~Spoiler warning for Henry James’ The Ambassadors~
Very soon after I started Henry James’ The Ambassadors, it became my bus book. Bus books are the ones I really do want to finish, but they don’t make it out of my backpack when I’m home– there’s always some other book (or the internet) that grabs my attention first. They end up living in my backpack for commuting and lunch hours, and get read eventually, maybe with a non-bus rush at the end once momentum has built.
Many of my bus books are classics or Good Hard Books, like the ones by my Dead Literary Boyfriends, Nabokov and James. In the case of The Ambassadors, Henry James himself told the Duchess of Sutherland to read it five pages at a time, “but don’t break the thread…& then the full charm will come out.” Some kinda nerve to give your friends their reading instructions, huh? This book was his favorite and I think he really wanted it to be liked. Anyway, five pages at a time it makes for a great bus book.
It was my first “late James,” and sometimes I wondered if I was actually understanding what the characters were talking about. Sometimes I wondered if any of them ever did, said, or thought anything straightforward. (How Henry James would hate Twitter.) Sometimes I marveled that anyone reads this book, even though I myself was loving it. I laughed when I ran across this Amazon review by David K. Hill:
When the topic is obvious and simple, his characters question one another intensely trying to determine what it is they are talking about. When the topic is strange and hidden, amazingly they all understand each other perfectly and silently.
My favorite small thing is how every now and then, in all the thickets of clauses and commas, there’s a rush of adjectives spilling out like their subject has flashed too bright and quick to be slowed down and contained by grammar:
What was clearer still was that the handsome young man at her side was Chad Newsome, and what was clearest of all was that she was therefore Mademoiselle de Vionnet, that she was unmistakeably pretty–bright gentle shy happy wonderful–and that Chad now, with a consummate calculation of effect, was about to present her to his old friend’s vision.
Or this one:
It was of Chad she was after all renewedly afraid; the strange strength of her passion was the very strength of her fear; she clung to him, Lambert Strether, as to a source of safety she had tested, and, generous graceful truthful as she might try to be, exquisite as she was, she dreaded the term of his being within reach.
And Jeanne, married off to an aristocrat, goodbye, sank without a ripple like Isabel Archer. Damn. And what of Maria Gostrey? All I know is if I see someone online using the handle Maria Gostrey, I will think there’s likely an interesting person.
The reason I decided to read The Ambassadors now is because one of my alphabetical-reading books, Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies, is described as a “photographic negative” of James’ novel. Eh, a bit, particularly in the comparison of Europe and America, which for me is pretty much the least interesting aspect of James but one of the most talked about. I did Ozick’s book no favors by reading it right after The Ambassadors— the multiple points of view in Foreign Bodies mostly brought home to me how masterful James was in keeping to Lambert Strether’s perspective through that whole long knotty novel. There was some good writing in the Ozick, and some that didn’t move me. I copied down one culminating quote that for me held the photographic-negative effect:
She thought: How hard it is to change one’s life.
And again she thought: How terrifyingly simple to change the lives of others.
Now I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s The Wyrd Sisters. My friend Pat played Granny Weatherwax in the stage adaptation last year, and I have a slight case of picturing the actors as the book characters. Especially Magrat, for some reason. Most recent quote I swooned over in the “it’s so true” way that Pratchett induces:
The castle was full of people standing around in that polite, sheepish way affected by people who see each other all day and are now seeing each other again in unusual social circumstances, like an office party.
Wyrd Sisters will be with me at home and on the bus til I finish it, because today I gave up on another O book and bus book, George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. The protagonist was too angry-sad-sack, a la Lucky Jim, and I didn’t want to spend one more minute with him.