My First Henry James, The Ambassadors

I just finished reading The Ambassadors. And I had to read lots of reviews to satiate my need to know more about this book.

I want to say so much about the book itself, and my experience reading it. I have paper copies of Washington Square, and this, The Ambassadors. What made me then, change my initial choice of Washington Square?

Recently, I read The Rector of Justin, by Lois Auchinchloss, and Henry James is discussed by the characters. Not only, Chad and Strether, main characters of the book, are discussed in The Rector. The Rector isn’t impressed by these two men in The Ambassadors, and tells his wife is it she’d have in common with the silly diatribes of Strether. His wife answers that ‘everything’. Like Strether, she too finds, in the second half of her life, that probably she has not been living the life she would have wanted.

This is one of his three last novels, from his last period, which is said to be less traditionally realistic, and more ‘modern’. The fact that the book is heavily criticized and highly praised, deemed as dense, and loved by one of my favorite reader blog friends, piqued my curiosity.

It may seem odd that I chose to read it in Spanish. Since the language was said to be demanding, (long sentences, ambiguity, layers and deliberate equivocation), I thought, why not read in the language where I have more developed reader muscle? I clicked with it immediately. From the first pages, I saw how it’s a bridge between XIX century realism and XX century modernism.

In the middle of the book, I read several pages in my English edition, and the corresponding Spanish ones. It felt that I had just read the same. And yet, I retained it best in Spanish. I wanted to get back to the all encompassing atmosphere and experience of life Henry James gives the reader, but in Spanish where it hit me more.

That the dialogues are ambiguous is not to say the book lacks clarity. Reviewers in English and Spanish, arrive at the same conclusions. The same reasons why many loath this book, are the reasons why many of us are mesmerized by it.

One Spanish review commented on the simplicity of the plot, -almost non existent-, and the complexity of the dialogues, behavior, description of Strether’s actions and thoughts. And he mentions that, far from making the novel a slog, all this precisely delights. I concur.

And even if the plot is not much, there’s still details I could tell you that would spoil it. I won’t, don’t your worry. As I was reading, though, I read about it. I didn’t mind knowing more about the book. It was like observing a present scene knowing what’s coming in the future. My understanding was enhanced by a review that had these spoilers. There’s one in particular that is revealed in the end, that constitutes an essential part of the novel. I’m thinking about the details, both revealed and not revealed, and I’m just shaking my head with a smirk in my face. It was brilliant.

Why then do others impute it with being a total waste of time, dense and impossible to read? I believe it all hinges on the expectations and the attitude of the reader. Henry James is not, as other review pointed out, for the modern reader that’s always ready to understand or forgive. For the impatient reader whose attention bounces from the cell phone to the TV.

Our times are strongly visual. Movies rely on visuals to entertain. There’s not the almost theatrical dialogues of older movies, nor do all directors work the visuals as a new language as Malik’s, for example. The almost perfect visuals of the big productions are uni-dimensional. They lack depth. They don’t make a dent into our memories. I guess because they only awake part of the brain. The language in this book, is a product bigger than the words and surface thoughts. It keeps revealing, even after you close the last page.

Henry James is language rich, thought provoking generous. The layers and nuances of Strether’s position are there to show us life. Life understood as such, as full of moments we don’t always understand while we live them, but moments that suddenly show us their true meaning as we recall them. Conversations we have where we don’t even know where we stand. Situations that in time appear to be crucial to what we are. No turning back decisions we didn’t even know we made.

But don’t be mistaken. There’s high dividends for those who read with faith and trust the author. This is not just a display of skills and talent aimed at insulting the reader’s deficiencies. This is an honest novel.

The opening pages manage to make your heart pound with mystery. The last part of the book, -no matter the many things you won’t understand-, are exciting to read, for much comes across with clarity. Specially now that we are used to how Strether acts and thinks.

This book is a developed taste. I surrendered, joined Strether and the rest at Paris, and abandoned any temptation to take a controlled position. While I have to say I don’t share the characters mentality, or morality, or course of action, this, as many other modern novels, is here to present problems, not to solve them, or poke us to a moral response.

What I appreciate is the success at attempting to capture reality differently than traditional realism while not being a complete abstract exercise in stream of conscience. It cut deep. Hat off, Mr. James. The most uninteresting person living in anodyne New England, -Strether-, a quite mundane commission, -bring the boy back-, one more dissolute heir living ‘la vida loca’ in Paris, and a huge novel. Why? Among many things, because he found a different way at presenting life, and he did it through language. (In my case, through the added miracle of translation! Ha, ha, ha).

If you are willing to leave your XXI century habits, and bring your attention to this book, you’ll be rewarded ten fold. In the case that, with some reasonable preparation, the book feels like a pill, don’t waste your time. There’s a time and an age. A younger self wouldn’t have bother with it, that I know.

A last word on the author. I’ve thought much about this. How much of the author’s life, personality and psychology affects what he writes? There’s probably a lot of Henry James in Strether and the book in general. Actually, I read that his father took them from America to Europe, because he thought that there was something in Europe they needed for their education. It’s a curious fact to know. It’s clear that Strether knows burlap New England and satin Paris’s creases all too well. Strether is the antithesis of a hero. I’m not sure if the author meant for us to like him or not, or simply to listen to his story. I did. And I’m well inclined to read it again, and find more in it that I’m sure I must have missed.

Any fans, if you are up for a conversation on the novel and its people, let me know!

