Foreign Bodies

Foreign Bodies
Cynthia Ozick
Atlantic Books, 272pp, £16.99

Perhaps the cruellest fate you could visit on any new novel would be to stand it next to Henry James's much-loved and equally loathed late novel The Ambassadors. But Cynthia Ozick's Foreign Bodies, which invites the comparison, looks especially hunched, flimsy and knock-kneed. Ozick is the author of a number of admiring and somewhat anxious essays about her relationship to James, and she has now written a tribute (I think) to the novel that James considered his best. It emphasises, by way of contrast, the earlier book's ingenuity, shrewdness and joy.

Ozick takes the structure of James's parochial tale - one character is "notoriously" not from Boston - and gives it a cosmopolitan, postwar spin. In the summer of 1952, Bea Nightingale, a divorced Jewish schoolteacher in New York, is asked by her boorish and foul-mouthed brother Marvin, a businessman based in California, to fetch his son Julian from Paris; much as James's middle-aged widower Lambert Strether is des­patched by his benefactress and unofficial fiancée, the widow Mrs Newsome, to locate her son Chad from Paris and restore him to Woollett, Massachusetts.

James's novel is (initially, at least) a sort of metaphysical detective story in which Strether and his intuitive and worldly younger sidekick, a fellow Bostonian called Maria Gostrey, attempt to deduce the reason for Chad's extended holiday and the unexpected improvement of his character. This European sojourn activates in Strether a peeling of the senses and a repealing of entrenched habits that renders him at once a new man and a useless emissary.

Ozick's Bea is similarly brought back to life, but it's hard to say why. Strether's reawakening in The Ambassadors is spurred partly by his friendship with characters (Maria Gostrey, Little Bilham, Miss Barrace) who have no equivalents in the new book, and partly by his observation of the great changes that living in Europe has made in Chad. In Ozick's version, Bea's nephew is living the feckless existence his father fears. Bea decides "he was no better than a savage"; when Strether, for his part, cannot decide whether Chad is a pagan or a gentleman, his creator makes one of his occasional inter­jections to inform us that it didn't "spring up helpfully for him that a person couldn't at the same time be both". It is unclear what benefit Ozick derives from rejecting James's surprise development (newfound goodness) in favour of the expected one (decadence and decline). Similarly, a reader would be forgiven for wondering about Ozick's decision to remove the detail of Chad's inheritance, which gives him crucial freedom from his mother: Julian's father is funding and therefore perpetuating the holiday he orders his sister to curtail.

Despite her alterations to the formula, Ozick wants her East Coast pilgrim to be rejuvenated by her European visit. Yet her attempt to account for this development lacks the crucial element of causality: "She thought: I will change my life . . . she had witnessed shiftings, mutiny, young rebels in flight. The crisis of the untried, the past defied. Turnings!" James, by contrast, is careful to have Strether identify the changes he feels in terms that are broader than the mere intrepid or abandoned impulse of youth. Just as there is detachment in Strether's zeal and "curiosity in his indifference", so there is precision in his vagueness:

I don't get drunk; I don't pursue the ladies; I don't spend money; I don't even write sonnets. But, nevertheless, I'm making up late for what I didn't have early. I cultivate my little benefit in my own little way.

It amuses me more than anything that has happened to me in all my life.

Ozick's taste for the Jamesian scenario appears to be stronger than her taste for Jamesian method. It was James's view that the action of any novel should be confined to "but one centre": a character's consciousness rendered in the third person, the detail being accrued by a ravenous eye and then turned over in a buzzing brain. Ozick's decision to allow herself a greater number of narrative options results in the very things that James avoided - bald exposition and dramatic irony.

James's storytelling method is also condu­cive to an even tone and a pervasive mental atmosphere, but Ozick moves between the various interior idioms of the characters and occasionally lurches for no discernible reason into authorial, 21st-century remoteness ("In America on Thanksgiving Day it is always easy to travel"). The Ambassadors is an exquisite, well-appointed novel, but it is by no means spotless. And when Ozick talks of "bodily congress", or describes Jean-Paul Sartre as "that abettor of the worst", or identifies a clinic as "that sumptuous vacuous mausoleum for the living", she exhibits the Master's steadfast refusal to call a spade a spade - lexical overexertion being just about the only trait she shares, in this book, with the writer she so much admires and so little resembles. l

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide