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