1903, Books, Fiction

The Ambassadors (1903) by Henry James

I hate giving up on a book – I just hate it. I have a really strong completist streak in me that has helped me endure through things I’ve really disliked. Since I graduated university I can count the number of books I’ve given up on, on one hand. Usually, it’s non-fiction (such as The Creature from Jekyll Island) when I recognize huge flaws in an argument that will not be corrected by the end. But with fiction I always hold out hope that the ending will redeem the book (same thing with films).

I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, and I’m realizing I have less and less time left, and I should only ever read things that I benefit from in some way, or whether it’s because this really is the most intolerable of James’ novels, but I can’t take it any more.

This book is considered, by some, to be the first “modern” novel and I think I know why: it completely elevates its (elusive, maddening) style over substance. It might be the first time in the history of the English language that style took such precedence over subject. (You could say something like Tristam Shandy elevates style over substance to this degree, but in Tristam Shandy the style is the substance. I cannot convince myself of that with this James novel.)

The narrator talks in ellipses. This is something James has always done but it’s particularly over the top here. (It’s particularly maddening for me because this is a bad habit of mine that I am trying to break.) But what’s worse is that the characters speak in ellipses. (Nobody talks like that!) Maybe not all of them, but the vast majority of them, so that they are rendered virtually indistinguishable from each other and, as James bores you to death with his sentences that never end that are often about nothing but what it is that cannot be told, you start to not be able to tell who is speaking. They cease to become characters and instead feel like projections of the narrator or Strether.

Speaking of Streher, I have always found James’ main characters to be a little flimsy in the development area, often changing their behaviour to meet the plot, or acting as blank slates for the other characters. Here, Strether often feels like he has no character of his own, that he is just a series of extraordinarily vague and confused impressions of the other characters – who speak as he does, in riddles – of his mission and, if we’re lucky, of the setting of a particular scene.

This book is the most elusive book I think I have ever read. It reminds me of Little Big, but Little Big has fantasy and mystery in it, and those are not present here. I have given up on the secret of Chad and his women because, whatever it is, it will not satisfy me that this boring, maddening novel is worth it.

I don’t love Hemingway all the time, but reading Henry James, you can understand how a man like Hemingway felt somebody needed to redress the balance in English literature. This is a ridiculous novel.

4/10 merely because I didn’t finish it and don’t feel confident enough that it could improve slightly to deserve more than the 3/10 I would like to give it.

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