The Ambassadors is a terrific Paris novel, even a bit of a tourist novel. The point of view belongs entirely to Lambert Strether, returning to the city after a thirty-year absence, and James spends some time just flaneuring around with Strether. A couple of these chapters moved towards a plotless novel of pure perception that I wish James could have written.
The first example is Book II, Chapter II, “his second morning in Paris,” with bank business and the post, and then a long walk (the novel lends itself to mapping). Long paragraphs, long sentences, no dialogue – oh thank goodness – barely an intrusion by another character except in Strether’s thoughts. In the Jardin des Tuileries, he looks for the Palace.
The palace was gone, Strether remembered the palace; and when he gazed into the irremediable void of its site the historic sense in him might have been freely at play – the play under which in Paris indeed it so often winces like a touched nerve.
So I learn that the previous visit had been before the Franco-Prussian War, before the Commune and the burning of the palace. The first thing Strether finds is an absence. This is before the passage I quoted yesterday, where I learn that the previous visit had been Strether’s honeymoon.
When he reads his letters, including one from Mrs. Newsome, the woman he plans to marry when he returns from his mission to corral her son, he finds that “this tone of hers… struck him at the same time as the hum of vain things.” He has escaped this powerful woman, and escaped Woollett. It only took a day.
It was the difference, the difference of being just where he was and as he was, that formed the escape – this difference was so much greater than he had dreamed it would be; and what finally he sat there turning over was the strange logic of his finding himself so free.
The premise of the novel, the reason that Strether is the protagonist even though he is on the periphery of the Woollett story, is that he is perceptive. He is comparable in perceptive powers to, say, Henry James. Thus James, from time to time, has to show him perceiving things.
… he lingered before the charming open-air array of literature classic and casual. He found the effect of tone and tint, in the long charged tables and shelves, delicate and appetizing; the impression – substituting one kind of low-priced consummation for another – might have been that of one of the pleasant cafes that overlapped, under an awning, to the pavement; but he edged along, grazing the tables, with his hands firmly behind him. He wasn’t there to dip, to consume – he was there to reconstruct.
James and I watch him do it, even while book shopping.
Now, the way the story works is that although Strether is the most perceptive character in the novel in some fundamental ways, he has huge blind spots, particularly regarding the sexual behavior of others, and possibly himself, both in real life and in literature. It is likely that he very much does not want to marry the stern, rich, Woollettish Mrs. Newsome, and manipulates his own behavior through the novel to act on that unconscious desire. That is not living. The climax of the novel is a great combination of themes, another chapter full of walks (11.3), when Strether seeks out a French country scene, and finds it – it “remind[s] him… of Maupassant,” but a charming cleaned-up American Maupassant with no sex. The climax is exactly when Strether discovers that there is sex in Maupassant, and also in the lives of the people he knows, and that where he suppresses it unconsciously, they lie deliberately.