On The Ambassadors by Henry James

Henry James, a turn of the century author, is well known, with his novel "The Ambassadors" being considered by some the best novel ever written, for his idiosyncratic style, a controlling of the reader's pacing within sentence, page, and chapter, which earns him the accolade "difficult". The book's subject matter was a meager side dish to this well-laid table of intriguing writing technique. I found the plot oversimple, the milieu (high-society Paris of that era) only mildly interesting, and the characters languid.

But despite my quibbles about plot and characterization (who cares about those as long as the work has style, after all?), I have to admit that I now understand what it means for a book to have depth, although I'm not sure I like it. This is a work from which one could get more with each rereading, and it can be truly said that the more one brings to it, the more one gets out of it. To round out the platitudes, after reading The Ambassadors I feel a step closer to understanding the Chinese saying that it is better to read one book a hundred times than to read a hundred books one time each.

Dialog Style

Here is some representative dialog, a discussion between the protagonist (Strether) and a friend, about whether there is a woman who has caused a change in a young man's (Chad's) deportment.
    He took it in. "Because the fact itself is the woman?"
    "A woman. Some woman or other. It's one of the things that have to be."
    "But you mean then at least a good one."
    "A good woman?" She threw up her arms with a laugh. "I should call her excellent!"
    "Then why does he deny her?"
    Miss Gostrey thought a moment. "Because she's too good to admit! Don't you see," she went on, "how she accounts for him?"
    Strether clearly, more and more, did see; yet it made him also see other things. "But isn't what we want that he shall account for her?"
It goes on so for several pages. Bored me to screams. The technique is to dribble out new considerations at a stately place, with commodious pauses for character reaction, as when one has a lot of time to kill and a pocketful of pennies to toss into a wading pool, and therefore submits each individually, waiting for the ripples from one to subside before attempting the next, so as to savor every impression the meager experience can provide.

The unleavened quality of the resulting conversation is lightened somewhat through small wordplays and witicisms, as with the inversion of the "accounts for" phrase in the above. To me this is so insufficient as to only further draw the reader's attention to the primary characteristic: monotony.

My perceptions are partly those of my generation; in a time of fast food and Cliff notes and sound bites, brevity is the price of admission to one's reading list. But my attitudes are even more extreme than those of my contemporaries: I'm annoyed with the involuntary donation of five minutes to tardy meeting attendees; I put on the seatbelt while backing the car out of the garage; I pull the cokes out of the six-pack when I first put them in the fridge rather than one-by-one as I drink them, because I've calculated it takes less time that way. These are all symptoms of my condition, an obsession with getting the most out of our only truly irreplacable natural resource. In prose, pithiness is my religion, and Henry James's dialog is anathema.

Narrative Style

Mr. James uses a fundamentally different style for narrative than for dialog, thank the great word processor in the sky. It consists of long sentences with intermitting clauses, and a uncommonly high vocabulary level, as well as an unintended flavor of the out-moded due to his century-past word choices. A good example of this style is one point during a conversation between Strether and the mystery woman:
He fairly caught himself shooting rueful glances, shy looks of pursuit, toward the embodied influence, the definite adversary, who had, by a stroke of her own, failed him, and on a fond theory of whose palpable presence he had, under Mrs. Newsome's inspiration, altogether proceeded.
I found this type of writing interesting, in the way an involuntary entymologist might regard an unusual specimen before squashing it. The stuttery format gives one the feeling of following the microtemporal progress of the character's mental state. The juxtaposition of "fairly", "fond", and "altogether" with partners they don't usually modify is typical James, flavoring each sentence with a fragrance of complex nuance.

Use of Analogy, or What Is a Word, Really?

Mr. James uses comparisons with commonplace events, some brief allusions, as, "The air of supreme respectability -- that was a strange blank wall for his adventure to have brought him to break his nose against" and some more extended, as "It was, to Strether's mind, as if she sat on her own ground, the light honors of which, at an open gate, she thus easily did him, while all the vastness and mystery of the property stretched off behind."

