Thursday, March 30, 2017

he held off from that, held off from everything - Henry James goes book shopping

Lambert Strether’s idea of France is tied up in French books.  He came back from his honeymoon with

lemon-coloured volumes in general on the brain as well as with a dozen – selected for his wife too – in his trunk; and nothing had at the moment shown more confidence than this invocation of the finer taste.  They were still somewhere at home, the dozen – stale and soiled and never sent to the binder; but what had become of the sharp initiation they represented?  (I’m still in 2.2!)

The wife, we remember, had died, and then their son died.  That last sentence is a sad one.  Strether’s memories are evoked by the bookshop window displays, “behind which lemon-coloured volumes were as fresh as fruit on the tree.”  The French books are always lemon, never yellow; now we know what that means, right?  Even an American French novel about culture has to drag in German Italian Bildung.

In two cases, books are associated with knives:

the novel half-uncut, the novel lemon-coloured and tender, with the ivory knife athwart it like the dagger in a contadina's hair, had been pushed within the soft circle [of lamplight]…  (11.1)

See, there’s Italy again, a sexy Italian peasant stabbing the French novel.  I know she is sexy because Strether is milling around handsome, virile Chad Newsome’s apartment, where everything is sexy – this is, the narrator uncharacteristically interrupts to tell me, “an hour full of strange suggestions… one of those that he was to recall, at the end of his adventure, as the particular handful that had most counted.”  And all Strether does is look at Chad’s books and prints and the view of the street from his balcony and listen to “the unceasing soft, quick rumble below, of the little lighted carriages that, in the press, always suggested the gamblers he had seen of old at Monte Carlo pushing up to the tables.”

Chad’s the one who won’t abandon Paris for Woollett to supervise the manufacture of toothpicks.  Strether spends time in three different apartments, all described as in some way ideally French, two, including Chad’s furnished by Americans (although he turns out to have had help developing his good taste) who had “rummaged and purchased and picked up and exchanged, sifting, selecting, comparing,” one belonging to the French Countess, and thus too perfect, another world, her things not collected but transmitted, the owner “beautifully passive under the spell of transmission” (6.1).  Her books are, when bound, “pinkish and greenish,” and when new “they hadn't the lemon-coloured covers with which his eye had begun to dally from the hour of his arrival.”  The Countess keeps up with foreign literature.

There is, of course, a paper-knife in this scene, in a French Revue that is later described as salmon-coloured.  This knife is aimed at Chad’s forbidding mother somehow.  I did not entirely understand that bit.  Remember that the Review Strether edits is green.

Strether’s full name, Lewis Lambert, is “’the name of a novel of Balzac’s’” (1.1) – oh for pity’s sake, it would be a stretch to get “Louis Lambert” (1832) to fifty pages.  You people and your Balzac “novels.”  “’But the novel’s an awfully bad one.’”  Well, yes and no.  Where was I.

I mentioned the invocation of a subconsciously smut-free Maupassant yesterday.  A surprising meeting takes place in Notre Dame, so the characters discuss “the question of Victor Hugo” (7.1).  If there is a reference or two to Flaubert, it is (they are) oblique.  Lots of books.  Strether edits a literary review, so the world is filtered through books.  Some of us will identify with Strether here:

His conscience had been amusing itself for the forty-eight hours by forbidding him the purchase of a book; he held off from that, held off from everything.  (back to 2.2)

Holding off from books is holding off from everything.


  1. These posts are reminding me of why I liked The Ambassadors so much. I read it in a Henry James class that was otherwise a bad choice - a little bit of Henry James goes a long way for me - and The Ambassadors stood out to me as the most human and moving and open of the novels we read. In the book-shopping scene, Strether ends up with a set of red-bound books, right? I remember that because when I read it I had recently gotten a 28-volume set of Kipling, in a red leather pocket edition with floppy covers, that was my pride and joy.

  2. Seventy volumes of Victor Hugo in red-and-gold. "[A] miracle of cheapness," and the reason Strether is in Notre Dame, where he meets etc., and thus etc. etc. all the way to the end. Book buying has consequences.

    I used to think that a little Henry James went a long way with me, too, but I set to work cultivating my taste. Well worth it.

  3. I was trying to cultivate my taste with that class, but it turned out to be too much concentrated Henry James all in one place. If it had been spread out, I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more. The teacher wasn't very good, either. Around that time I had one of those going-back-to-school anxiety dreams, in which I had signed up for a class entirely on the subject of prunes, and had of course failed to read any of the books or attend more than one class. I remember wondering what had possessed me to think I would like taking a course on prunes. In retrospect, I think this dream was my subconscious's comment on that Henry James class.

  4. What a dream!

    Yes, spread James out, over years, years and years. I think, though, of the lesson Joseph Epstein says he learned upon his first encounter with James - "I did at least grasp that Henry James was serious stuff." Not bad. I guess I am not so concerned with enjoyment in this context.