2010: 29. The Ambassadors

“Streuther’s first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive until evening he was not wholly disconcerted.”

The Ambassadors, Henry James

      The Ambassadors is exactly the type of book that epitomizes why I keep reading this Modern Library Top 100 list (other than sheer cussedness).  At first it drove me mad, as James is prone to do - I slogged through the beginning, forcing myself to read at least one chapter per bus ride before I gave up and turned to iPhone Scrabble.  I even went on line to cheat on the plot and to make sure I wasn’t missing something (I wasn’t).  And yet, by the end, I started to sort of love it, despite itself.  It’s so Henry James.  The obfuscatory prose, which hides the entire plot under two feet of language, and the plot, which is about a man who goes to Europe to bring back his fiancee’s wayward son, but finds a sort of liberation in the old world, is so Henry (even to the end, where BIG TIME SPOILER he can’t quite pull the trigger on happiness).  Like The Wings of the Dove, I can’t help but think that people aren’t like this anymore - we aren’t so concerned with HONOR and PROPRIETY and we aren’t so goddamned angst ridden about every minor human emotion.  And that aspect, coupled with the alienating way in which James writes, putting about forty feet between us and his characters, can make the work seem sort of alien.  But deep down its a story about a man finding himself, and learning about the world, and realizing that although he thought he understood the Way. Things. Work., he was wrong.  And that in itself is pretty interesting (the liberation of Lambert Strether!) - and then James goes the extra step (again, MAJOR SPOILER ALERT), of having Strether, with his eyes open and knowing what he now knows, turning back to his old ways.  So interesting, and I’m not quite sure I get it, but I do know that despite my groaning, I’m glad to have read The Ambassadors.

Still, I think I’ll take a long break before I pick up The Golden Bowl.

Date/Place Completed:  March 2010; D.C.

Categories:  Fiction, Modern Library Top 100


© Carrie Dunsmore 2017