Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Ambassadors

The outline of The Ambassadors is promising for anyone with romantic leanings: Lewis Lambert Strether is sent to Paris by the formidable Mrs Newsome to bring home her wayward son, Chadwick, who is presumed to be under the influence of a wicked woman. Once he arrives, however, Strether begins to appreciate the charms of Paris, and discovers that Chad is really somewhat improved by his time away and even by the company he keeps.

Unfortunately, Henry James seems to have missed an opportunity to produce any particularly clear impression of Paris itself. There are few descriptions of the city and most of the action takes place in drawing rooms, hotels and private courtyards. This is disappointing given that James was certainly able to create a vivid sense of a city, as he did with Florence in Portrait of a Lady. (It is difficult to be too critical on this point since anyone who picks up this book, regardless of whether they have visited Paris or not, is likely to have an imagined Paris. This imagined Paris will possibly prove resistant to all forms of attack, such as other people’s opinions or an encounter with the real thing. Still, it is a shame that the novel does not indulge more of our collective imaginings.)

Paris is used for contrast with Woollett Massachusetts, a town that by all reports is not especially interesting but well loved by its inhabitants. With the exception of a scene at Notre Dame, the novel could have been set almost anywhere sufficiently far from Woollett as to require the dispatch of its ambassadors in person to retrieve Chad. The lack of physical description may be necessary given that the novel is frequently cited as an example of ‘psychological’ fiction. It does draw out the consequences of choosing a life which departs from that which society or family might expect. To most modern readers, the source of the conflict in the novel is unlikely to be as psychologically interesting as it was at the time of publication. The passage of time has robbed the novel of some of its impact and relevance. By confining the narrative to Strether’s perspective, the novel also fails to explore the full richness of the psychological material offered by the story. However, it does make a clear case for avoiding prejudgment, and hearing all the facts before reaching an opinion. It also suggests that, providing we are ready to learn and to be open to life’s variety and challenges, we are susceptible to change at any age.

The Ambassadors is not easy to read, and James has a penchant for interrupting his characters mid-sentence for no apparent reason. Along with the unlikely-sounding dialogue, this has the effect of jolting us back to awareness that this is a novel, in which the author frequently makes his presence a nuisance. The plot may be enough to tempt others to read this book, especially given that it was James’ personal favourite of his novels. Perhaps their efforts will be rewarded with something more than a pervasive sense of drawing room hush and the sound of polite but irritatingly difficult conversation.

Life isn't a novel. It's lots of novels, one after the other.