My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In his Preface to this 1903 novel, Henry James pronounces it “quite the best, ‘all round,’ of all my productions.” He explains that its seed was planted when a friend told him of “a thing or two said to him by a man of distinction, much his senior…in Paris, and in a charming old garden attached to a house of art, and on a Sunday afternoon of summer, many persons of great interest being present.” James built his novel around what he called this “beautiful outbreak,” whose center is the novel’s most famous lines, and some of the most famous lines in all of James:
“Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?”
What James means by “life,” and whether his novel in fact “lives” all it can, are the questions The Ambassadors provokes. It is one of the novels of James’s famous (or notorious) late period. A number of events—his failure to become a successful playwright in the 1890s; his increasing obsession with perfecting fictional form, partially on the model of drama; and his shift, apparently due to a repetitive stress injury, from written composition to dictation to an amanuensis—caused his work to turn from the more solid social realism of his early and middle period, with its monuments and masterpieces like Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Bostonians, to novels devoted almost entirely to the subjective states of their protagonists and written in an ambiguous, riddling, and quasi-unreadable style of periphrasis, circumlocution, and evasive dialogue.
To many of his contemporaries, figures as diverse as H. G. Wells and Oscar Wilde, “life” was precisely what this verbose and euphemistic fiction lacked. In his Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster complained of the later James “that most of human life has to disappear before he can do us a novel.” Such objections later died down when James’s innovations became codified with modernism and systematized in creative-writing instruction; most novelists today use Jamesian technique almost as a matter of course, particularly when it comes to the question of point of view, whether they’ve read much or any James at all.
During the rather conservative mid 20th century, James was hailed as “The Master” and his novels unquestionably the finest and most mature America had ever produced. He hasn’t even been displaced from this eminence as much as we might expect by the more recent leftist critique of the canon, even though he wrote almost exclusively about social elites, and from a political perspective we might most succinctly characterize as “reactionary liberalism.” Instead, the very difficulty and ambiguity of his fiction’s form and content were said to anticipate theoretical trends like deconstruction and queer theory. While he was once championed as the most normative of American novelists, the one who introduced European standards and high-culture values to the often bizarrely romantic and populist tradition of the American novel, he was later celebrated as the least normative, the positively queerest, but therefore ironically still the best of our writers.
I am happy to join in this adulation when it comes to James’s middle period. There may be better American novels than The Portrait of a Lady, but probably not very many. I’ve always had more trouble with late James—I even have moods where The Turn of the Screw seems more like a stunt than an organic work of art—and The Ambassadors is no exception.
The novel narrates about half a year in the life of the middle-aged Lambert Strether. He is a native of Woollett, Massachusetts, where he runs a literary journal and hopes to marry its wealthy patroness, Mrs. Newsome, who owns a business that manufactures a practical item infamously never named in the novel—something trivial-seeming or vulgar, buttons or chamber pots, but which in any case stands for American pragmatism and earthiness. Unfortunately, Mrs. Newsome’s adult son, Chad, who is supposed to take over the business, has overstayed by several years his youthful time in Paris. Mrs. Newsome fears he’s become entangled with women of ill repute or some other untoward circumstance, so she dispatches Strether to go to Paris and bring Chad back; it’s implied that this will be a condition of his marrying her (and her fortune).
From almost the moment he lands in England, however, Strether finds his “adventure”—so it is frequently called in the novel—filling him with “impressions”—another oft-repeated key word—that are more rewarding than any stable success in America could be. He reflects on “the period of conscious detachment occupying the centre of his life, the grey middle desert of the two deaths, that of his wife and that, ten years later, of his boy.” He hasn’t been to Europe since he himself was younger than Chad and feels he’s missed some chance to consummate his love of its culture and traditions; as poignant as the early revelation of his familial loss is, this missed aesthetic connection almost seems the real tragedy of his life. He finds himself, in the novel’s very first paragraph, glad that his American traveling companion isn’t there to meet him at the dock, and on the novel’s second page, he contemplates “the oddity of a double consciousness. There was detachment in his zeal and curiosity in his indifference.” His period of “detachment” has metamorphosed from numbness to disinterested observation alert only to beauty and complexity, and Paris is about to furnish better materials than puritanical, business-minded New England for such a consciousness to feed on.
He confronts the subsequent events of the narrative with the roving and appetitive eye of the aesthete. For the whole length of the 500-page text, Strether only sees and never lives, if living implies taking decisive action, forming permanent attachments, or even making beautiful things. “Live all you can” pragmatically means not “seize” but “see” the day for Strether as for his deviser. It’s tempting to think that James wanted with this portrait of a lonely man to write the tragedy of the unlived life, but then a more vulgarly robust and less acutely (even neurotically) observant hero would not have served this novel as the fluid conscious medium of its narrative. James, determined to establish fiction as a proper art form to stand beside poetry and drama, carefully limits his third-person narrative to Strether’s and only Strether’s viewpoint. It is a tour-de-force of “restricted narration” that, by the time James Wood tells us How Fiction Works a little over a century later, seems like the most obvious and natural mode in which to write a novel.
