Henry James – The Ambassadors

Henry James is my favorite writer — let’s just get that out of the way.  That fact is due in large part to a course I took on him in college, and to the professor who taught that course.  The Ambassadors was the last thing on the syllabus, and on the day of the final class, this professor passed along a bit of advice, one which she had received earlier in life, from whom I don’t recall, that referred specifically to this work.  The advice was this: reread The Ambassadors periodically throughout your life.  Revisit it as you grow older, and find yourself at different stages of your journey.  Let it age as you do, and whenever the time feels right, check back in with it and see what might resonate, whether again or anew.  

Well, for me the time feels right.  Perhaps because things are changing.  I recently left my 20s behind and entered my 30s, and while I don’t get hung up on age, it has felt like an appropriate time to re-envision things.  I’m leaving New York City after 8 years, and embracing a certain optimism, one that has surprised even me, about living in a part of the country that is much quieter, and slower.  I sold a business that was very dear to my heart, and am pursuing a different line of work.  Sometimes, like a frog in boiling water, you remain oblivious to the changes that have occurred in your life and your outlook; sometimes instead you realize immediately that you aren’t the same person you were 10 years ago, reading Henry James as a junior in college.

So, I spent part of this past weekend working through the first twelve pages of The Ambassadors.  Slow going, no doubt, but that’s a compliment; I savored each sentence.  And in one sense, it’s that simple — The Ambassadors is worth revisiting because it’s so damn good.  James is a prose virtuoso like no other, and here we see him late in his career, shredding his face off, in what he himself considered his best work.  Henry James writing The Ambassadors is Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore on New Year’s Eve 1969. He’s Tonya Harding at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.  He’s Bobby Fischer in 1972, heading off to beat the Russians at their own game.  He’s Achilles riding Secretariat.  Completely untouchable.  

Beyond that, The Ambassadors invites these periodic revisits because it’s about experience, specifically.  It’s about life, and what it means to live it, and how that meaning may or may not change as we find ourselves at different ages, in different places, and surrounded by different people.  After only twelve pages of reading — perhaps after only one — I was intensely aware of this fact, and intensely aware that I was absolutely doing the right thing by finally taking my old professor’s advice at this moment in time.

The book begins with the arrival of one Lambert Strether, an American, to Europe.  Why he is here we will learn later, but suffice to say that he has traveled so far to fulfill a task, and one with some urgency.   As we follow Strether we are granted an intimately privileged spectatorship to what he experiences, both sensually and psychologically, and the first bit of experience we are given to consider — the first small bundle of impressions Strether receives after landing — James calls the “note” of Europe:

…his business would be a trifle bungled should he simply arrange for this countenance to present itself to the nearing steamer as the first “note” of Europe.  Mixed with everything was the apprehension, already, on Strether’s part, that it would, at best, throughout, prove the note of Europe in quite a sufficient degree.

The countenance here referred to is that of Strether’s friend Waymarsh, who when we meet him will prove to be Europe’s great American foil: stoic, stern, and impatiently ready to catch the next available steamer back stateside.  It is evident this early that Strether, American though he is, is far more receptive to the European experience — at least receptive enough to know that Waymarsh’s grumpy puritanical mug as the first thing he sees when he gets off the boat would spoil things a bit.  That Waymarsh is not to be found at the hotel to which Strether is checking in strikes the latter as not only a relief, but, once he’s able to admit it to himself, a pleasure.  Strether will see Waymarsh when he sees him, and is for the moment wonderfully disposed to enjoy whatever else he does see in the meantime.  For Strether there is no rush, and this is the infinitely more appropriate “first note” of Europe.

This initial chapter, as it proceeds, is rife with language that advances the idea that in Europe time passes more slowly, and enjoyment is to be found in waiting. “Ten minutes” after which Strether proposes to meet his newfound companion Maria Gostrey in the garden inevitably becomes “a quarter of an hour,” and what seems like an otherwise inconsequential detail, this passing of an additional five minutes, is in fact an integral piece of the “note” — the note of Strether’s first hours in Europe, as well as the note of this novel as we stroll through its opening.  

