THE AMBASSADORS BY HENRY JAMES

I can’t decide whether I think this is the greatest novel ever written or the most infuriating. Or both. It is a subtle, oh-so-subtle, rumination on regret and missed opportunities. The premise, of a middle aged man dispatched to Paris to help persuade the errant son of his formidable partner to return home to America, was instantly appealing to me. That this ambassador falls in love with Paris, and experiences a reawakening of Lost In Translation proportions, made this a book that could have been written specifically to arouse me.

The Ambassadors for all its stuffy reputation is a quixotic, sensual novel. Strether, the principle focus of the story, is a man who despite his advanced years is lacking in experience of worldly matters; Paris affords him access to a sophisticated, and exciting, new world, one that simultaneously hints at what life might have been like had he had the courage to take it by the horns and what life might still have in store for him. His emotional growth during the novel is quite remarkable, one shouldn’t make the mistake of believing that he exchanges one naive view of the world [stuffy oppressive America] for another [idyllic liberated France]. Strether becomes more cultured, more confident; he finds himself. He doesn’t view Paris as Eden-like, doesn’t consider the inhabitants to be without weaknesses, but learns about life and himself from his exposure to these faults.

All this is well and good, but the extent of one’s enjoyment of one of Henry James’ later novels rests upon one’s ability to appreciate his style. James’ sentences are so serpentine as to be hypnotic, and so complex that I almost felt as though I were reading him in a foreign language, one that I know quite well but am not fluent in.

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[James’ serpentine and hypnotic sentences embodied]

If you’ve read any of my reviews you’ll know that I love a comma, that I won’t use a full stop if I can find some way of extending the sentence further with one of those low-riding little beauties. James, however, is the king of the comma and of course this poses a problem if one suffers from a lack of patience. Yet, it isn’t the composition of his sentences that I found occasionally infuriating. Contradictorily, what is most striking about The Ambassadors is also the most frustrating, which is James’ way of excluding the reader from important aspects of the story. His characters reference incidents and activities that you are never privy to. There is a constant sense of things happening off-stage, things that are never explicitly shown to the reader, but which the characters speak of as though you were fully included in their world, fully up-to-speed. Reading James is sometimes like looking through the dirty window of a moving bus at what you think may be a beautiful woman.

I cannot remember whole passages verbatim, of course, but here is my own version of the kind of conversation you will find in The Ambassadors:

“You know?”

“I know.”

“What do you know?”

“Oh, you know.”

“I do indeed.”

“I’m surprised that you already knew that I know that you know.”

“You are?”

“Why, yes. In any case, how do you feel about it?”

“Isn’t it dreadful?”

“Of course.”

WHAT DO YOU KNOW MOTHERFUCKERS, WHAT?

This kind of discussion is, obviously, confusing but it adds an almost interactive element to the novel in that you have to actively imagine, or create, part of the story. Instead of relying solely on the author you have to do some of the work yourself, you have to join your own dots. I found that equally maddening and exhilarating.

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