Goodreads Challenge 2019 Part 3

Pre-1900 2

Having chosen three books for the period 1900-1999 and three books for pre-1900, my next six books in the challenge are free choice, or wildcards as they’re known in the challenge. My next three choices are:

  • Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost
  • The Treasure of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan
  • The Bostonians by Henry James

All of these books have been sitting unread on my bookshelves for some years.

I’ve had Manon Lescaut the longest. I probably bought it when I was a student to fill out a gap in my reading. It was published in 1731 and was banned. Since then it’s been turned into operas, plays and films. I wouldn’t like to suggest that banning it contributed to its popularity, but you can probably draw your own conclusions.

I read Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies this year and The Treasure of the City of Ladies is a sequel, finished in 1405. Although I enjoyed The Book of the City of Ladies, there were some very grim bits, which I hope are missing from this one.

When I read Henry James’ The Ambassadors this year,  I didn’t get on with it terribly well. The Bostonians is a much earlier novel, first published in serialised form in 1885, and I’m hoping for a better experience. Some years ago I bought a few Henry James novels, having read and enjoyed The Golden Bowl and Washington Square, but I’m beginning to think that I prefer his shorter works.




The Ambassadors by Henry James – a Review

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Published: 1903

Pages: 503

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.


End of Week Twenty-Seven

Ambassadors 2

I’ve finished The Ambassadors. It took me a whole month, but it’s done. I can’t say that I enjoyed it, although there were enjoyable moments. There will be a review next week.

This week I’ve also read books two and three in the Lucifer Box trilogy and there will be reviews of them later, as well.

From my point of view, the good news is that I’m now reading  The Decameron. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. It’s a collection of stories told by ten people escaping the Black Death in Florence. Boccaccio was a great influence on Chaucer, who borrowed some of his stories, and many later writers. It’s also my intention to read Petrarch’s Canozoniere at the same time, since Petrarch and Boccaccio were friends. Both books are translations and I’ll be posting an introduction to them shortly. The Decameron has a 151-page Translator’s Introduction before I get to the stories themselves. It begins with a short biography of Boccaccio, which is enlightening. Contrary to what I thought, he didn’t like Florence (and might not even have been there during the Black Death), but he did like the court at Naples.

Troilus continues to fall into the depths of despair at the first sign of things going wrong in his relationship with Criseyde. Even his friend Pandarus seems tired of this and reminds Troilus (in a no less vulgar fourteenth-century phrase) that there are plenty more fish in the sea. One of the things I’m really enjoying with Troilus and Criseyde is finding out how old some proverbs are. When Pandarus is encouraging Troilus to look elsewhere, Chaucer tells us that ‘Oone ere it herde, at tother out it wente’. You probably don’t need me to translate, but it’s “It went in one ear and out of the other.”

End of Week Twenty-four

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The Ambassadors trundles on, covering me in confusion. It’s now a wonder to me that I’ve made my way through anything by Henry James. I always assumed that Washington Square and The Turn of the Screw were deliberately ambiguous, not knowing that James couldn’t, apparently, write in any other way.  I’m over halfway through the novel and I’m still not sure what it’s about. Is it about the middle-aged man sent to Paris, a town he knew in his happier youth, to retrieve the errant son of his fiancée? Is it about the son and his love for a married woman? Is it about the woman’s daughter? It could be about all of these and more.

I’m on the home straight with Castlereagh.  The Prince Regent is now George IV and England is suffering from riots and mobs. Castlereagh himself has just escaped an attempt on his life and on those of other cabinet members. I’m as guilty as the next person of thinking that Regency England was more or less as peaceful as Jane Austen presented it, but it was the time of the Peterloo Massacre, Luddites and the assassination of a prime minister in the lobby of the House of Commons. The roots of Victorian morality and repression are becoming much clearer.

I decided that I could do with something light and frothy, so I’m reading Elizabeth Bailey’s The Gilded Shroud,  which is a historical romance set in the late eighteenth century.  Although it is light and frothy, it begins with the discovery of a murder victim, which is a rather serious matter. It is, however, fun to read something where every sentence means just what it says.


