Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Ambassadors (1903)

A marriage usually looms large in Henry James's tales, which is the case in The Ambassadors, the second of his late three masterpieces. This novel also sees further returns to his themes around relations between the New World and the Old. Our hero, Lambert Strether, has been dispatched from Woollett, Massachusetts, to Paris, France, to collect the lone male heir of the Newsome family, who is wanted to run the family industry. The woman who sent him, Mrs. Newsome, is a widow Strether is interested in marrying for her money. The lone male heir is her nephew, Chad Newsome (compare Christopher Newman). Chad is 30 and presently having an affair with a married woman, Madame Marie de Vionnet. It's quite a pickle and the complications only start there. There are more characters, more intrigue, and more, many more, words. The language as always takes patience, but I'm happy to find The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove are both a cut above some of his novels of the previous 20 years. I'm still a little resentful of all the parsing and unpacking required, but the rewards are there. Strether, who is 55, is so charmed by Chad and Madame de Vionnet that ultimately he fails at his ambassadorial mission. The daughter of Mrs. Newsome, Chad's sister Sarah Pocock, is then dispatched to follow on and close the deal. Thus the plural of the title—first Strether and then Mrs. Pocock. This second team of diplomats, the Pocock entourage, is comical and a little horrifying, an early version of ugly American. In retrospect, perhaps, Mrs. Pocock is the one of them all that keeps her eye on the prize and maintains perspective. When I put myself in her place, and imagine a brother committed to a woman he can never marry—Madame de Vionnet is already married and also a bit older than Chad—I see the point. On the other hand, Chad's easy life and the gentle ways of European society near its best—well, I can see the appeal for Chad too. Mostly what surprises me is how well James keeps such a microscopic story of typical human foible interesting and even mysterious. The strange characters who populate this novel don't entirely make sense. I'm not sure what they're all doing here. But nonetheless something about it is so inspired it is positively a pleasure to battle through. And probably worth going back to as well.

"interlocutor" count = 6 / 518 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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