Atlantic, £14.99, 255pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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

Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
artSistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

    Time to stop running

    At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence