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Friday, 3 May 2013

Book review: Foreign Bodies, Cynthia Ozick (2010)

Ozick's book is set in the 50s. But does that dialogue really match the era? Hard to say. Nevertheless, it's a great read; about a sociopathic father-of-two, his children who get away from his obsessive personality by travelling to Paris, his sister (the primary protagonist), her musician ex-husband, and the children's mother, who lives in an exclusive rest-home but who choses it rather than live with her husband, Marvin.

The book's title might seem to refer to the fact that Marvin's son Julian chooses to live the life of a drifter in Paris and then gets involved with an older Romanian emigree, Lili; how Marvin copes - or, in fact, doesn't cope - with this severe (to him) reality forms one emotional pole of the book. But it's also to do with the fact of Marvin's own Jewish background - his parents both Ukranian immigrants to the US, where they ran a hardware store in New York - and his lifelong effort to distance himself from it.

While Marvin sits at the root of the racial and class intolerance that suffuses this fascinating book, Ozick tells us we should also remember his own journey, which she illustrates by showing aspects of his life during the days he lived in a college fraternity surrounded by entitled, condescending preppy youths who accepted him into their community only insofar as he could help them with their homework. It's there that he met Margaret, the sister of the scion of one of those old New England families Marvin aspired to resemble, because they represented, for him, a kind of earthly power and privilege. It's clear that Margaret's family never approved of this match with a Jew with a hard-to-pronounce name, but Marvin ignored the cold reception they doled out and went on to make money in the aerospace industry in California; money absolves Marvin to a large degree, in his own eyes, of the indignity of possessing a foreign name and a Jewish ancestry.

There are so many interesting things in this book; Julian's stubborn silences, for example. A sensitive and creative young man, Julian despises his father's single-minded focus on worldly success. In Lili, who speaks several languages and grew up in privilege in Bucharest, he finds a sophistication that his own family signally lacked. Ozick has a tendency toward American exceptionalism, of course, and there are many references to Julian's being so "American" during his appearances, when it might have been wiser to say he had come from the New World, but Ozick made her job hard by locating the story in the 50s, a decade when the US had just survived victory in WWII and when its policymakers found it incumbent upon themselves to "do something" about a Europe that had been utterly devastated by war, and that also now faced the threat of the USSR's creeping imperialism. The stuff of legend. So it seems justified - if not palatable - for the author to claim some form of credit for her compatriots alive at the time, that they perhaps did not deserve; other countries, such as Australia and Canada, also contributed usefully to the reconstruction of Europe, and welcomed so many Jewish immigrants to their shores in those years.

In the book, everyone is affected by Marvin's self-destructive insistence upon a set of values that only work to alienate him from those close to him, including Iris, his daughter. A promising chemistry major, Iris also escapes to Paris, where she pairs up with a man, an American, who made the city his home after leaving the armed forces. Once again, it's the Other, the foreign and strange, that attracts and keeps a young American away from her domestic obligations. As for Bea, the go-between and the primary character in the book, there is the old matter of her odd ex-husband, the composer Leo, who made his own escape from penury in New York, again to California, where he has made a career writing music for movie scores. So it's not just Europe-America, but also it's the internal US East Coast-West Coast axis that forms an aesthetic polarity generating a locus of contrast that gestures back to the book's title. And there's also the here-and-now of 2013 and the "then" of the 50s doing the same thing.

Amid all these interconnecting strands of themes and references Ozick sits like a fat spider in a web she herself weaves using her distinctive impressionistic and anti-grammatical language.

Particularly for me, the book has threads that link to my own life as the son of the son of an immigrant to the New World, whose father's feeling towards his own father were deeply problematic, and were coloured also by notions of foreignness, intolerance  and belonging. Like Marvin, my father married into the ethnic mainstream - my mother was the "girl next-door", he used to say - and strove to achieve financial independence in an effort to distance himself from the less refined cultural elements he found in Australia. Like Julian, I rejected my father's attachment to purely material substance and went overseas to marry - in my case a Japanese - and so did my brother - in his case an American. A country that legalistically accepts foreigners within its borders may never be able to offer them real repose, at least not until the rougher edges of selfhood and nativism have been rubbed off, in the second and third generations, through prolonged proximity. And through the discovery of self by means other than by unimaginatively centering the individual's identity within simplistic ethnic imperatives; art, for instance, or money. Or, as in Ozick's case, both art and money.

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