9 thoughts on “My First Henry James, The Ambassadors

  1. Silvia: Many Congratulations! Your first Henry James — and WHAT a first! One of the great ones, not that “Washington Square” isn’t a rewarding read but HJ wasn’t really hitting his stride in that one. I thought your review was very perceptive. I hadn’t thought of James as a “bridge” author between the realists and 20th century modernists nor that James presents reality in an alternate way to stream of consciousness. I agree with you that James can be difficult for modern readers, but so can Melville, or Eliot. Not to sound too preachy about it, but great rewards from literature (as from everything else) DO require a little exertion now and again (I’m preaching to myself — I’ve been reading junk for the last two weeks and need to get going again on something serious!)
    I love the fact that I’ve found a fellow HJ enthusiast. Your appreciation of the book makes me want to go back and read James all over again (I did read and review “The Tragic Muse” earlier this year; while definitely worthwhile, it’s NOT the equal to “The Ambassadors”). Your discussion of the ambiguity in James is quite interesting. It’s part of his greatness; it requires you to THINK about what’s going on and also keeps you thinking about it afterwards, as you realize that meanings can shift and various interpretations, while different, can also be valid (I believe the term is “multivalent” but I defer to the literature specialists out there). The biographical link between HJ and his work is, as you point out, quite tantalizing. As I recall, Leon Edell was great on this point; he was a main James scholar when I was reading HJ many years ago, but I’m sure that there are now scads of other scholars. You’ve obviously dipped into some of the James criticism — any that you’d recommend?
    Thanks for your reference to “The Rector of Justin”! (Auchincloss, BTW, is an old favorite of mine when I want a character driven, well written novel that isn’t junk). I read it a very long time ago, when the James reference would have gone totally over my head. Perhaps it’s time to re-visit the Rector?
    On a totally different note: I finally watched Malick’s “Badlands”! Loved it, but had to skip an animal scene at the beginning. The narrative voice in the film (which had beautiful visuals, BTW) is very similar to that in Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” which is unfortunately hard to find these days. While I’m on movies, did you know that there are a couple of movies based on the late James’ novels? Both are quite imperfect but interesting; they get the plot but not James’ subtle ambiguity or his incredible nuances of meaning. “The Wings of the Dove” is pure melodrama but I actually liked it quite a bit. “The Golden Bowl” is pretty weak but, depending on your taste for costume drama, might be o.k. Now that I come to think of it, there’s also a movie version of “Washington Square;” since this early novel is a much more straightfoward affair than late James, I think the movie actually works pretty well. All three movies, of course, contain plot spoilers for the novels, which I don’t think matters for James, but folks differ on that.
    Oh — and thanks for linking my blog! I’ll (eventually) have some more reviews up, but I’m going through a writer’s block right now!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Now with more time but from my phone, lol.
      1. He is no doubt very modern in his approach of The Ambassadors. It reminds me of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. The reality presented allows many interpretations, I like multivalent to describe it.
      2. Totally agree with the great rewards from literature. But periods of lighter reads help us crave quality and get ready for the effort. And it’s fair that great literature requires some effort on our part.
      3. I have come to the conclusion that, even though it is interesting and satisfying to know about our favorite authors and to trace and link their lives to their literature, I have come to the conclusion that their books transcend their lives and give us something that lasts forever.
      3. And I only have read online reviews etc. But I am all for finding more on criticism and commentary.
      4. I want to write another post in which I can talk about this book with spoilers. I want to talk about Strether and his peculiar coming of age.
      5. My friend who lives Malik has all his movies but the last one. I have Days of Heaven. I’m going to watch it with my husband tonight. I’m glad you liked Tree of Life or Badlands? Both are brilliant. Like HJ, Malik went more modern in Tree of Life.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m keen to get started on my first Henry James novel, Portrait of a Lady. ‘Henry James is not, as other review pointed out, for the modern reader that’s always ready to understand or forgive. For the impatient reader whose attention bounces from the cell phone to the TV.’ Yes, this is a problem. The more I’ve read the denser type of literary novel, the less I’m able to concentrate on the lighter stuff. One sort of negates or depletes the other. Just as well there are heaps of classics to choose from!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I want to hear your thoughts on Portrait.

      It’s a thing. One reading negates the other. In my case, I can only go for a few light reads, and I start to miss something better written, something that demands attention and some work on my part, where the text has layers and it’s not chewed and digested for me.

      The understand and forgive is because in The Ambassadors, it’s not that simple to understand the characters nor is it asking for moral judgement, it’s showing us a slice of life. Like in real life, who can fully know a person?


  3. Great review! I’ve read, and enjoyed, both Washington Square and Daisy Miller, as well as the Rector of Justin which was outstanding. I’m not sure I could read Henry James now–the phone has really eaten away at my attention span. I am working to reclaim it, but it is tough. I like James because I can become totally immersed in it (when I have an adequate attention span, that is). It isn’t our century, it isn’t in our language or our way of living–that’s what is so marvelous about his books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lisa. Nice to hear from you. I understand you. I think I could do this only because this is an unusual summer. For the first time in years, I had time ahead, and the possibility to seclude myself a bit every day. And also, I may have cheated but I read it in Spanish. It’s still not super linear, it’s still complex, but if focused, it’s a joy to get lost in that universe. I didn’t want to leave the place and people. But yes, different century, different language, and probably a language of his own in a way. It’s marvelous and for some it could be irritating, yes, hahaha.

      Liked by 1 person

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