The Ambassadors (1903)
by Henry James
Actually had The Ambassadors in paperback sitting on my book shelf, so I was excited to finally read it. Opening the cover, I saw the Amazon.com receipt tucked inside- turned out I had purchased it way back in 2004. I turned the receipt over in my hands and had the distinct memory of trying to read it back in 2004 and realizing that I needed to go back and read more classics so that I could actually appreciate the accomplishment of The Ambassadors because in 2004, after graduating college and law school, I didn't really get the drift.
Nine years later, having read, essentially, every major novel of the 18th and 19th century, I am in a better position to appreciate the accomplishments of Henry James, but I still didn't enjoy reading The Ambassadors. It was a chore in the same way the 700 page epistolary novels of the 18th century were a chore. And while from an intellectual point of view I can certainly appreciate how radical and different Henry James' first person narrative technique was, both then and now, that doesn't make The Ambassadors a fun read.
The Ambassadors is about a guy who is sent to Europe to retrieve the wayward son of a wealthy American widow. If that reminds you of the plot to The Talented Mr. Ripley you get a gold star, because Patricia Highsmith acknowledges the lift herself. In Paris, Lambert Strether, the narrator and titular Ambassador, finds young Chad Newman entwined with a ravishing Mother/Daughter combo. Initially assuming that Chad is after the daughter, Strether begins to question this assumption, even as he falls for the (still married) Mother. Strether begins to doubt his American life, and abandons his mission as he falls under the spell of Marie de Vionnet (the Mother) and comes to enjoy the company of Newman.
Eventually his illusions are dashed when he catches Newman out for a romantic day in the country with Marie. And that is it- it takes James 320 pages to get to the end because Strether can't do a damn thing without thinking about it for several paragraphs of text. It is a harbinger of the future of literature, and I'm not looking forward to it. I get that The Ambassadors is a great novel, but I didn't enjoy the reading experience.