The ambassador

In dark mirroring of James’s novel, a bullied woman, sent to Paris to bring an errant nephew home, finds herself

Bullied into seeming worm status is Cynthia Ozick’s Bea Nightingale, fiftyish, English teacher to high school louts, deviser when young of frail fantasies, and in the habit of deferring to brazenly assertive men. One is her brother Marvin, a boorish tycoon; the other, Leo, the musician husband who exploits her, calls her a loser, and leaves her to pursue his musical immortality.

Theirs are fantasies too, bristling with firepower but ultimately much frailer. Leo will end up ingloriously composing movie music in Hollywood; Marvin ends broken in the wreckage he inflicts on those around him. Whereas Bea, whose deference harbors a seed of independence — in this serviceable woman there is something that will not serve — is the worm that turns. Not dramatically, because in Ozick’s grimly witty geodesics the world is wormhole-shaped. Whatever Bea’s turnings, she is confined inside it. Hers is liberating insight not liberating action.

Bea attempts to take a week’s holiday in Paris, but it is preempted by Marvin’s imperious demand that she seek out his son, Julian, who has been there for months, out of touch and no doubt wasting his time. The mission mirrors Henry James’s “The Ambassadors,” where Lambert Strether is sent by his wealthy fiancée (as imperious as Marvin) to retrieve her son, Chad, from entanglement with a Frenchwoman.

The mirror is black glass. Ozick admires James, but her parallel in “Foreign Bodies” is used to strike a harsh contrast in a contemporary world far grittier and more real. James’s Paris was a cultural idyll; Ozick possesses too tragic a sense of Europe’s recent history to romanticize it; her Paris, set in the grim postwar 1950s, has not a trace of illusion.

No old mellow vistas; simply decrepit age. As an American, Bea finds everything looks oddly wrong. “Even the light seemed out of kilter . . . it fell out of a sky so much smaller, so much older: an old old sky, drooling wrinkled clouds.” The week Bea spends going from café to café looking in vain for Julian is lethally hot (nobody sweats in James). But Ozick, whose frequent comedy is in the service of the world’s tragedies, performs a deeper undermining of the idyll.

The young Americans who hang out in the cafés think of themselves as expatriates “though they were little more than literary tourists on a long visit besotted with legends of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.” In contrast there were the real expatriates: the refugees from the horrors that Eastern Europe was going through. “They were not postwar,” Ozick writes. “[T]he war was still in them.” And Paris was the way-station of their pain. “It was a city to get away from.”

Bea, who has abandoned the search and gone back to New York, is harassed by brutally abusive letters from Marvin; before long she returns briefly to Paris where she locates the curtly unwelcoming Julian and Lili, the shattered Romanian refugee whom he has married. It is an abrading confrontation, but the pain is a transforming ordeal, one that serves oddly to release Bea’s chained sensibility from the arrogant spell that Marvin and Leo, in different ways, have exercised upon her.

Bea’s first reaction to the Paris ménage is anguish. Julian is utterly passive, living on his father’s increasingly grudging support, and without plans for his future. His only passionate need is for his wife; and it is in Bea’s shifting view of Lili that Ozick’s performs her radical and absorbing reworking of the Jamesian Europe-America theme. Lili has escaped from Romania after her husband and child were killed by gunfire; she bears a deforming bullet hole in the arm. At first, Bea takes her possessiveness with the childlike Julian, her bristling defensiveness, her request that Bea intercede with Marvin for support, as the mark of a gold-digger. Only gradually do Lili’s words begin to germinate: “I do him good.”

In fact, Julian, aimless and unfit, needs her fierce care. And he needs more. With Lili he has become something other than a young American spoiled by privilege. “The old babyish drama was still there — look how he’d wasted all those dollars! But he had married a woman who was teaching him the knowledge of death.” And Bea comes to see Lili, bereft of so much, as someone without illusions and nurturing what she has. Later when she and Julian come briefly to New York and Bea asks him what he plans to do, Lili replies: “No. Julian must be. I will do.” For her it means a series of dead-end office jobs, no doubt, while Julian ponders and drifts. “She is used to everything,” Bea thinks. “The world is as it is.”

Scarred Europe, unscarred if not innocent America with — witness Marvin and Leo — its own megalomanias. And for Bea, after her painful buffetings and futile efforts to act, her hard journey and its lessons have detached her from Marvin’s abusive demands and the hold that Leo, despite his long abandonment, still had on her. They are hothouse American concerns, trivial when set against the icy blast of the world’s sufferings.

Ozick is a craggy writer, with strenuous climbs, momentary slides and startling views. Some of Bea’s confrontations, feeling out her new independence back in the United States, seem contrived, even stagy. But her vision of Europe and its tragic history is profound; and Lili is a creation of stunning depth. It is not Jamesian, it is Ozickian.

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at  

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