Thursday, July 21, 2011

Final Thoughts: Henry James' "The Ambassadors"

Some scattered afterthoughts on reading Henry James’ The Ambassadors:

Henry was a very subtle writer, sometimes so subtle that his meaning was no doubt lost on this reader. But all along the course of the narrative he threw out little clues about his characters’ behaviors and during the last few chapters Henry pulled tight on all the threads he’d left laying about and wove a surprising but inevitable conclusion which was dramatically satisfying but annoying in a “I can’t believe what people are like” sort of way. Which is, you know, the stuff I like in literature.

The longer I think about where Lambert Strether ends up at the novel’s conclusion, the more I realize that he lacks real self-awareness, despite his opinion otherwise. He’s also got something of a martyr complex, which explains his life as toady to the rich and powerful. As the novel progresses, James does an excellent job of contrasting Strether’s self-image as Important Man and Paternal Figure with the image of him held by everyone who knows him, which is sort of a sad old underbutler character. People feel sorry for him, and Strether doesn’t quite see that. The reader doesn’t see it at first either, but James lets the realization come slowly, a word at a time here or there over many chapters. When the Pococks show up from America, at first you wonder why Strether’s been pushed aside and left out of all the family maneuverings but soon after you understand that, well, Strether is more family dog than family and he was never really part of any of the decision making. Poor Strether.

The chapter where Strether is wasting time waiting for someone to tell him what’s actually going on and so spends a day out in the countryside is absolutely gorgeous and possibly the finest prose to ever come from Henry James’ pen.

E.M. Forster, as I’ve said before, is wrong wrong wrong about James’ books being devoid of humanity for the sake of formal and prose concerns. This is a very felt book. I think a lot of readers find James’ delicacy of expression to be too emotionally distant (especially in this day of "voice-driven" and "high concept" writing), but all the emotional lives of the characters are right there, on the page. James’ prose is more cumulative than immediate, like a long hot bath maybe. A better simile will hopefully come to me.

Anyway, that's all I've got about The Ambassadors. I won't bother with plot summaries or any of that, because you don't care and I'm lousy with that sort of thing. Mighty Reader and I, last night, were laughing at how we both thought this book was about international diplomacy because of the title. It's not, of course, and "ambassadors" is an apt metaphor and it's a book well worth reading.

Now I'm on a happy binge of Chekhov stories, reeling around like a drunk. After that, I believe, I will finally read the Ubu plays.

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