Wednesday, December 16, 2009

a book report, I mean review: Henry James' The Ambassadors


The date stamp on the library book tells me I checked out The Ambassadors around the First of December, 2008, which was the very day I listened to an inspiring NPR radio essay by Ann Patchett about it. (I do some things quickly, immediately.) I renewed the book twice, six months each. Henry James himself said this novel is his finest work of art, but it is well down his own list of the order in which you should read his novels. He knew it was opaque (Patchett's word). Portrait of a Lady, for example, is farther up his read in this order list.*

I am no book reviewer. I will leave that art to my friends DS at third-storey window, Arti at Ripple Effects, and others. But after leaving foreshadowing comments here and there about my long slow progress through this book for the past year, starting here, I sort of feel I owe you at least my own version of a review. Plus, posting its completion here is a celebration. Warning: There will be mixing of metaphors.

The fact that I stuck with this book tells you something. My friends know how averse I am to reading novels, even though I was an English major. I tell myself I am quite a literary person for someone who reads so little. If Jane Austen were still writing, I would be the first to read her latest.

I'm not going to tell you much about the tale itself, which James published in 1903 as a serial in the North American Review. The plot is tame, no murders or espionage. No deadly collisions - though there are human collisions. It's the human part that kept me with it. It's about an American named Lambert Strether who goes on a mission to Paris to retrieve the son of his fiancée, a widow we never really meet in a scene. Her son Chad should be home learning to run the family business in Woollett, Massachusetts, but instead he is off doing who knows what in that worldly City of Light. What James manages to show in this wonderful book is how even a fifty-something man like Strether can learn profoundly enlightening things about himself and others, and the assumptions he makes about both.

Henry James' style both daunted me and kept me going. Not the easiest of books to read, I couldn't take many pages in one sitting. But I didn't shelve it for good, as I often do when a book doesn't arrest me.

James writes a paragraph with more words, clauses, commas and longer more compounded sentences and descriptions than you might think necessary or possible and still keep a thought alive. But when you're finished with that paragraph, you recognize that had he described the same event or thought in one succinct straightforward statement, you may have known what transpired, but you would not have arrived at the same point of human discovery. Not that he doesn't leave you constantly asking, "what the heck did that mean?" and a re-read of the same sentence three or more times to see if you can figure it out. But, if you just let the question babble on temporarily unanswered, you will eventually find what you need. His idea has to travel down the page through elaborate channels and locks for the river to deposit it into your ocean of understanding so satisfyingly.

He lays out words of detail in the tiniest attentions spread out on the bed, as if the elements of each paragraph will be packed into a travel trunk for a long extensive journey, and you must be prepared for every contingency. Or, each paragraph is a journey itself, magnifying the terrain of miniscule human flutterings deep down in their psychological interior. And at the end of one, or a collection of many, you do not feel that you traveled far for nothing. Rather, you wonder how you could have lived this long and only through this trunkful of words arrived at this destination, this understanding of a human emotion, as if you had yourself experienced all that led to it. Over and over I found myself relating to Strether - in his lack of confidence and sense of being an outsider looking in.

This craft seems to me a symbol of what James himself pointed out as the crux of the book on page one hundred and thirty-two:

"Live! . . . Don't . . . miss things out of stupidity."

Later, on page one hundred and sixty-five, little Bilham, the addressee in the dialogue I shortened with ellipses above, continues the thought in this scene:

Strether was silent a little. "Ah but he doesn't care for her--not, I mean, it appears, after all, in the sense I'm speaking of. He's not in love with her."

"No--but he's her best friend; after her mother. He's very fond of her. He has his ideas about what can be done for her."

"Well, it's very strange!" Strether presently remarked with a sighing sense of fulness.

"Very strange indeed. That's just the beauty of it. Isn't it very much the kind of beauty you had in mind," little Bilham went on, "when you were so wonderful and so inspiring to me the other day? Didn't you adjure me, in accents I shall never forget, to see, while I've a chance, everything I can?--and really to see, for it must have been that only you meant. Well, you did me no end of good, and I'm doing my best."

Quite literally, James' writing slows you down in real time, so that you don't miss things. You have looked so closely, it is as if you revolved things on a digital screen, rising and falling like a telescoping robotic camera, hovering slowly and methodically over each grain of texture. This slow time allows his meanings to sink in like a long deliberate marinade - tenderizing and flavoring the final bite to perfection, which means our dear Strether gets just exactly where I myself have gotten by reading: a transformation. To write so well that a work leaves the reader feeling herself to be Strether embodied whenever an "ahh aha" comes on a page is an everlasting treasure. What multiplied the emotional impact of the book on me was the fact that I had felt a similar opening into freedom upon my own visit to Paris after my mother's death in 1997.

