Literary Lilliputians

9 Dec

On occasion I am moved or even compelled to offer the world my thoughts on a book or author through the vanishing portal of a daily newspaper book review (apparently the odds are even as to which will be extinct first).Such was the case recently, when the San Francisco Chronicle published my 700 word take on Cynthia Ozick’s sixth and most recent novel, Foreign Bodies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

That piece begins

In the roiling pond that is American culture, the enterprise of book reviewing has become degraded, if not an anachronism, not in the least because literary giants like Cynthia Ozick are regularly judged and denigrated by critical pygmies (like myself).

Since I offered my 2 cents on the matter , as a matter of course, I looked around the barren wilds of daily newspaper publishing (and elsewhere )to see what my literary peers and betters had to say on the matter. As it turns out Ed Champion, he of the provocatively named web journal Ed Champion’s Reluctant Habits did something of a roundup of the Foreign Bodies commentaries taking to task three reviewers and referring to my apparently singular view.

This may have the appearance of good old fashioned log rolling as was once prevalent with the cabal (they know who they are) controlling Internet literary journalism but I can assure those readers concerned with integrity and such matters, no money of promise of favors was exchanged. But I digress.

In typically boneheaded fashion I only thought to inquire of Ms Ozick on the matter of the Jamesian influence on her latest novel after publishing my own humble offering to the vast literary hordes roaming the American cultural tundra. To which, happily, she kindly replied,explicating the matter with fine Ozickian clarity in and in good humor:

…As for The Ambassadors, the plot — wayward young man leaving his family to try something new — must be about five thousand years older than James’s use of it; it’s there for the taking, and James took it. What I was really interested in was what’s come to be called his “international theme,” Europe vs. America, and the reversal Europe has undergone since James was enchanted by its capital-C Civilization, the paintings, the sculptures, the ancient cathedrals, the old aristocracies, the elegance, the sophistication, the subtleties of manners, etc. All that was magic for him, but for us, after Hitler and the Second World War and its devastations and mass atrocities, Europe looks a lot different, and worse. A glowing jewel in James’s mind can be a scowling skull in ours. Foreign Bodies says all that outright, I think, and maybe it was a mistake to mention The Ambassadors in the first place. It’s brought on too many empty efforts of one-on-one matching, viz., Hey you, why didn’t you replicate James’s Hourglass Structure? Hey you, why is your Julian so sulky, when James’s Chad Newsome is so charming? Robert, truly, you’ve missed nothing!!

So there

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One Response to “Literary Lilliputians”

  1. Howard Dinin December 10, 2010 at 2:26 am #

    Robert: I assure you, that is, I reinforce what Ms. Ozick has kindly explained, anyone who has read James (in any number of novels, not merely The Ambassadors) and who has also been to modern-day, i.e., post-World War II, Europe knows she describes matters accurately. Which is to say, why did this come up in the first place? It’s pretty to think that we can somehow capture some sense of the Europe that James (and Wharton) write about by hopping over and immersing ourselves. But one, we haven’t got the dough, or, alternatively, the connections. And two, I don’t believe the rich behave that way any more. Things probably got modern for them before it did for us. For the same reason. I don’t know who Ms. Ozick is writing about (literally, I haven’t read the book), but if they are denizens of the same stratum as James depicts, any concern about her character as compared to Chad Newsome is to miss that the latter is hardly the most interesting character in The Ambassadors. So the more interesting question is, why she even mentions him?

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