A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Cynthia Ozick: Foreign Bodies

with 3 comments

There are few things nicer than discovering a great writer with an extensive back catalogue to explore. It’s like meeting an exciting new friend — someone you click with instantly and know will be the source of lots of sparky conversations and raucous fun.

So when I read an interview with Cynthia Ozick in the Guardian books section’s ‘A life in writing’ series, I had high hopes that she might be an addition to my virtual circle. The standfirst quote about writing was enough to reel me in on its own: ‘You have to be a fanatic, you have to be a crank to keep going, but what else would you do with the rest of your life? You gotta do something’.

Here was an author I could get on board with, I thought. So I downloaded Ozick’s latest, Foreign Bodies, and settled down ready to be enthralled.

Sad to report, things didn’t go quite according to plan. For one thing, I found Ozick’s plot threadbare, centring as it does around an ageing literature teacher, Bea, who lives in a New York appartement hemmed in by her ex-husband’s grand piano, until one day she receives a letter from her estranged brother instructing her to go to post-war Paris to winkle his graduate son out of an extended period of drifting. Thereafter, she receives a series of letters and instructions from various members of the family. These she obeys (at least in part), until she is finally thrown into the path of her ex-husband, who turns out to be less successful than his reputation suggests.

Perhaps I suffered from not knowing Henry James’s The Ambassadors, which Ozick claims to have inverted to construct her book, but I’ve always been a believer that works of art should stand on their own without supplementary reading. Extra research can add lots of valuable layers, but truly great books are believable and engrossing to anyone who picks them up.

In this case, I found it hard to buy into Bea’s grudging obedience to her relatives’ demands. ‘Why are you bothering?’ I found myself asking the the Kindle screen as it presented me with page after page of Bea’s complaints about having to rearrange her classes and the fact that her brother Marvin has always been far too used to getting his way.

This wasn’t the only problem. Because of the book’s heavy reliance on letters, there’s a strangely performative feel to a lot of the correspondence. Characters are obliged to rehearse information that would be obvious to both parties for the sake of the reader, giving some of the exchanges an oddly wooden feel. There is also the difficulty of certain hidden information being peeled back from several perspectives, forcing the narrative to retread the same ground several times.

Where secrets are revealed well, however, they’re corkers. Bea’s discovery of the true medium of Marvin’s wife Margaret’s ‘art’, for example, is masterfully managed. So is the moment when Lili reveals the true reasons for the distress that seems bound up with her dismissal.

Such writerly sleights of hand, combined with striking flashes such as the astonishing description of Bea’s waking up to a snowy morning in New York, make me feel that I would like to get to know Ozick better. Perhaps it’s time to do some digging into her biography and weed out her best work. As far as naming her my new literary best friend is concerned though, we’ve got some way to go yet.

Picture by asterix611

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Written by Ann Morgan

August 2, 2011 at 12:09 pm

3 Responses

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  1. As far as finding a friend in a writer, I very definitely felt I had that with Elizabeth Bowen. I felt this when I first read her wonderful The Last September, which I followed up with The Heat of the Day, easily its equal. However, the relationship has had a little dip recently in the wake of The Death of the Heart, which I didn’t get to nearly the same extent. I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about Bowen, though, if you were to add her to the reading list.

    louche

    August 5, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    • Hi – hope you’re well and enjoying the summer (such as it is). I read Bowen’s The Heat of the Day some years ago and remember enjoying the overall feel of the book, although little of the specifics stick in my mind. Perhaps it’s time to tackle The Last September…

      londonchoirgirl

      August 6, 2011 at 8:57 am

  2. That’s too bad. I’ve heard an interview she gave about the novel and it sounded interesting, although not so interesting that I jumped up to buy it. Maybe I’ll try her fiction someday, but right now I’m just not drawn to it.

    Dorothy W.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:19 pm


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