miércoles, 27 de marzo de 2013

The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors (Oxford World's Classics, 2008)
by Henry James
USA, 1903

For all the not necessarily totally untrue lit crit chatter about the late-period Henry James being both the king of exquisitely tortured syntax and, what's more, a sower of the plague of narrative misdirection of almost biblical proportions via his deliberately halting, preternaturally inward-looking promotion of the use of indirect free discourse--literature's equivalent of the no-look pass--as an essential storytelling strategem at the expense of the 20th century's preferred steam engine of plot, I have a rather pedantic question to put to all of you more bibliographically savvy late James connoisseurs upon having recently finished my first novel by the guy in almost three decades: how come none of you fuckers ever told me what an unexpected page-turner he could be?!?  Ironically given my appreciation of the work's many charms, The Ambassadors doesn't sound like it would amount to a whole lot of fun pour moi even as I deign to write a capsule summary of it expressly designed to appeal to my flippant and surly self.  Lambert Strether, a mild-mannered 55-year old American from the manufacturing mecca of Woollett, Massachusetts, is dispatched to the City of Light (continent: the Old World) to retrieve Chad Newsome, the wayward son of Strether's patron and would-be love interest and future wife, the forbidding Mrs. Newsome.  The initial concern is that the fun-loving young Newsome is assumed to have gone native abroad--probably in the perfume-scented and fur-lined grips of a more worldly Parisian woman--but is now wanted back at home for the sake of the family business.  The reliable Strether naturally is deemed just the right man for the job of going about rescuing Chad--or at least he is until something about his new surroundings begins to open his hitherto complacent eyes to a new way of life that may jeopardize the profit that both he and Chad are sure to receive should they reject European freedom and return to their provincial New England Paris in Woollett.  All sorts of troubles--some funny, some rather sad, all masterfully related--ensue.  That being said, part of the joy of reading The Ambassadors is to be found in observing Strether's gradual awakening to the idea that he's let life pass him by.  "I seem to have a life only for other people," he wistfully admits at one point, an innocuous enough statement except that, in James' gifted narrative hands, the reader can sense that Strether's newfound self-awareness might have come too late in his life to profit him but not others as far as his diplomatic mission regarding Chad's return is concerned (191).  Why would I characterize such a bittersweet reflection as a joy?  Simple, it's always a delight to run into complex characters in real life or in print that you can actually care about.  On a related note, I also appreciated the subtlety of the depiction of the evolving friendship between the older Strether and the younger Chad and the assured, convincing interplay among the other characters in the novel in general.  Javier Marías' Your Face Tomorrow trilogy might have been the last modern work I read that had a similar depth to the characterizations paired with the feeling that conversations were being played out for me in something approximating real as opposed to novel time.  Finally, for all my joking about James' reputation for linguistic and narrative obfuscation at the outset of this post, The Ambassadors is actually an amazingly revelatory affair in which the art of deception--marital, storytelling, and otherwise, including a bloodless coup of a subplot "about" adultery in which adultery is never mentioned to the detriment of all the key characters involved--and our innately human capacity for self-deception are intricately intertwined thematically and in terms of how the story itself is related up until its crown jewel of a final line.  Considering the mixed reactions I had to other James titles when I was a lowly undergrad, a stupendous surprise and an enormously satisfying treat.  Yeah.

Henry James (1843-1916)


20 comentarios:

  1. Well, it's in Obooki's 53 favourite novels - that should have been clue enough.

    I've been planning a post: Late James vs Late Faulkner, who writes the madder sentences.

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    1. Obooki, you're right, of course, and I did peruse your favorite novels list even though I've yet to respond to it. Masochist that I am, I look forward to reading that "who writes the madder sentences" faceoff between late Faulkner and late James if you ever get around to it.

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    2. I have read almost no Late James but lots of Late Faulkner and would enjoy that essay.

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    3. I forgot to mention it in my post, Tom, but one or the other of your own James posts last year was probably around 50% responsible for my decision to give him another try after so long in between novels by him. Thanks for the push.

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  2. I've been meaning to read another James and may well take my cue from you. Pretty sure I have this one. I remember reading a couple of his books when an undergrad and enjoying one but the other put me off him for years. May have been more to do with me. I read Washington Square a few years back and enjoyed it and also Colm Toibin's fictionalised James in The Master.

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    1. Based on the early James review I think I read on your blog not too long ago, I strongly suspect that you would totally dig The Ambassadors. Great blend of polished prose, bittersweet and humorous psychological insights, and intelligent plot development. Other than that, I think we must have had a similar initiation to James during our college days--wonder if we might have read the same books?

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  3. I must admit that I have not yet read any James but I really need to soon.

