Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Beginning The Ambassadors - an elaborate innocent plan of reading, digesting

A good thing about reading the difficult, aggravating The Awkward Age (1899) so recently is that it makes The Ambassadors (1903), a novel written in a dense, purposefully ambiguous style, look almost like a regular old novel.  Not so difficult.  It is, in fact, full of difficulties, but the illusion created by the contrast was helpful.

After James, I moved to Trollope, and the contrast there is – whee! zoom! look at me go!  Something like that.

Where to start.  Everyone – I looked around – starts with a line jerked out of context, “’Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to’” (5.2) which sounds deep and wise but is also, unless the characters are discussing suicide, which they are not, a tautology.

“It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have had your life.  If you haven’t had that what have you had?”

The speaker is Lambert Strether, the novel’s hero and, in limited third person, sole point of view, aside from a few minor interjections from James.  Strether is asked by his patroness, who he thinks he wants to marry, to investigate and retrieve her adult son.  Why won’t he return home to Woollett, Massachusetts, marry a nice girl, and manage the family urinal cake factory?  Could there be a woman involved – a French woman?

Of course; obviously.  But Strether, as he soon as he sets foot in it, falls in love with Paris.  He doesn’t want to leave.  I would occasionally abandon the book for a day or two just to let Strether enjoy Paris more.  I knew that in the end he was going back to Woollett.  He isn’t rich enough to merely live.  Why rush him.

A good part of the high comedy of The Ambassadors comes from the Americans who are so baffled that anyone would want to live in Paris – and would not want to live in Woollett, with Woollett people and by Woollett standards, that they might prefer Paris theaters and sex with a beautiful French countess, even if she is married.  Life as a Balzac character.

Was it at all possible for instance to like Paris enough without liking it too much?  (2.2)

Now I am breaking into the tautology.  It all depends on what “live” means.  Strether did not know that, back in Woollett, editing a Review (“’And what kind of a Review is it?’…  ‘Well, it’s green,’” 2.1), he was not living all that he could, while in Paris he finds other possibilities.

The piece on The Ambassadors in The Cambridge Companion to Henry James (1998), “Lambert Strether’s Excellent Adventure” by Eric Haralson, begins where I began and immediately asks “but what on earth does it mean?” (169)  The entire article is about the extent to which “Live all you can” means “Have all the sex you can” (a wide range of opinions are presented), which tells me more about the state of Henry James studies in the mid-nineties than it does about The Ambassadors, but still does say a lot about the novel.

Strether, it turns out, has been in Paris before.  He did have his life.  He was there thirty years earlier, age twenty-five, with his wife, on their honeymoon.

It had been a bold dash, for which they had taken money set apart for necessities, but kept sacred at the moment in a hundred ways, and in none more so than by this private pledge of his own to treat the occasion as a relation formed with the higher culture and see that, as they said at Woollett, it should bear a great harvest.  He had believed, sailing home again, that he had gained something great, and his theory – with an elaborate innocent plan of reading, digesting, coming back, even, every few years – had then been to preserve, cherish, and extend it.  (2.2)

They even bought a pile of yellow-covered French books.  But Strether’s wife died before they were able to return, and soon after their only son died at boarding school.  Strether retreated from “life,” from sex.  With “under forty-eight hours of Paris,” something of this earlier sense of life returns to him.

The Ambassadors has a sad story underneath the plot.  This lost wife is barely mentioned again.  I only picked her out once more, obliquely.  Maybe it is a happy story, of the expiation of decades of grief.


  1. This may be my favorite James novel (although I also love The Spoils of Poynton). This exquisite short story, teased from what should be its 50-page length into a 500-page disquisition on knowing, is one of the most pronounced cases of delayed gratification in the novel in English. James hides the truth in plain sight but, so carefully does he render Strether's obtuseness that, when the knowing comes crashing down on him, you, the reader, feels it with the same weight that the character does, even if you knew what Strether did not know hundreds of pages earlier. At least that is how I have experienced the book the two times I have read it at vastly different periods in my life.

    As do many, I believe that the Figure in the Carpet for James was homosexuality, and here it expresses itself in Strether's thinly veiled yearning for the young and virile Chad. This is also a great autumnal novel; the ache of the aging for what the young possess is seldom expressed with greater skill than it is here.

    But it is not, as you suggest, a novel for someone to cut his or her teeth on early in an exploration of James's special talents.

  2. Your first paragraph is very close to my experience. I am sure I will get to some of that. I will use the word "perception" a lot, although "knowing" is just as good.

    The only late James I had ever read, for a long time, was "The Beast in the Jungle," but that was enough to make it clear that everyone interested in style should at least take a look. As with Finnegans Wake, it was enormously useful simply to have seen the non-mythical creature - the mid-sentence hesitations and so on. But at novel-length it all works, moves, quite differently.

    I dread to think how much I missed, which is why I was messing with a Cambridge Companion.