Books read in 2018: 27

Books read in challenge: 6

When you’re reading a book that you’re not enjoying

Ambassadors 2

Yes, I’m afraid I am talking about The Ambassadors. Goodreads tells me that I’m just over a third of the way through. It has taken me ten days to get this far (about 20 pages a day), but I will continue to the end. I’ll do that because it’s on my Classics Challenge list, not because I want to make myself suffer. It’s on my list because it’s a classic I haven’t read before, so I’ve convinced myself that reading it will be good for me.

Even though it’s not an easy read, there are moments that are quite amusing. A couple of days ago I was reading a conversation between two people in which one of them was trying to find out, without asking the question, whether two mutual acquaintances were having an affair. It took me a while to work out that that was what was going on, but I smiled when I did.

Continuing to read a book that’s good for me is one thing, but what if I’m struggling with a book that isn’t a classic and probably never will be, or is a classic but just doesn’t appeal? I was into my 40s before I realised that I wasn’t going to finish every book I started and in my 50s before I was comfortable with the idea. I’m nearing my 60s now and I don’t have the time left to read things that aren’t going to educate or entertain me.

If I start a book, put it down and forget to pick it up again for a week, I’m probably not going to finish it. Does that mean that it’s not a good book? No, it just means that it’s not a book that’s holding my interest at the moment.

It was only last year that I created a did-not-finish shelf on Goodreads and it was a great relief to be able to admit that I was never going to finish something like A Brief History of Time, or The Road Less Travelled or (more surprisingly) Winter in Madrid.

Do you have to carry on reading to the end, or are you happy to put one book down and turn to another?

The End of Week Twenty-Three

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The Ambassadors was first published as a serial in the monthly magazine The North American Review in 1903. I learned this from a 17-page preface written by James, which seems to assume that the reader of the current edition has already read either the original serialisation or an earlier edition. I’m therefore going to finish reading the Preface when I’ve finished the book. The same thing applies to Christopher Butler’s Introduction.

The few pages of the preface that I read were quite hard to follow. At first I thought this was because I was drinking a glass of wine as I was reading, but, no, it turns out that this is the style of the book. The sentences are long and unwieldy and the paragraphs seem interminable.

My edition ((World’s Classics 1991) also has notes. So far, these consist of telling me how clever James is and saying that I’ll notice for myself how clever he is when I read the book for a second time.  Reading the book is not without joy, but it is hard work and I suspect that James expected the reader to work as hard as the writer had.

In other reading I’m still working my way through Castlereagh by John Bew. We’ve got to the Congress of Vienna and Napoleon has just escaped from Elba. This book is doing a very good job of filling in the many gaps in my understanding of what was going on during the Regency. Despite that, I would have preferred to know a bit more about Castlereagh’s private life. Since the subtitle is Biography of a Statesman, however, I should not have expected it. Despite its length (750 pages) and its subject matter, it’s proving to be a very easy book to read.


Books read in Challenge: 6

Books read in 2018: 25

The Ambassadors


The next book on my list for the classics challenge is The Ambassadors by Henry James. I’ve already met James this year. In 1909 he was introduced to Rupert Brooke on a visit to Cambridge. James was as impressed by Brooke’s physical appearance as everyone else and was relieved to learn that he was not much thought of as a poet. “If he looked like that and was a good poet, too, I do not know what I should do,” he said. Brooke was 21, James was 66. Brooke was, of course, very pleased with the impression he made on the older man, telling his friends that he had put on his boyish act.

Henry James was an American who lived for most of his life in Europe. He was born in New York in 1843 and went to law school in Harvard in 1862. He travelled extensively, settling in London in 1869. In 1898 he moved to Rye near the Sussex coast, where he wrote The Ambassadors in the early years of the twentieth century. ‘Settled’ implies that he barely moved from Sussex, but he continued to travel around Europe and in America.

As a result of his sympathy for the British position in the First World War, James became a British subject in 1915. By that time many men of Rupert Brooke’s generation, including Brooke and his younger brother, had died. James himself died in 1916. His ashes were taken back to America to be interred.

I have read some James in the past, most notably The Turn of the Screw, The Golden BowlWashington Square and The Europeans. I’m looking forward to The Ambassadors, as I enjoyed what I’ve read of him.

