The Ambassadors, By Henry James – A Symbol Of Home In A Foreign Land

An ambassador is a representative of home in a foreign country. The ambassador in this book is Lambert Strether, despatched by wealthy Mrs Newcome of Woollett, Massachusetts to track down her son Chad, whose year off in Paris, seems to have turned into a prolonged, and perhaps corrupting, residence. Mrs Newcome wants Chad to come back and face his responsibilities managing the family company. What the company produces is not entirely clear. It’s some kind of extremely mundane item, the nature of which Strether is hesitant to reveal. The ‘urinal cakes’ which made the fortune of Niles Crane’s social-climbing wife Maris, in Frasier come to mind. Anyway, if Strether can get Chad to return home to supervise continued profitable ‘urinal cake’ manufacture, the ambassador’s reward will be marriage to Mrs Newcombe.

Strether is at a difficult point in his life, in his mid 50s, a widower who has also lost his only son. His buttoned-down personality is a product of his background in wealthy, small-town America. Now, he finds himself in cosmopolitan Paris, trying to fulfil his mission with Chad, which turns out to be a lot more complicated than he bargained for. In the company of European friends, it transpires that Chad has not been corrupted, but improved. Strether comes to see that dragging the young man back to Woollett might not do him, or the people he has met, any favours. So what’s to be done? Helping him with this tricky question is a woman he met on the ship coming over, Maria Gostrey, and an old friend called Waymarsh. There is something relevant in the names of Strether’s companions – Gostrey, which is very close to ‘go astray’ – and Waymarsh, with its suggestion of a treacherous route through marshes on a misty evening. Maria Gostrey personifies the joy of wandering off the well-worn path, while Waymarsh is there to warn of the dangers.

Paris often serves as an enigmatic symbol of freedom for Americans. From Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, to Netflix’s Emily in Paris, Americans visit Paris to loosen up. The Ambassadors predates all these other American trips to the City of Light. It is true that Strether’s reach for Parisian freedom is nothing like Henry Miller’s in Tropic of Cancer. There are no tumultuous relationships with wild Russian aristocratic women, pursued in apartments where no housework gets done. Strether’s hotel suite is very tidy, and his wild behaviour is limited to eating tomato omelettes beside the Seine with charming lady companions, or – in a particularly beautiful section – taking a day-trip in the countryside near Paris. Nevertheless, within the tight confines of his life, I felt the joy of Strether’s unfamiliar liberty.

This book took me a long time to read. The prose is dense, the sentences long. I do have a tendency to try and get through a book so I can get on to the next one. With The Ambassadors I relaxed. When the library loan period elapsed, I renewed. Hanging around in early twentieth-century Paris, in a peaceful spring and summer before world wars, was lovely. If you think about it, any good book is ambassadorial. There has to be something unfamiliar and foreign about the book’s territory to tempt you to explore: and there has to be a feeling of home within its pages, to recognise and resonate with. You open a book hoping for all kinds of new experiences, and then head for the nearest embassy, or British bar or shop selling Heinz Baked Beans, or whatever it is that reminds you of your particular home. In this sense The Ambassadors is the perfect book. I enjoyed all aspects of it – from the exciting sense of travelling to new places, to the reassuring sense of recognising experience – that experience of the competing attractions of risk and security, the new and the old, which we all face in one way or another. This is the kind of book that takes you away, or brings you home, depending on your needs. In reality we need both. In providing both in such a neat diplomatic package, The Ambassadors is now one of my favourite novels.

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