"How hard it is to change one’s life. How terrifyingly simple to change the lives of others.” Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies probes these perceptions through the character of Bea Nightingale, a middle-aged teacher in Fifties New York.
Bea has been bullied by at least two men in her life. Her brief marriage to the aspirant composer Leo Coopersmith was never on equal terms. Their small apartment was dominated by his grand piano: “She had never once touched it, except (obviously!) to dust the legs.” She always felt that Leo’s strong ambitions were “nothing like her own insubstantial fantasies”.
Since the end of her marriage, Bea has become vulnerable to her wealthy brother Marvin’s demands. The novel opens with a testy exchange of letters between the siblings over Bea’s recent failure to find Marvin’s son in Paris.
“If you haven’t got any family feeling, why not a little family responsibility?” he asks Bea, insisting she return to Paris immediately to try again to discover his son’s whereabouts. “Don’t tell me about your so-called job, they’ll never miss you.”
Like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and countless other illustrious or obscure, real or fictional, Americans in Paris, Bea is fascinated by the city’s old-world beauty and squalor.
Ozick carefully situates her character in “a damaged but somehow hilarious Paris”, still recovering from the Second World War, with the sound of “raucous bullying American laughter in the midst of the debris”.
Bea eventually locates both her nephew, Julian, and her niece, Iris, squatting in a quack doctor’s fifth-floor apartment, together with Lili, a Romanian refugee with a tragic past. Both Marvin’s children condescend to Bea, while simultaneously trying to enlist her help in evading their father’s wishes.
Back in the US, Bea visits Marvin’s estranged wife, Margaret, in a lavish mental institution in California: “the mild madwoman mildly incarcerated was all at once taking on a kind of sanity: it swept over Bea that it was the sanity of illumination”.
Noticing that Marvin’s wife and his children have resorted to running away, Bea still persists in trying to challenge or subvert her brother’s will to power, through her needling letters.
Ozick succeeds in making Marvin more than a monster. She conveys vividly his fear of being alone; his sense of having been betrayed by all the people closest to him; his attempts to use money to dominate the people he loves.
He is amusing too, in a bluntly boorish way: “Bea, I haven’t the goddamnest idea of what the hell you’re talking about. Kierkegaard, what’s that? Sounds like a deodorant, which is to say the whole thing smells as far as I’m concerned. I’ve stopped payment on the cheque, so that’s that.”
Bea’s involvement in the lives of Marvin, his wife and their children evolves into a contorted attempt to free herself from the wreckage of her own marriage. The novel ends with an unanswerable rhetorical question: “In the long, long war with Leo, wasn’t it Bea who’d won?”
Foreign Bodies suggests that there are no real winners in interpersonal conflicts, any more than in international wars: just victims and displaced persons. The worthwhile struggles are internal: and these are the hardest of all.