That voice, he had to note failed audibly to sound; which he took as the proof of all the change in himself. He had heard, of old, only what he could then hear; what he could do now was to think of three months ago as a point in the far past. All voices had grown thicker and meant more things; they crowded on him as he moved about--it was the way they sounded together that wouldn't let him be still. He felt, strangely, as sad as if he had come for some wrong, and yet as excited as if he had come for some freedom. But the freedom was what was most in the place and the hour; it was the freedom that most brought him round again to the youth of his own that he had long ago missed.

I warned you I would mix metaphors. You humored me and pretended you were traveling in a trunk, floating down a river, eating tasty food inside and filming the whole thing with expensive film equipment. Thank you for that.

I'm glad it took more than a year to read The Ambassadors. It stretched my brain's close reading capacity, and the pace suited the penetrating writing of Henry James. Maybe I'll renew it for another six months and read it again. I think I could finish it in half the time this go 'round. Or maybe I should read Portrait of a Lady next, which is #2 on his read in this order list in a letter he wrote. (Or, if I'm really adventurous, I'll read a different author, like maybe Ann Patchett, whose Bel Canto has been on my reading list for about, oh, eight years.)

*Here are both lists James himself recommended as the order for reading his novels:

  1. Roderick Hudson.
  2. The Portrait of a Lady.
  3. The Princess Casamassima.
  4. The Wings of the Dove.
  5. The Golden Bowl.
The second, more "advanced" list, includes two from the first:

  1. The American.
  2. The Tragic Muse.
  3. The Wings of the Dove.
  4. The Ambassadors.
  5. The Golden Bowl.

Cover illustration for Oxford World's Classics edition of The Ambassadors; I wish I knew who the artist was. Maybe Childe Hassam?



Susan said...

Ruthie, I see exactly why you quoted the passage about freedom and that voice. It is odd how after a life-altering event, one looks for hidden meanings in things that people say. Even our own thoughts seem to take on new meanings.

Congratulations on finishing! Isn't it lovely that when you finish a book that leaves you so satisfied, you want to start immediately on another? I love that feeling.

dutchbaby said...

I love how you can morph yourself into any writing style whatsoever. Okay, let's be honest, I'm jealous. How do you do that?

I vote for Bel Canto next- a wonderful page-turner, or The Help - masterfully written in three voices of the South in the 1960's, or The Samurai's Garden - reading this book was like going to a spa for the mind.

Loring Wirbel said...

Wow, The Ambassadors sounds more like Proust than some of James's work. I'll add this to the ever-growing list....

laura said...

I think I wrote before that HJ, "The Master," is my favorite, and I think it is the "humanness" of his stories--the subtle questions of conscience and growth/development--along with his writing style, which you're quite right requires your attention, that made him so.
No matter which one you start with (I'd say Portrait or The American (or stories like The Aspern Papers; The Figure in the Carpet; or The Real Thing) he does grow on you, and it doesn't get "easier," but you get acclimated.
Hope you'll start another one! The Golden Bowl (my personal favorite) perhaps?

Patricia said...

I always thought that he wrote in Latin and then translated his stories. I often feel that I only discover the verb at the very end of the sentence.

Bella Rum said...

Congratulations on finishing it. Once an avid reader, my eyes have taken a hike. I will have to listen to an audio version.

"Live! . . . Don't . . . miss things out of stupidity."

Just before my granddaughter was born, I told my son something similar - Pay attention. Some things only happen once.

Shattered said...

That sounds like a wonderful book! It seems that many modern novels are easy to skim because the plot is so predictable or the writing is full of the mundane. I love books that force me to slow down... I'm going to have to take a closer look at this author.

CottageGirl said...

Wow! You are amazing! Sounds like a thesis to me

I'm so glad you wrote the review... I feel as if I've just read the Cliff Notes, only more eloquent and thoughtful, so I think I'll pass on reading the book ... at least for right now!

You continue to amaze me with your skills, my dear friend!

Arti said...


Thanks for the mention but you've done a superb job here capturing your extended reading experience... I just love those metaphors, yummy and fun: I'd love to be in that trunk floating down a river, eating tasty food inside and filming the whole thing, yes and with expensive film equipment. What a wild ride, and you've made me want to read this so much! I admit I've watched more HJ movies than read his novels, but this certainly will change... thanks to you!

rauf said...

if you remain ignorant you are not missing a thing. When you gain knowledge you feel you are missing a lot.

i personally prefer ignorance Ruth.

rauf said...

lovely picture of the book, it can make your header Ruth.

shoreacres said...

