One of the books I’m reading at the moment is about self-editing for fiction writers. The authors’ main bits of advice is ‘Resist the Urge to Explain’. You can tell that it’s important, because it contains capitals and has its own acronym – RUE. Henry James would not have needed this advice, as he never feels the urge to explain, let alone gives in to it.
By the end of the first paragraph of The Ambassadors I was hoping that he would take pity on me and write more plainly, but no. He makes his readers work so hard that very few, even those who make it to the end, can have any idea about what’s going on in the novel. This, apparently, was James’ intention. He wanted the reader to feel as confused as Lambert Strether, the character from whose point of view everything is told.
When James first proposed the novel to Harper’s Magazine, its editor, H. M. Alden, said that “The tissues of it are too subtly fine for general appreciation. It is subjective, fold within fold of a complex mental web, in which the reader is lost if his much-wearied attention falters.” Alden was obviously a sensible man. I think more readers over the past century would have enjoyed the book more if Alden had convinced James to make it a little easier for us, but James described it as “the best, all round, of my productions.”
As far as the plot goes, it’s very straightforward. Strether has been sent from America to Paris by his fiancée to bring back her wayward son so that he can take his place in the manufacturing business he may or may not have inherited. I never quite worked out which of the two it was. Once in Paris, Strether tries to find out why the young man hasn’t already returned to his mother and discovers that it’s because of a woman, as everyone had expected. He then spends a few chapters trying to find out the nature of their relationship. I confess to being surprised by this bit, but that just shows how times have changed. There’s a bit of a clue, in that the woman is older and unhappily married. It takes 400 pages for the true nature of the relationship and the characters of the participants to be revealed to him. Before you think that Strether is a fool, I should make it clear that the obvious answer does occur to him immediately, but he’s persuaded to believe something else.
Although most of the ‘action’ takes place in Paris, most of the characters are Amercian. One of the notes to the novel quotes Christopher Campos who wrote, “At heart [James] was fascinated by Europeans, and yet he always suspected them of possessing some secret that was out of his reach because they would never express it clearly.” This is reflected in the character of Strether. He’s a man of little imagination, but he falls in love with Paris and France. He finds a freedom there that he could never have known in New England.
The writing is beautiful and I collected a few wonderful sentences in my commonplace book. The two which I think sum up Strether and lead to the climax of the novel are, “It was all there, in short – it was what he wanted: it was Tremont Street, it was France, it was Lambinet. Moreover, he was freely walking about in it.”
My favourite sentence, though, comes from the beginning of the novel when Strether meets Maria Gostrey, “[Her eyes] had taken hold of him straightaway, measuring him up and down as if they knew how; as if he were human material they had already in some sort handled.” Miss Gostrey is possibly the most frustrating of the characters and rarely says a sentence that has a plain meaning.
Not surprisingly, the ending is ambiguous, not just for Strether, but for most of the other characters. There are hints and what might happen to them, but loose ends abound.
You’d be right if you think I wasn’t enamoured of the novel, but it does have many witty moments, like the quotation about Maria Gostrey above. Some of James’ tortuous sentences pleased me immensely, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the fog of unknowing which wrapped itself around the narrative.