Foreign Bodies, By Cynthia Ozick

Ambassadors are, by definition, foreign bodies. Thus does Cynthia Ozick announce her debt to Henry James. Like that dry-stick Lambert Strether (in The Ambassadors), in this novel Bea Nightingale – herself no blooming rose – has been deputed to rescue an errant youth, her nephew, from the flesh-pots of Gay Paree. The deputiser is her estranged brother Marvin Nachtigall. Though the better Jew, it is Bea who has anglicised the family name.

To Marvin's way of thinking, Bea has no life in New York. And he has a point: formerly married to Leo Coopersmith, a composer manque, she is the unwilling custodian of his ersatz Steinway, and remains stuck in the dead-end teaching job she only took to support him. Anyway, she does her brother's bidding.

As it turns out, the boy – Julian, rather than Chad Newsome – is doing OK, and the rescuer is really in need of rescuing. Pollinated by Paris, James's Strether proclaims his new credo: "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life." For Bea, as for Strether, this eye-opener has arrived a little late in the day, but not so late as to prevent her answering her jocular question – "To Bea or not to Bea" – with a positive. (Shakespeare is another of the text's bald eminences.)

She dumps the piano and crosses the continent to visit Leo – now a maestro of Hollywood soundtracks. There she thumps not him, but the strings of his precious Bluthner: an inchoate sound that – oh, irony – inspires him to compose his first symphony.

Though written with a light hand, Foreign Bodies is no comedy of manners, being set in 1952, when Hitler's ovens were still in the process of cooling down, and revenants were haunting the Marais. To the unsympathetic locals these living ghosts, these displaced persons, these Jews, remained forever alien, unwelcome foreign bodies.

In her essay, "What Henry James Knew", Ozick asserts that "hidden knowings" proliferate in his later work, and that each tale "penetrates – or decodes – the teller". The same goes for Foreign Bodies. One of its most telling "hidden knowings" concerns an apparently minor character known only as Alfred. But his description – in particular his spectacular yellow wig – identifies him unmistakably as Alfred Chester.

Don't let the name fool you. He was a Jew from Brooklyn. As a matter of fact, he and Ozick were fellow-students in a creative writing class at NYU. By which time he was already burdened with his signature wig. A childhood disease – some say scarlet fever – had mutated into alopecia.

What distinguished Henry James, Ozick concluded in her essay on the writer, was his hard-won ability not to glimpse but to gaze directly into the "abyss of knowing too much". Judging by the existential nightmares that appeared under his name in a magazine called Botteghe Oscure, Alfred Chester did this with binoculars. His challenge is that Gallic variant on Hamlet's big question: Being or Nothingness?

Like the majority of Ozick's cast, the fictional Alfred is a stranger in his own skin, a lost soul in a foreign body. In Paris, the real Alfred Chester fell in love with an Israeli pianist. Back in New York, the two men sought an apartment large enough to accommodate the latter's grand piano (the source surely of Bea's short-lived marriage to Leo Coopersmith). In the end, Alfred Chester killed himself in Jerusalem. He is, I'd guess, the third bald eminence behind Ozick's mysterious and compelling novel, a sort of Henry James in drag.

It is Alfred (minus the surname) who arranges in the book for Julian's starter poems to be printed in the same Botteghe Oscure. In real life, the neophyte was Ozick herself, her first published story appearing in issue 20 (Autumn 1957). Called "Stone", it is a Jamesian bout between Art and Life, the former landing a KO blow right at the death.

So Julian is in part Ozick. His espousal of a second-hand wife – damaged beyond measure by the Nazis – finds an equivalent in her life-long choice of subject matter, her synthesis of James and Jews; Art and Life not in conflict, but working together to produce something exhilarating, and uniquely Ozickian.

Clive Sinclair's 'True Tales of the Wild West' is published by Picador