    I find your description of his style of plot intriguing. I think that I would appreciate it very much.

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    1. I'm no expert on James' back catalogue, Brian, but I think The Ambassadors would be the perfect place for somebody new to the author to start with him. James himself thought it was his most perfectly-realized novel or something like that, and it's an ingenious work in the way the telling of the story intersects with some of its more significant thematic elements. Very clever but also kind of soulful, too.

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  4. Bravo, Richard, on that exquisitely tortured late-Jamesian sentence with which you open this very enjoyable post (by curious coincidence, I'm also currently reading - or rather re-reading - late James: The Golden Bowl). The Ambassadors is an incredibly fun novel, isn't it? James really starts to let his hair down, and I had the same reaction as you to this novel when I first read it. I took a grad class on James and appreciated all of the early work we read, but this one was just such a great and unexpected treat.

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    1. Thanks, Scott, that was a pretty fun sentence to write even though I'm aware that it reads a lot more caffeinated than James' more subdued stylings. As for your question, yes, The Ambassadors is undeniably a really fun one: I was tickled by the subtle humor throughout, but the novel also got to me with some of its more tender ruminations on life and love and whatnot. I'd like to read The Wings of the Dove and maybe The Golden Bowl before the end of the year now, but I got such a huge high off of The Ambassadors that I may just enjoy the afterglow of this one for a while.

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  5. I too thoroughly enjoyed that first sentence - laughed out loud - and also the rest of this post, which may well be the push that finally gets me to read Henry James. I'm putting this one on my list.

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    1. Sarah, glad you got a laugh out of that silly first sentence of mine and, even though James is much less over the top than that, I think The Ambassadors would be a perfect place for you to start dipping into his intricate prose if you haven't read him before. A world-class prose style with a Proust-like range of emotional vulnerability for his characters subtly on display as well.

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  6. Language! :)
    I just had my share of tortured syntax while reading Bowen's The Heat fo the Day. It has many Jamesian qualities but page-turning isn't one of them.

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    1. Caroline, I couldn't resist--am pretty sure that that is one more f-bomb in my post than you'll find in all of James, though! Speaking of which, I didn't find James, in The Ambassadors at least, all that difficult to read; he has his style and his verbal tics to sure, but there was also some mysterious curry-like ingredient present as well that kept me turning the pages with fascination. The examples from Bowen you mentioned over at your post seemed much more off-putting (ar the least the first and the third ones; the middle one looks like a typical James sentence).

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  7. I'm glad for that input as she is regularly compared to Woolf and James and I've never been this exasperated by any of the other two.

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    1. It seems to me that James and Woolf have fairly obvious or at least plausibly "guessable" reasons for their writing choices while two out of the three examples you pointed out from Bowen were just, I don't know...majorly perplexing?

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  8. Loved this exquisite novel too. Just goes to show how most of our aversion to writers turned out to be unfounded. Our imagined trauma of reading 'difficult' authors can really prevent us from dipping into some goodies. I have only read the late James and I agree that it can be a good intro to the novelist's exciting plotting and sublime style. More page-turning than The Golden Bowl.

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    1. Rise, I overcame the same sort of a half, poorly or just misremembered distant bad reaction to Dickens last year as I did with James this year--but I don't know whether that means Stephen King or John Grisham are going to get any redemption opportunities next! Agree with you about The Ambassadors' exciting style and all around exquisiteness, of course--was more surprised to find it so gently humorous and even tender in spots, though. In any event, a real delight.

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    2. This Herr Graf enjoyed in some degree "The Aspern Papers" so consequently this German count decided to continue reading Herr James' "exquisitely tortured syntax"... after reading "The Wings Of The Dove" this Herr Von said NO MORE for a long time about Herr James' stylistic licences... what a pain, MEIN, MEIN GOTT!!..

      By the way, mein liebers, anything about Herr Leonid Nikolaevich Andreev?!... sounds interesting even for an aristocratic German count...

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    3. My Dear Count:

      Belated "dankeschön" for your comment about Herr James--it was naturally very nice to hear from you again. However, I'm slightly vexed to hear that even the most elite members of the German aristocracy can find James' British-American English linguistic "licenses" and syntax so off-putting: MEIN GOTT, indeed! Thanks as well for your timely inquiry about Herr Andreev. I had unfortunately forgotten about him for a couple of years after not being able to get a hold of his Las tinieblas in Spanish, but I see that my library has The Seven That Were Hanged and several other works by him. I look forward to trying him out shortly because a writer who can appeal to both your sensibilities and/or curiosity and the sensibilities of Roberto Arlt of Los siete locos fame must be an interesting artistic specimen for sure. In any event, Herr Graf, regards and ¡saludos!

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