Among the advantages of the iPad or other e-reader is that no great book need ever again suffer the sad fate of my paperback copy of "Art and Ardor" by Cynthia Ozick. The essay collection was published in 1983, but by the time it came to me, plucked from a bookstore's bargain bin, two decades had passed and damage had been done.
Heartless fiend that I am, I only added to the book's woes by reading it heedlessly, voraciously, repeatedly. At this point, the cover hangs by a failing shred and the ecstatically thumbed pages are stained with coffee, chocolate and the salty residue from concentration-enhancing (or so I've been told) peanuts. The book is, quite literally, being read to death.
That sort of passion might seem odd when directed toward Ozick, whose work is not always invitingly easy. A disciple of Henry James, she writes about serious people engaged in serious business — the business, for instance, of deciding how life should be lived. Her previous novels include the brilliant and heartbreaking "Heir to the Glimmering World" (2004). Her essays tend to be about authors such as T.S. Eliot, Isaac Babel, Saul Bellow, Thomas Hardy and Salman Rushdie — not exactly sunny walks in the park.
But in "Foreign Bodies," her sixth novel, a sort of inside-out version of the James novel "The Ambassadors" (1903), the quality that makes Ozick so appealing is on vivid display: She employs the lightest and loveliest of sentences to express the densest and thorniest of meanings. You can get all misty-eyed over her prose and still know that its truths are tough as iron.
The year is 1952. Bea Nightingale, a divorced, middle-age high school English teacher in New York, takes a brief trip to Paris at the request of her overbearing brother Marvin. The mission: to find her vagabond nephew, Marvin's son Julian. Once there, and on a subsequent visit, Bea finds something else: an emotional tangle involving the listless Julian, his mysterious new wife, his sister Iris, and, from back in the United States, the increasingly agitated missives of Marvin.
Told partially through letters, and partially through the self-justifying ruminations of Bea and others, "Foreign Bodies" has a kind of narrative wanderlust about it. The scene shifts from New York to Paris to California. Here is Bea aboard a plane: "The windows were black, the shades pulled down. Many of the passengers were asleep, their faces turned childlike under the dim cabin lights. The body of the plane vibrated like a tuning fork, obedient to the pulsing of the great engine quartet. In a matter of hours they would be escaping the night, outrunning it to cross into the ruddy seam of late afternoon."
Here again is Bea, awakening in her New York apartment on a winter morning: "The panes were obscured by starry patterns of crystal. Snow! In the street, humps of whiteness at the curbs, the few cars inching cautiously against a beating slant of white wind."
There are significant issues dealt with in "Foreign Bodies" — freedom and responsibility, exile and return, expectation and disappointment, forgiveness and retribution, truth and falsehood, as well as the Holocaust-led horrors of the 20th century — but they glide in on the backs of gorgeous sentences, like scowling philosophers astride lithe and graceful swans.