I love the phrase you highlighted - Live!...Don't...miss things out of stupidity.

I wonder if we might not miss James' full meaning by contenting ourselves with the common, modern meaning of "stupid". We tend to think of it as synonymous with ignorance, mental vacuity, intellectual poverty. But in fact its root meaning is "to be numb".

That opens up an entirely other way of understanding the phrase, and perhaps other issues of the book.

Lovely, lovely review.

ds said...

Oh, Ruth, you have written the perfect review of this book! "James writes a paragraph with more words, clauses, commas and longer more compounded sentences and descriptions than you might think necessary or possible and still keep a thought alive." It's true, but it is the way he does it--which you illustrated so beautifully in your selection of quotes, and have described exactly with your metaphors and your own luscious, languorous prose. I will hop into that trunk with those delectable bites and the high-tech film equipment (hope there will be instructions for that!) and float happily down any river that Mr. James--but especially you--should choose to drop me into. Brava!!
(Thank you for the mention; it was most kind.)

Ruth said...

Susie, you remind me. Yesterday I was talking about Meryl Streep with my coworker, and we were gushing over her. Then we got to complaining about a generation of actresses we don't think much of. Then we started gushing some more about Judy Dench, Emma Thompson, Helen Mirren - and I said Oh! I dreamt about Helen Mirren last night. Have you ever had that happen? I didn't remember the dream, and then her name jogged the memory of it. I've had that more times than I can tell you.

That had very little to do with what you wrote, but it's another example of how connected our thoughts are; that's what yours did to me.

Ruth said...

Dutchbaby, thank you for the recs. Heading into a two week break, I wanted something to read. Now I can stop at the University library before coming home.

Thank you for making me so happy telling me you are jealous. There probably aren't many things a person can say, especially when they are certain people, that make a person so happy as invoking jealousy in another. Jane Austen is in that thought somewhere.

Ruth said...

Loring, at least this isn't as long as the Rice and Salt book you read last year. I wonder if you get books for Christmas? I think they're my favorite gift.

Ruth said...

Ok, Laura, maybe The Golden Bowl. I really loved his short story "Brooksmith" last year. If his other works are as human as these two, I will happily read more.

Ruth said...

Patricia, what a great way to put it. I took four years of Latin in high school, and I'd say that sounds about right.

Ruth said...

Bella, I am going to remember your grandma advice. Best I've heard.

Thank goodness for audio books for your sake. I may come to that yet myself.

Ruth said...

Try him, Shattered, and tell me what you think.

Ruth said...

CottageGirl, I avoid book reviews. First, I avoid books, which then leads to avoiding book reviews. But when my friends write them, I am intrigued in one way or another and wish I were more of a reader - or - that I could gobble up the ideas without actually sitting down and reading them. (Like I wish I could understand economics, without taking a course; but then does anyone really understand economics?)

Thank you for your kind words. I really wasn't trying to sound lofty. I just felt all these things pouring out of me as I finished the book.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Arti. This made me want to see the films again, the couple I've seen already. I wonder if you saw "The Golden Bowl"? I remember when it came out, Uma Thurman I think? I love this period in costumes and set designs.

Ruth said...

Really, rauf?

And I like this picture too. I hadn't thought of using it as a header. Maybe if I did more book reviews I would!

Ruth said...

Thank you, Linda.

I think being numb as the root of the word fits the context of the passage I quoted. Actually that's a good way of thinking about lack of awareness. I heard someone say yesterday (was it Pema Chodron?) that when she gets up in the morning she asks in her mind, "What am I curious about today?" When you're numb to what's around you, you stop being curious.

Ruth said...

Thank you for your kindness, DS. I'll more likely be floating with you than the other way around in the near future. Thanks for the inspiration.

Renee said...

I don't think I have read any thing from him.


Vagabonde said...

I did write a comment for this post but somehow must have written the wrong word verification. I was telling you that I bought both the Ambassadors and Portrait of a Lady a while back and that because of your interesting review they will now be at the top of my reading list. I also would like to say that you header photographs are lovely.

Ruth said...

Hello, Renee, love and warmth to you.

Ruth said...

Oh hello, Vagabonde, dratted word verification.

I think I'll try Portrait next, but I don't know when.

And thank you, the photos in the header were taken last winter. We have snow now, but not that much.