The Ambassadors by Henry James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

He had spoken in the tone of talk for talks sake, and yet with an obscure truth lurking in the loose folds…

One would think that, of all the people living on this good green earth, I would be especially prone to loving this particular work of literature. After all, it is about a young American who moved to Europe, fell in love, and then resisted his family’s entreaties to come back and make more money. If you know anything about me, you will know that this has a special resonance. I am also, as it happens, a lover of fancy prose and classic novels. Clearly, in my case, the book’s prospects were extremely favorable.

It is with mild surprise, then, that I report that my feelings are mixed. This is not a novel that one can easily love. It is, rather, a product of James’s infamous late style, which divided critics at the time and has continued to do so ever since. There are many ways to characterize this style—dense, laborious, obscure—but I think that the keynote here is vague. Both in his descriptive passages and his dialogue, James maintains a kind of studious vagueness that can be either delightful or infuriating, depending on your mood and taste. In everything from his sentence structure, to his dialogue, to his descriptions, to his plotting—vagueness reigns.

To indulge in highfalutin terminology, I would say that this is an aesthetic triumph at the expense of humanistic value.

First, the triumph. James, at his best, achieves something like that achieved by the impressionist painters. The strokes of his pen are suggestive rather than illustrative. He asks much of the reader; and this means that the reader becomes an active part of the story. Virtually nothing—not the book’s resolution, nor the personality of the major characters, nor even the meaning of some knotty sentences—is unambiguous, which means that each reader can make the book her own. In other words, James’s late style is quite like the Ostomachion of Archimedes: a set of puzzle pieces that can be assembled in a myriad of ways.

I say that this is an aesthetic triumph because James achieves an effect that is unique, distinctive, novel, and demanding. He creates, in other words, his own aesthetic realm. The cageyness, the uncertainty, the self-referential quirks of this book—we can clearly see, in retrospect, that James was paving the way for literary modernism. And like much of modernism, I think that this aesthetic triumph comes at a great cost to humanistic value.

To simplify matter somewhat, you can describe this loss at the emphasis of form over content. The novels of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Elliot, Tolstoy—say what you will about them, but they have an awful lot of content. Putting aside whatever explicit messages these novels may carry, they introduce us to concrete places, to remarkable individuals, to unforgettable stories. They capture, in other words, a human reality; and in so doing they help us to come to grips with life itself. Now, do not get me wrong: all of these authors also have aesthetic merits. If they did not, they would not be artists at all—merely columnists. My point is that their artistic style was entirely compatible with a definite view of the world, a view that is communicated in their works. This I call their humanistic value.

My main criticism of this book, then, is that James’s remarkable aesthetic sense overpowered whatever message he wished to transmit. Based on a straightforward reading, the intended message is this: American culture is narrow and materialistic, and it leads people to give up enjoyment for superficial, conventional reasons. We are, thus, presented with a cast of characters who embody this difference. Strether and Chad are exquisitely sensitive to the charms of Europe, and improve under its influence; while other Americans, such as Waymarsh, insistently stay within their narrow horizons.

The problem is, again, the vagueness. James is insistently vague on every detail. How exactly is life in Europe more liberating than life in America? And how exactly have Strether or Chad improved? These may seem like superficial questions, but the entire weight of the plot hinges on them. We cannot come to any moral conclusion without knowing the details. Indeed, James is so impressionistic in his portrayal of the main characters that we can hardly come to any conclusions at all. Do we even like these people? Even the ending is veiled in vagueness. Will Chad return to America? And why does Strether decide to return? And is his return a failure, or a success, or what? It is simply impossible to answer these questions.

Perhaps I would have been able to stomach all of these irresolutions if I had absolutely adored James’s style. But I do not. Indeed, I confess to finding James’s prose quite ugly—laborious, convoluted, and dry. There is hardly a passage in this book that one can read aloud without sounding like an alien. The following is entirely typical:

Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then. It has begun in fact already upstairs and before the dressing-glass that struck him as blocking further, so strangely, the dimness of the window of his dull bedroom; begun with a sharper survey of the elements of Appearance than he had for a long time been moved to make.

A few sentences of this may be fine; but pages of it are painful. Granted, James is capable of quite lovely writing. I was enchanted, for example, by his description near the end, of Strether’s venture into the French countryside. Yet, all too often, the book is like this passage: opaque. His dialogue is only slightly better—readable, and yet still plagued by the strained and unnatural cadences of James’s prose. Besides this, James’s characters have the same tendency to vagueness as James himself, and never spell out what they mean.

Obviously this will come down to taste. I like things to be clear and unambiguous. That is my taste. James clearly did not agree. That I liked this book in spite of this divergence is a testament to James’s aesthetic power. He was an artist in the highest sense of the word.

View all my reviews

One thought on “Review: The Ambassadors

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s