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In the second novel of Henry James' celebrated late period, American Lambert Strether is sent to Paris on behalf of Mrs. Newsome, his fiancée, to collect her son, Chad. When Strether finds Chad, he discovers an altered man and becomes introduced to a free and unconventional style of life that soon intoxicates him. His views begin to change; the morality of Woollett, his hometown, becomes foreign, and the "ambassador" loses sight of his mission.... Part tragedy, part comedy, The Ambassadors is a rewarding portrait about one man's late awakening.
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Interesting but unfulfilling
This was listed 27th on the Modern Library 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. I can understand this in a kind of abstract way. The writing and subject were interesting, modern, and unusual. I don't find that this has aged very well. The main character is an American small town fellow sent to Paris to retrieve a wayward younger man, and instead discovers the limits of his own experience and comes to question his conventional wisdom.
The writing is narrated from the protagonists point-of-view, and we see him slowly change. Yet, it was quite difficult for me to immerse myself in the characters or story. The characters' dialog is a bit abstracted, as if in (a very long) play. Post-Me-Generation readers may have trouble bonding with the protagonist's challenge of finding himself in Paris. It felt as if this book were written for the author, as self-therapy, without much consideration of other readers. I found this interesting and was glad I read it, but would not read it again, nor recommend it to most readers.
The narration is mostly clear, but the pacing is stilted, the female voices are weak, and editing left in several mistakes/repeats.
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- brenda engel
A treat for the listener
this is an extraordinary reading of a late master piece of Henry James. Highly recommended.
The Heart of Parisian Darkness
In certain ways, Henry James was like the Seinfeld of his time. Not because he was a brilliant comedian so much as he beautifully and artistically wrote about nothing. It really is to bad that his stuff, even the Ambassadors which is supposedly his most clever, just isn't funny.
The only reason I am reading Henry James is because his works are included in the list of the Top 100 novels of the Modern Library. In fact, "The Wings of the Dove" and "The Ambassadors" are ranked #26 and #27 (and The Golden Bowl" is still to come at #32). And I keep enduring because the critics rave about his work and I just keep hoping that, at some point, a lightbulb will illuminate inside my head and I'll get it.
But I don't.
Henry James is a wordsmith of the tedious and tired. I should be interested about the trials and travails of Americans "abroad on the continent" at the turn of the century because I have read so many biographies of my countrymen escaping the priggish, Victorian confines of America to pursue both art and science in the modern capitols of Europe. And yet, somehow, James has made me loathe and despise these people as wearing and loathesome creatures too calculating, self conscious and disinclined to straight speak to the point that I want to wallop each and every one of them with a croquet mallet.
Look, all writers have verbal crutches but I got so accustomed to James' overwrought style that I could tell the moment he was about to have a character "hang fire" a paragraph before he had them do so. I am not sure if he is just madly in love with American idiom and just feels the need to "Jamesplain" every American catch phrase as if the reader couldn't figure out for themselves that, yes, this is indeed an American turn of phrase.
"The Ambassadors" is at least relatively more entertaining than "The Wings of the Dove" which were penned a year apart. These were in his later years while he had settled in Sussex, England where he wrote the three novels I am conscribed to endure.
It struck me, as I was wading through "The Ambassadors" that there was something familiar about the story which centers around a magazine editor from Massachusetts being dispatched by his fiancee, who also happens to be the magazine's owner, to Paris to retrieve her errant son who seems to have been "caught up" in the Parisian lifestyle, very likely in the clutches of "a woman." His seemingly straight forward mission, to terminate the lad's Parisian foray, becomes complicated as the messenger finds himself getting caught up in Parisian life as well.
And then it struck me.
Heart of Darkness.
James was retelling Joseph Conrad's tale, exchanging the Belgian Congo for the foreboding gardens of the Tuilieries. I have found no similar literary comparison however, "Heart of Darkness" was originally published as a serial in 1899 in the British Blackwood's Magazine and as a novel in 1902. James began work on "The Ambassadors" in 1900, serialized in Boston's North American Review in 1903 and novelized later that year. "Heart of Darkness" was not much acclaimed when first published. Interestingly, Conrad wrote a glowing academic appraisal of the works of Henry James in 1905 whose works he boasted as holding a prominent place on his bookshelf. Perhaps Conrad was hinting at such a thought himself as this passage from his review of James' work could suggest.
"I do not know into what brand of ink Mr. Henry James dips his pen; indeed, I heard that of late he had been dictating; but I know that his mind is steeped in the waters flowing from the fountain of intellectual youth. The thing--a privilege--a miracle--what you will--is not quite hidden from the meanest of us who run as we read. To those who have the grace to stay their feet it is manifest. After some twenty years of attentive acquaintance with Mr. Henry James's work, it grows into absolute conviction which, all personal feeling apart, brings a sense of happiness into one's artistic existence. If gratitude, as someone defined it, is a lively sense of favours to come, it becomes very easy to be grateful to the author of The Ambassadors--to name the latest of his works. The favours are sure to come; the spring of that benevolence will never run dry. The stream of inspiration flows brimful in a predetermined direction, unaffected by the periods of drought, untroubled in its clearness by the storms of the land of letters, without languor or violence in its force, never running back upon itself, opening new visions at every turn of its course through that richly inhabited country its fertility has created for our delectation, for our judgment, for our exploring. It is, in fact, a magic spring."
Perhaps I read too much into Conrad's analysis. Perhaps he was a gushing appreciant of James' work.
Or, through his effusive praise, perhaps Conrad was saying a lot about nothing to hint that the fountain of his creativity flowed from the dark waters of the Congo previously navigated by Conrad himself.
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