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The Ambassadors (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 14 Aug 2008
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Another irritation is the failure to scan French words and phrases accurately: ampersands and other curious print errors replace French accents or circumflexes. Surely a university press can do better than this?
James was pushing the boundaries with this novel, starting to invent the idea of modernism - and this work would be influential with many who followed, Virginia Woolf, for example. In short, it's a typical Jamesian story - the displaced New Englander who is exposed to continental European mores (a la Isabel Archer). But here the outcome is not a tragic one, it is, largely, comic. The wonderful riverside scene when Strether meets Chad and Mme.De Vionnet in the midst of their hidden affair, and its consequent revelation on the train back to Paris as Strether finally clocks that they had no intention of returning that day (she is in light clothing) is a joy of slow-burn situation comedy. Nevertheless, be prepared also to be moved by Lambert Strether, the archetypal middle aged man who rues the lost years, the paths not taken, the loves not experienced. He says, at one point, to a young friend: "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to." Those lines, coming as they do midst the focalized Parisian revel, the glorious immersion in French beauty, stand out as probably Henry James's own personal conclusion about life lived through others only; there is a lot of James in Strether, one feels. We have much to thank the Master for his failure to live, and his utter brilliance as observer and recorder of what it means to be human.
Back to the novel: the premise is that a wealthy young American, who has been living in splendid idleness in Paris, must now return to his provincial home town to assume control of the family business. Strether, who is engaged to the young man's widowed mother, is dispatched with strict instructions to detach Chad from the unsuitable French lady he is suspected of being entangled with, and to bring him back to face his responsibilities, upon penalty of losing a fortune.
Character development is interesting but superficial. Most of the characters are pretentious stereotypes and, on closer acquaintance, hold no surprises and, since morals and socially correct behaviour have changed so much, it requires a huge amount of imagination to understand the motivation that moved these people to act the way they did. Consequently I did not develop any great interest in their doings or their fate. The story meanders aimlessly for far too long without any redeeming twists and, as a final slap of the glove on the face of the hapless reader, James has the perverseness to let it fizzle out into a really disappointing end after building up what little suspense there was towards a very logical and satisfactory conclusion, which he utterly rejects. Thus any emotional involvement the reader struggled to conjure up for such shallow, vapid characters ends up being completely wasted, just as the narrator seems bent on wasting every last chance he gets to improve his life.
For those who read James with expectations of a Eureka moment, I did actually have one. It came very late in the narrative, when Strether boards a train to the countryside in pursuit of the ambiance suggested to him by a little Lambinet painting which he was too poor to acquire. Suddenly a flood of sunshine breaks through the dull, airless atmosphere of the previous 400 plus pages and I forgave Henry James for putting me through all that work. Unfortunately, I cannot be sure that skipping to that bit, without the build-up that precedes it, is going to be at all satisfactory, but one can always try it. Clearly there are people who enjoyed this book, but I cannot think of anyone I know who would bother to make the effort.
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