Wednesday, 19 July 2000

Henry James: The Ambassadors (1903)

Edition: Bodley Head
Review number: 540

One of James' late novels, The Ambassadors is in some ways an experiment in minimalism. The plot is rudimentary (a rich woman sends emissaries from Wollett, USA to Paris to disentangle her son from an unsuitable relationship), background virtually non-existent (most chapters are principally dialogue), and the characters ciphers. It is only the interactions between the characters which are interesting - and even these tell us virtually nothing about them; hence the importance assigned to their meetings and conversations. It is an exercise in how little is needed to sustain a reader through nearly five hundred pages.

The temptation is to sit back and admire the technical skill with which this is done, on the small scale (the large scale structure is both rigid and simple - almost exactly half way through, the son is willing to return home, yet the ambassador has come to think it will be better for him to remain). I didn't find the novel very involving (though this might be because I was coming down with a fever while reading its second half).

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