A gay friend of mine once put Henry James’ tendency to play hide and seek with the reader down to the same trait within himself with regards to his sexuality. Apparently he was deeply suspicious of everything that gave him pleasure. “Nothing came to him simply.” And in this novel nothing comes to us simply either.
I think it took me longer to read this than War and Peace. And that’s because virtually every sentence is like trying to figure out a rubic cube. There’s a moment when a character feels he is moving “in a maze of mystic closed allusions”. I couldn’t help wondering if Henry, not a renowned comedian, was having a laugh at the reader’s expense because that’s exactly what I felt as a reader during this novel. There were times when I was reminded of Nabokov and especially Ada, another novel that only inches open its door by degrees when we knock. So there’s something very modern about The Ambassadors. There’s a character who says, “Oh I don’t think anything now. That is but what I do think!” And this kind of mystification, these modifying clauses and sub clauses are a constant trait of this novel. Every sentence is a maze it takes two readings to get out of. It’d be easy to certify this novel as insane, an over-elaborate joke whose wit is lost on virtually everyone except the author, but once I managed to enter into its spirit of wilful obfuscation I began admiring it more and more. Communication, after all, is one of the major stumbling blocks in our lives. Every sentence delivered up to us contains numerous points of departure. To understand what’s communicated to us we simplify it and, as a result, often misrepresent it. Rarely is communication straightforward. We realise this most keenly when we are in love and find ourselves studying the words of the beloved with a metaphysical microscope. In a sense every character in this novel has the keyed up sensibility of the lover, both wilfully deflecting and hungrily truth seeking. The role of ambassador, like lover, is to mask the truth as often as to disclose it.
That said it baffled me when I read afterwards what Henry James thought was the defining passage of this book – “Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t matter what you do in particular, so long as you have had your life. If you haven’t had that, what have you had?” Is this novel an exhortation to live life to the full? I don’t understand how any character who circles around an answer to a simple question for four paragraphs could be seen as living life to full. In the time it takes the characters to arrive at any defining disclosure in this novel one could have caught the Eurostar to Paris and enjoyed lunch on the terrace of a brasserie. At times it was like a literary version of Big Brother – watching people who have nothing else to do but plot and unmask amorous or tactical alliances. Answers to questions in this novel always give rise to more questions. No one in fact seems capable of ever delivering up a clear answer to any question. There’s one instance where a character answers a question by saying, “Yes”, and then adding as an afterthought, “absolutely not”. Whatever anyone says is inevitably qualified, sometimes contradicted. At the end of every page you can feel you’re back at the beginning. Strether on whom all this elaborate subterfuge is enacted does gain our sympathy because in essence his plight is that of all of us – the struggle to make sense of the bigger picture with broken shards of incomplete information, like the archaeologist down in the trenches of a dig.
Interestingly James creates a world in which men are depicted as pawns for the queenly powers of women until the final stages of the game. There’s also a fantastic female villain who never once appears in the novel. As usual the poor, the downtrodden have no existence whatsoever in Henry James novels. An alien reading HJ might think all earthlings have unlimited leisure. And there’s a fabulous scene where Strether walks into the living reality of a painting he couldn’t afford to buy when he admired it in a Boston art gallery. This was one of the cleverest ways I’ve ever come across of showing how a character has made strides during the course of a narrative.
There’s no way on earth I’d recommend The Ambassadors and yet ultimately I found it an enriching experience, especially in what it has to say about the nature of communication. I also ultimately loved the war it wages on commercial fiction’s tendency to encourage skim reading onto the next twist in the plot. Just try skim reading this! And of course James, again like Nabokov, can write a dazzling sentence…