Thursday, March 9, 2017

LIVE ALL YOU CAN. IT'S A MISTAKE NOT TO.


This is my 3rd reading of Mr. Henry James's THE AMBASSADORS. I tried it when I was 20 and failed (found it impenetrable), tried again at 30 and succeeded in getting through it, but felt baffled and somewhat defeated by it. Read it again at 40 and marvelled at what I had missed, fell in love with it, stood in awe of it -- a revelation! Now, having turned 50, I have read it once more and it has vaulted to the top of my list of favourite novels. Every nuance I may have missed before seems to have revealed itself to me like a flowering blossom. In part, this may be due to the fact that in the ensuing decade, I (an American) have been living abroad, first in Canada and then mostly in England. James himself was an 'expat' who felt increasingly divorced from his home country and in due course became a British citizen. The influence of his life abroad, in London, in Europe, colours his point of view in THE AMBASSADORS and skews it toward Europe in something of a rebuke to the provincial, Puritanical ways of the United States.

James is honoured with an enormous plaque in Westminster Abbey with a quote from THE AMBASSADORS: 'Live all you can. It's a mistake not to.' Which is spoken by the main character, Lambert Strether (55 years of age) to little Bilham, a young American in his twenties, although of all the personages in THE AMBASSADORS little Bilham is the least likely to require this bit of advice.... Strether has been sent to Paris from Woollett, Massachusetts, by the cold-thinking Mrs Newsome, on a mission to retrieve her son Chad from the horrors of his presumed corrupt lifestyle in the Old World, and to whisk Chad back home to assume the mantle of the family business and perhaps to marry the young Mamie Pocock (his mother's idea). (Woollett makes a certain household article that dares not speak its name throughout the entire novel.) Not inconsequently, our hero Strether, a widower who lost his wife and child many years ago, is a trusted family friend and is more or less now engaged to the magnificent Mrs Newsome. Until Strether himself sets foot in Paris, it seems that the eventual return to Woollett and union with the Newsome family is all he can look forward to. However, Paris opens up his eyes as they have also opened up Chad Newsome's, in ways unpredictable and, as James would say, 'wonderful.' ... But nothing further. No spoilers here. If you've never read it, you may find it baffling at first (unless I was merely dense when I first read it), but now, finally, as I've passed the half-century mark and started to approach the age of 'our friend' Lambert Strether, I simply cannot express the exquisite pleasure I received on my 3rd reading of THE AMBASSADORS. Only question left is, shall I read it again when I turn 55? Or wait till 60?
 

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