Thursday, June 9, 2011

More From James' "The Ambassadors"

There were marks the friends made on things to talk about, and on things not to, and one of the latter in particular fell like the tap of chalk on the blackboard. Married at thirty, Waymarsh had not lived with his wife for fifteen years, and it came up vividly between them in the glare of the gas that Strether wasn't to ask about her. He knew they were still separate and that she lived at hotels, travelled in Europe, painted her face and wrote her husband abusive letters, of not one of which, to a certainty, that sufferer spared himself the perusal; but he respected without difficulty the cold twilight that had settled on this side of his companion's life. It was a province in which mystery reigned and as to which Waymarsh had never spoken the informing word. Strether, who wanted to do him the highest justice wherever he could do it, singularly admired him for the dignity of this reserve, and even counted it as one of the grounds--grounds all handled and numbered--for ranking him, in the range of their acquaintance, as a success. He was a success, Waymarsh, in spite of overwork, or prostration, of sensible shrinkage, of his wife's letters and of his not liking Europe. Strether would have reckoned his own career less futile had he been able to put into it anything so handsome as so much fine silence.

Delicious! "She lived at hotels, travelled in Europe, painted her face and wrote her husband abusive letters." I guess we see what sort of man our protagonist is, making these judgments about a woman he's never met. Lived in hotels! Painted her face! For shame! And what of Waymarsh, about whom Stether works so hard to find something admirable to believe? Oh, subtle irony. Oh, Henry James.


  1. I enjoyed The Ambassadors, but I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I'd had your commentary all along in the footnotes.

  2. The danger would be that my notes would take over the book the way Nabokov's notes to Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time do. But what fun! I'd so do it.

  3. Indeed. I remember your comments on Lermontov's comments on Nabokov. I think it would be delightful.