James even wisely explains in his Preface why the first-person POV doesn’t usually serve a novel as well as the third-person limited viewpoint: because the first-person narrator, conscious of an audience, “has exhibitional conditions to meet…that forbid the terrible fluidity of self-revelation.” In other words, first-person narrators are too rhetorical and defensive (“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” Humbert Humbert is always appealing) to do anything but conceal their consciousness, whereas the third-person narrator, seated within the protagonist’s psyche, can more easily disclose all. This is important advice for our hyper-self-conscious age of autofiction, when the perils and disadvantages of the first-person perspective are too little discussed.
What is it that Strether’s transparent eyeball perceives? Most consequentially, he sees that Chad has changed. The erstwhile boy is now a man, with streaks of gray in his hair and a suavity, charm, and air of cultivation that hadn’t been evident to Strether back in America. Strether attributes his transformation to Madame de Vionnet, a married 38-year-old mother (her estranged husband is “a brute”) whom the 20-something Chad has been, in some measure, “seeing.” (The nested vaguenesses of a qualified description placed in distancing quotation marks is a Jamesian stylistic signature.) Strether is persuaded of the authenticity, the beauty, and the authority of Chad’s improving relation with his emotional patroness; James implicitly invites us to compare it with Strether’s own more straitened apprenticeship to the forbidding and remote Mrs. Newsome.
Associating Mme. de Vionnet with the majesty of French history and culture—in her apartment, he exquisitely detects “some glory, some prosperity of the First Empire, some Napoleonic glamour, some dim lustre of the great legend” and “the world of Châteaubriand, of Madame de Staël, even of the young Lamartine”—Strether tells Chad that he is in the older woman’s debt for granting him a Bildung that would not have been available in our crass America:
“You owe her everything—very much more than she can ever owe you. You’ve in other words duties to her, of the most positive sort; and I do n’t see what other duties—as the others are presented to you—can be held to go before them.”
In short—I am passing over a number of complications, including Mrs. Newsome’s dispatch of her daughter and other family members across the Atlantic to recover both Chad and the now-errant Strether—Strether effectively forbids Chad to go home, even at the cost of forsaking his remunerative marriage to Chad’s mother.
Yet Strether eventually discovers that Chad’s relationship with Mme. de Vionnet is not as innocent as he’d supposed: on a day trip to the country, he catches the couple in what is clearly a tryst. Despite this moral letdown, when the high culture of the Old World reveals itself to be underpinned by couplings as crude as the manufacture of useful items, Strether ends the novel treasuring his impressions—and refusing an offer of marriage from a confidante he’d enlisted earlier in the journey. He claims that he can’t marry her because, if he comes out of the trip having gained something for himself, his motive in instructing Chad not to go home will be impugned as somehow self-serving. With as much good taste as his author, he prevents the novel from becoming a merely redemptive travelogue, the account of an erotic pilgrim, Eat, Pray, Live All You Can or How Strether Got His Groove Back. But at the base of the novel’s vision—I use this word advisedly—is a horror and revulsion at the palpable world. Strether meditates again and again, alone and in company, on “what he came out for,” and the answer is “to see.” Nothing more, nothing less. Touch would be vulgar, inherently compromising.
James—or rather, the reader—pays a high price for this exaltation of the specular and demotion of the otherwise sensuous. Later novelists as stylistically and thematically diverse as James Joyce, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison use James’s restricted third-person narrative technique to immerse us in their protagonists’ sensoria, so that we feel what they feel with all five senses, from young Stephen Dedalus’s urine-soaked bed to the agonies of Mr. Sammler’s wartime experience or Sethe’s bondage on the plantation. But Strether is just an eye and a mind. We feel very little of the external world in The Ambassadors, and despite the hints I’ve quoted above, get very little feel for the Parisian culture Strether finds so alluring.
Moreover, we’re told over and over in the novel by other characters that Strether is a unique figure, a “special case,” someone who is both “wonderful” and possessed of “too much imagination.” Therefore it’s never quite clear if his perspective on the action is at all reliable; because the narrative provides no stable external view of the action, we don’t know if Strether’s response makes any sense. For example, long before he learns that Chad is sleeping with Mme. de Vionnet, he finds that Chad has married off her young daughter to a man she barely knows, acting in effect as a pimp in European high society’s marriage market as meat market, where women are all but chattel (contrast the authoritative Mrs. Newsome, representing the power of middle-class domestic woman in Anglo-American culture). Why does this event not strike Strether as sordid or compromising? Further—maybe I am looking with too contemporary an eye—how can he really have believed Chad’s relationship to Mme. de Vionnet to have been platonic? Why wouldn’t it have been an affair from the first?
Such ambiguity need not be a problem. Later, more experimental fiction—everything from Nightwood to The Unconsoled to the fiction of Kafka, Anna Kavan, and J. G. Ballard—will thrive on a diet of amoral delirium, abnormal psychology, and verbal hijinks. But James, despite the turn to formalism marked by his self-congratulation in the Preface for having used one of the novel’s main characters solely as a plot device, still wants to write the type of moral drama he perfected in the 1880s. There is not enough information in The Ambassadors for it to work as a moral tale, however, even an ambiguous one. There is no solid ground in the Jamesian stream of consciousness from which readers may judge the novel’s events as just or unjust, common or aberrant. It is all irony or no irony, neither fully modernist nor fully realist, and unsatisfying as an example of either mode.
In the meta-text of literary history, we might say, then, that James, as the emissary of the 19th century in the 20th, failed his commission, just the ambassador Strether did his, though in neither case can we deny that some extraordinary impressions were gathered on the adventure.