The Ambassadors by Henry James

I was listening to the radio and writers were being interviewed about books that had been tough to read but which in the end proved worth the trouble. Henry James was mentioned more than any other writer. I can half see why they said that, after reading this; but only half. Unfortunately for me, I think the half that is missing is the half when you say ‘ah, so it was worth it’.

I had only read the Turn of the Screw before this, which I enjoyed. But that is only a novella or, perhaps, as short story.

His style is so vague and elliptical, in this book, that it is often hard to figure out what, if anything, is going on. He uses ambiguous phrases like ‘make out’ and ‘bring on’ in the course of dialogue which is often opaque in its meaning. This is clearly deliberate, as we share in the protagonist’s journey of understanding. He has been sent by a rather buttoned-up American family to bring the son, perceived to be errant, back from Paris. He realises during his mission that things are not so simple, of course. This creates a bit of dramatic tension, hard though that is to follow behind the linguistic mists of James’s style. It also supports one of the novel’s central themes, the nature of civilisation and the differences between cultures.

Much is inferred rather than stated, not least in relation to sex. I spent a lot of the book trying to understand whether we were dealing with friendships or love affairs. Perhaps that uncertainty reflects real life and is to be appreciated on that basis. But it can be bewildering when spread out over a whole novel.

A practical point – I was reading the Penguin Classics text and it contained a number of annoying typographical errors.

I won’t be rushing to read another novel by Henry James, to be honest. The period he wrote in fascinates me, however, and I fancy Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. But for this reader, James is a bit too much like hard work, for now at any rate.


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