When the full fifteen minutes have finally passed, Strether returns to the agreed meeting place, and now, for the first time we are given a physical description of him.  This is a very Jamesian thing to do — holding off on a physical description until he decides, for whatever reason, that the time is right.  I recall a scene in his earliest full-fledged masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady, in which the novel’s heroine Isabel Archer is physically described in a dimly lit room where her rich uncle displays his collected artworks.  At this point we’ve been with Isabel for at least a hundred pages, but realize we’ve been deprived of knowing certain details of her appearance until just now.  Of course, there is an artistic function here; as its title suggests, Archer’s status in the novel is one that calls into fascinating question the presentation and reception of a person, or of a character, as an object of art.  We see these features of Isabel, and particularly in this exact context, because her cousin Ralph sees them at this moment and in this light.  The fact that our perspective is limited until we can join his is an indication of how deliberately James seeks to consider, and force us to consider, interactions between representation and appearance, art and reality.

This delay in The Ambassadors, this extra five minutes leading into Strether’s postposed physical description, is similarly artistic in function and consequence.  It is the example of how James takes a mode of experience internal to his work — the experience of Strether and Gostrey as it is shaped by delay and leisure — and relays that same mode to us as we experience his art.  This mode is reiterated shortly after:

They had stopped, in the afternoon sunshine — constantly pausing, in their stroll, for the sharper sense of what they saw — and Strether rested on one of the high sides of the old stony groove of the little rampart.  He leaned back on this support with his face to the tower of the cathedral, now admirably commanded by their station, and high red-brown mass, square and subordinately spired and crocheted, retouched and restored, but charming to his long-sealed eyes and with the first swallows of the year weaving their flight all round it.  Miss Gostrey lingered near him, full of an air, to which she more and more justified her right, of understanding the effect of things. 

Here, and elsewhere as we will see, “constantly pausing” is immediately associated with the “right” kind of experience to be enjoyed in Europe.  It is the method of seeing things — of allowing oneself to see things — by which a mechanical description of one’s surroundings (“square and subordinately spired and crocheted”) can give way to a beautiful and sensuous one (“the first swallows of the year weaving their flight all round it”).  It is why Gostrey, a longstanding expatriate and seasoned embracer of this mode of experience, is so good at seeing not only the things in front of her, but of understanding their effect.  As we journey forth alongside Strether, our own capacity to understanding the effect of things will be put to the test, but James will do all he can to guide us in good faith.

A number of small examples at the outset give us a sense of where Strether stands in his disposition to experience and appreciate the full note of Europe with the consummate receptivity of a Gostrey, or the stubborn, annoyed refusal of a Waymarsh.  You’ll notice a common word, and a common impulse, on two occasions when we are given reason to doubt whether he is up to the task:

He looked repeatedly at his watch, and when he had done so for the fifth time Miss Gostrey took him up.
“You’re doing something you think not right.”

They went on, but in a few minutes, though while still thinking over what she had said, he once more took out his watch; mechanically, unconsciously and as if made nervous by the mere exhilaration of what struck him as her strange and cynical wit.

Not surprisingly, Strether’s watch, and his habit of checking it when nervous, betrays a bit of Waymarsh in him.  We see him doing his best to enjoy Europe, to cherish his opportunities to let time pass favorably, but when he feels himself go a bit too far, time tugs at him — not the free-flowing, enjoyably impalpable time of Europe, but the tick-tock urgency of American time, the admonishing passage of which invokes duty and guilt.  

Contrarily, Strether’s small victory in Gostrey’s direction, and in Europe’s, comes in the form of an endearingly mundane act:

Before reaching her he stopped on the grass and went through the form of feeling for something, possibly forgotten, in the light overcoat he carried on his arm; yes the essence of the act was no more than the impulse to gain time.

And shortly after:

His pause while he felt in his overcoat was positively the pause of confidence, and it enabled his eyes to make out as much of a case for her, in proportion, as her own made out for himself.

A small act, and a potentially comical one, but these two quotations bookend a passage which introduces one of this novel’s key objects of observation: “Strether’s sense of himself”.  He’s not yet very good at passing the time like a seasoned European or expatriate, but his heart is in the right place.  He has landed with an openness that will prove his greatest asset, and this attempt to join in on the game of rebuking time’s sanctity, fumbling though it may be, is enough to merit his candidacy as just the kind of person best positioned to receive, and advantageously, Maria Gostrey’s help.  Her card, the token of that help which he is to carry with him, once again brings us to notice Strether’s clothes:

He put the card in his waistcoat pocket, keeping his own meanwhile in evidence; and as he leaned against the door-post he met with the smile of a straying thought what the expanse before the hotel offered to his view.

Our best hope as readers is that we can assume something of the same posture.  Working through these first twelve pages very slowly felt quite like the right way to go about it.  This novel is about how to see things, and how to experience life.  It suggests a certain advocacy, one I am inclined to adopt, for leaning against a door-post, letting one’s thoughts stray, smiling and simply taking it in.

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