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!