such things.” The role of the woman, James suggests, is not to create beauty but to embody it, the way Miss Fancourt—the woman Overt loves and St. George marries—embodies it: “real success was to resemble that, to live, to bloom ... not to have hammered out headachy fancies with a bent back at an ink-stained table.” It is one more lesson of the master that Ozick had to defy in order to become a master herself.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the March 24, 2011, issue of the magazine.