End of Week Twenty-Two


It has been a mixed week. I was very happy to finish The Erotic Poems, but unhappy about the picture I now have of Ovid. Reading The Erotic Poems was such a bad experience that I’m putting off moving on to The Ambassadors by Henry James, which is the next book in the Goodreads Classics Challenge. I should really find something a bit lighter to fill the gap, but dark and heavy seems to be the theme at the moment.

I have to confess to having made little progress on Troilus and Criseyde, but I’m more than halfway through now, and I always expected that it was going to be a year-long project. They’ve had their first assignation as lovers, arranged as always by Criseyde’s Uncle Pandarus, and it can only go downhill from here.

I’ve just started reading Blood Rose Angel by Lisa Perrat. It’s about a French midwife and is set in 1348. The Black Death has just made an appearance, so you can see that this is not the light reading I should have taken up after Ovid. It’s the third book about the Black Death I’ve read in 15 months, as it’s a subject I’m particularly interested in.  In the first few pages it was made clear that life in the fourteenth century was short and brutal; that everyone, except our heroine and her immediate family,  was superstitious; and that our heroine knows more about caring for and healing the sick than the local physician who studied medicine at a university for ten years.  I’ve read reviews that raved about this book and the others in the series, but I’m a quarter of the way through it and it hasn’t gripped me yet.

Books read in 2018: 25

Books read in challenge: 6

The Twelve


Here they are, sitting innocently on their shelf: the twelve classics I’m intending to read in 2018.

  1. Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (trans Max Hayward and Manya Harari)
  2. The Poetic Work of Rupert Brooke
  3. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  4. The Ambassadors by Henry James
  5. The Odyssey by Homer (trans E.V. Rieu)
  6. Phaedrus by Plato (trans C.J. Rowe)
  7. The Decameron by Boccaccio (trans G.H. McWilliam)
  8. Canzoniere by Petrarch (trans Anthony Mortimer)
  9. Erotic Poems by Ovid (trans Peter Green)
  10. The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (trans Rosalind Brown-Grant)
  11. The City of God by St Augustine (trans Henry Bettenson)
  12. Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer

The two standbys are:

  1. Becket by Anouilh
  2. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

This is quite a heavy list and I know I have to start with Dr Zhivago, as it’s a group read in the Catching up on Classics group in January. The poems can be read throughout the year, although I might decide to read them in one go. One of the things I like about this kind of challenge is that I have no idea how I’ll feel about any of the books when I get to them.

I’m also going to start Troilus and Criseyde next week. The poem itself is just over 300 pages long, but my Middle English is very poor and I want to be able to read it properly. It will probably take several weeks to read it.

Obviously I’ll be reading other books during the year and I’ll probably be mentioning some of them as we go on.

By the time I post again, I’ll have started reading. I’m looking forward to meeting Dr Zhivago.


The Second Three Books

Second Three (2)

The second three books come from before 1900. From now on you’ll mostly see books, plays and poetry more than five hundred years old. This is because of my plan to read things that might have been known to people in the fourteenth century, which will help me to write about them more sympathetically.

These contenders for a place on the list are:

  1. The Bostonians by Henry James
  2. The Ambassadors by Henry James
  3. The Odyssey by Homer (trans E.V. Rieu)
  4. Phaedrus by Plato (trans C. J. Rowe)

Of James’ works I’ve read Washington Square, The Europeans and The Turn of the Screw. I enjoyed all of them and would like to read something a bit longer. Since The Ambassadors was James’ own favourite, that’s the one I’m going for, unless anyone has something very strong to say against it.

That leaves The Odyssey and Phaedrus. I think the former has been on my shelves for almost thirty years and I must have started reading it once, but we didn’t quite hit it off. This time we might make it. I bought Phaedrus more recently in the hope that it would encourage me to work my way through Plato. It didn’t.  There’s a bookmark in the introduction, so this is another book I’ve started before and given up on. It’s fairly short, though, so I should be able to get through it, if it makes it to the final twelve.

Have you read any of these books? Should I read The Bostonians instead of The Ambassadors?