I find this aspect of James's work the most interesting of all, as it opens a hatch of insight into the murky underlying piping of novel creation. In modern day engineering writing one strives for ever-increasing precision, defining topic-specific lexicons and writing whole chapters to pin down points of usage; we use more and more words to say less and less. Perhaps the ultimate example is a computer programming language, in which the meaning of terms is exactly specified and messages are written with literally inhuman precision.

But novel writing is different: one has a broader message to convey, and a sorry codebook with which to convey it. The dictionary lists two, six, even a dozen alternate meanings for each word. How can one tell which the author means? And there are hundreds of thousands of words, but even so, there are not nearly enough. What is the word for "a mild fondness for chocolate, with sad overtones of an incident associated with a loved one's death?" There isn't one for this, or for most concepts one wants to convey.

The burden of the novelist is to string words into place in order to bring the desired play of idea and nuance into the mind of the reader. I would add the further goal of doing so as tersely as possible. It's a coding game; how efficiently can we fine-tune another's understanding of our message?

Thought Clouds

This is where analogy and allusion enter the stage. Through a complex process with almost mathematically rigorous undertones, swirling thought clouds of nuance and meaning representing two different phrases in unrelated contexts are joined to produce something new. Due to the vagaries of working with cloud-stuff, it's impossible to shape the result into an exact representation of the author's target, but it is eminently possible that the resulting cloud-stuff describe a thought both close in primary meaning to what the author intended, and at the same time even more delicate and pregnant with nuance. It might say something different, but it's different and better. This evolution of what one says into what one understands is part of why writing (and conversing, for similar reasons) are so helpful for clarifying one's thoughts.

Analogy is thus revealed as a simple point in the continuum of ways of merging thought clouds. Common adjectives are the simplest method; uncommon adjective-noun associations another (as, "fond theory" above); and reference to ideas from other contexts, i.e. analogies, another.

The mainstay of writing is this process of cloud sculpture, and hundreds of submethods have been analyzed within it, such as the hackneyed distinction between analogy and metaphor. Is cloud combination all there is? Wouldn't it be intriguing to break free of the cage and escape into a whole new approach, perhaps one involving creating new clouds from scratch rather than endlessly masticating old ones? Neologisms are an example of this, but they have strict limits on capability because they're individual words or phrases, a medium that, due to the way our language works, just can't hold more than a cupful of meaning without spilling over into multiple meanings and imprecision.

I'm trying to imagine something more like direct experience. Scores of the best analogues come from varied fields of experience: sailing, biology, computers. What if there were a way to build focused fields of experience as needed to convey a message? This is what multimedia has been trying, and failing, to do, but it hasn't been able to make the step that truly links thought-cloud creation (through sound, video, or simulation) with thought-cloud manipulation (through prose). Until we figure out how this should be done, we'll have to settle for the current approach of using literature, movies, and current events as thought-cloud generators from which novelists may draw.

But, Did I Like The Book?

Well now, that's a good question. If nothing else, I learned scores of new words, really mostly tangential meanings of old ones but valuable nonetheless. But there is something else: Mr. James' use of analogy and shade of meaning will no doubt percolate into my own writing. This book really is exactly what I've been looking for as an illustration of analogical writing technique. In other words, although at times I could barely hack my way through the book's thickets of verbosity, in the end I'm glad to have read it. It broadened me (I read it during a cruise, an all-you-can eat extravaganza, so perhaps it wasn't only the book that caused my broadening, heh, heh).

But despite any advantages gained, and as my wife can attest from having to listen to my paroxysms of execration of the author in the midst of each chapter, I can't say that I liked this book. My reading of it was more like a wary truce between inveiglement, duty, and anguished boredom.

Substantive changes:
    June 1, 1996: created.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Colwell, All Rights Reserved
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