The Ambassadors by Henry James

First read: 2/05 - 5/05
Reviewed on: 5/11/05
I advise that you do not click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

How do we begin? Hmmm. How about this way: I have never disliked a book as much as I've disliked The Ambassadors by Henry James. As of May, 2005, I've said very bad things about The Adventures of Augie March, The Sun Also Rises, and Ulysses. I would rather reread all three of those books than reread The Ambassadors.

Let's talk about Ulysses. Even though I hated it, I saw that James Joyce was a clearly talented writer who wrote for people smarter than me. I see no talent in Henry James - only awfulness. He does not deserve to be on this list. When I read Ulysses, I wanted to design a new icon to represent a level below . After The Ambassadors, I had no such urge- instead I wanted to go back and add a to every other review, because every other book I've read in my life seems better now by comparison.

Let's talk about The Sun Also Rises. I've gotten many emails saying that I am a fool for not liking Hemingway. I disagree, but I can see what they liked about that book, even if we disagree. This is not true about The Ambassadors. If you liked it, then you are incorrect.

Let's talk about The Adventures of Augie March. You are sick of hearing me refer to the time that I embarrassed myself by trashing the book to a woman who turned out to be his grand-niece. If I were to trash this book to find that I was speaking to a relative of Henry James, I would take out the flamethrower that UNI issues to all its mathematics professors (just in case) and use it, because his DNA should be eradicated from this earth on the off chance that such writing occurs again.

From now on, when someone tells me that a book is "bad", I will ask if they've read The Ambassadors. If they answer in the negative, I will say, "Fuck you, then. You do not have the right to apply the label 'bad' to a book. You do not know what 'bad' writing is."

Don't take my word for it - take HG Wells as quoted by Todd E.: "[Henry James' writing] is leviathan retrieving pebbles. It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea, which has got to the corner of its den."

Okay, let's talk more specifically. Every page of The Ambassadors is like one of the last three steps of the maze in Nine Princes in Amber - an awful nightmare that takes Herculean will to get through. He keeps adding dependent clauses and prepositional phrases and conjunctions to pad out his sentences to the point where they don't mean anything. And he doesn't let up. No pacing. Just one miserable sentence after another. And sometimes, at random, there will be quotation marks. That would normally imply that a character is speaking, but his characters don't really speak with any voices, they just drone on like they are in a Henry James novel. Which they are. You have to sometimes look to the top of a paragraph to remind yourself who is speaking. They are all alike. If you think of Virginia Woolf as the author to read if you want to learn how to write a long sentence (and you are probably sick of hearing me say that - go to hell; I am right) then Henry James is the author to read if you want to learn how NOT to do so.

I found this in my handwriting, dated 2/9/2005: "Compared to The Ambassadors, I would rather reread Ulysses, an old copy that has been carried around in Saul Bellow's armpit and used by D.H. Lawrence to wipe his genitals after engaging in coitus with Herman Melville."

My friend Todd E. picked this book up, partially because I told him not to (!) and challenged me to a race. I declined. Yet he finished it way before I did. Todd evidently has a greater tolerance of long, pointless, clause-laden, needlessly complex sentences, striving to convey ideas as trivial and self-evident as they are boring. I'm not going to say for sure that this is related to the fact that he is a Set Theorist - you will have to draw your own conclusions.

The Ambassadors offended me. I love the English Language as much or more than I love anything else. To see it desecrated, violated, humiliated in this way was painful. Painful.

Halfway through (literally - I wrote a table with percentages in increments of 10% so at any moment I could tell how far I had to go) the book got a little interesting, just for a page or two. An interesting little plot twist occurred. So the book is flawed even in its imperfection. Because of those two pages, it is not as bad a novel as possibly could exist.

I'm afraid you don't believe me. I will give you two more pieces of evidence. First of all, in 1903 two chapters were reversed. It was a blatant error. The chapter that took place in the evening was followed by the one that took place in the morning. In the former chapter, a character referred to a conversation that hadn't happened yet.

A horrible error you think, right? Henry James fans would be complaining and yelling, right? Well, it remained unnoticed for FIFTY YEARS. You heard me; for half a century people were talking about and analyzing this book, forcing students to read it, and never noticed that two of the chapters were in the wrong order. The error was finally noticed by a Stanford Undergraduate, Robert Young, in 1950. Literary James scholars were anxious to get a quotation from this brilliant young man who had made such a significant discovery. What words of praise for James would their new hero give them for posterity? Let's quote Robert Young: "There must be something radically wrong with a writing style that has managed to obscure an error of this magnitude for so many years from the probing eyes of innumerable readers, publishers, editors, critics, and even the author himself."

Finally, my girlfriend wife, Laurel, was hearing me say that this was the worst novel I had ever read. She was sympathetic, but it started to annoy me that she didn't really understand, because she only thought she knew what bad writing was. So do you all, as I said above, until you've read The Ambassadors. So I asked her to read a paragraph (which was about three quarters of a page). She read two pages, disbelieving, only putting it down out of fears of harming our unborn child.

I took notes as she spoke. "That's... horrible. ... The whole book is like that? Nothing but phrases and commas? Each sentence should have been 18 words shorter... Wow, I really don't like him... I could have finished The Scarlet Letter if this was its competition."

If you look at the list of the "Top 100" novels you will see Finnegan's Wake, and other books by authors I've disliked. I've never thought, for a moment, that I would not be able to finish this list. Looking at it now, seeing how many more books of his I would have to read, for the first time I'm thinking that I many never finish this project.

I do not recommend The Ambassadors by Henry James.

Back to The whole list
Back to my personal page







hits since May, 2005