Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Ambassadors by Henry James

"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. If you haven't had that what have you had? This place and these impressions -- mild as you may find them to wind a man up so; all my impressions of Chad and of people I've seen at his place -- well, have had their abundant message for me, have dropped that into my mind. I see it now."

The Ambassadors frustrated me. Much of this was for the poor reason that it nearly single-handedly derailed my race to fifty. It is long, but not overly so, but it is James at his most intricate and convoluted. Sentences go on for the better part of a page, cluttered with appositive and subordinate phrases. Sometimes I would reread a sentence three or four times and still not be sure what it was saying:

He made no crude profession of eagerness to yield, but he asked the most intelligent questions, probed, at moments, abruptly, even deeper than his friend's layer of information, justified by these touches the native estimate of his latent stuff, and had in every way the air of trying to live, reflectively, into the square bright picture.

That it is a mild example. And yet, I tried to stifle my frustration, seeking what Harold Bloom calls reading's "more difficult pleasures."

But I had other issues. The Ambassadors is the story of Lambert Strether, an American in his fifties who travels to Paris to convince the son of the woman he wishes to marry that he should return home to take over the family business. Strether is so taken with Paris and Chad's circle that ultimately, he advises Chad not to return. There is a lot of fawning over Paris, over Chad, over Chad's friends, such as the beautiful Madame de Vionnet, and the earnestness nearly overwhelms. But it seemed to me that there was very little about Chad or Madame de Vionnet to fawn over, and so it is difficult to share in Strether's enthusiasm.

My old English teacher advised me that the secret is to "live in Strether's head." Fair enough: It isn't necessary to fall in love with Madame de Vionnet, only to fathom the way that Strether does. Indeed, most of The Ambassadors takes place there, and the narrative distance it creates from the other characters is part of what I found disaffecting. Perception is all:

He stopped, he looked back; the whole thing made a vista, which he found high melancholy and sweet -- full, once more, of dim historic shades, of the faint far-away cannon-roar of the great Empire. It was doubtless half a projection of his mind, but his mind was a thing that, among old waxed parquets, pale shades of pink and green, pseudo-classic candelabra, he had always needfully to reckon with. They could easily make him irrelevant.

This is striking, and highly ironic: nothing could make Strether irrelevant in this novel; he is all.

My teacher's advice was good; I appreciated the novel more when I consciously tried to dismiss the need for things like objects and descriptions and plot. By losing myself in Strether--which I was at first resisting--I came to a point where I found the novel's final third, in which Strether has to contend with his own conflicting desires about the next phase of his life, quite affecting. Even still, I think I might abstain from late-period James for a while.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

To him, periodically, it sounded as if it would be less suited for his needs than other volumes; indeed, while many sirens called, nestled themselves in his waistcoat, some seemed--not ignorant, not implacable, but solid, tangible in an almost irreverent way--allowed only to pierce the skin of the intellect and leave the spirit--center of the self, domocile of the soul--untouched, as rain falling on tarp-festooned spires, twirling upward in sagacious song.