27. The Ambassadors by Henry James

Year Published: 1903
Pages: 639
First Sentence: Strether's first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted.
Rating: 2/3 (meh)

We come now to the second of three Henry James novels on The List. This one is about a middle-aged man named Lambert Strether. He's a widower of relatively slim means, who is engaged to a fabulously wealthy woman named Mrs. Newsome back in the town of Woollett, Massachusetts, but at the beginning of the novel, he's been sent to Europe to fetch Mrs. Newsome's son from the clutches of a presumably evil woman and bring him back to run the family business. Perhaps unfortunately for Strether, when he finds Mrs. Newsome's son in Paris, the situation is not at all clear cut. Chadwick, more commonly referred to as Chad (yes, really), is not living in some den of iniquity with a beautiful French prostitute, although he is engaging in some kind of relationship with a respectable woman who has had to flee her abusive husband. Strether and his friend Maria Gostrey, who he met upon landing at his English hotel, puzzle through this situation together.

At this point I'm really starting to feel like Henry James is gaslighting me. In my review of The Golden Bowl I was already beginning to doubt that I liked previous works of his that I'd read. But seriously, did I? I'd like to believe that I've never been so pretentious that I'd pretend to enjoy a classic novel, but after reading over 1000 pages of James's work in the last few months I'm questioning everything I thought I knew. I can only imagine that this will get worse when I pick up The Wings of the Dove.

In any case, as for the book at hand, I enjoyed it more than The Golden Bowl. While that novel felt extremely empty, there is actual content in this one. I got a sense of the plot happening in the background somewhere, even though it was obscured by James using about 500% more words than he really needs to, in the form of alternating walls o' text and long dialogues between characters in which no one ever says what they mean, instead communicating everything with dashes and exclamation points and rephrasing questions with the italics used on a different word this time. The one thing you can count on from James' prose is the use of the expression "hung fire" which appears here seven times plus one time as "hang fire." (It also showed up seven times as "hung/hang fire" in The Golden Bowl.) This repetition may seem innocuous in otherwise very long novels, but the fact is that it really jumps out at me as a Saskatchewan resident.

To get back on track, and this is the reason it rated higher than The Golden Bowl, if you wanted to spend a lot of time and energy reading The Ambassadors, I think you could get a lot out of it. I have neither time nor energy nor most importantly patience for this sort of thing, and so I found it more frustrating than anything. I loved many of the characters in this novel. The name "Chad" in a novel written in the early part of the 20th century is inherently hilarious. Mrs. Newsome is a wonderful villain. Strether is an excellent deluded sad sack. Best of all is Maria Gostrey, who I wished could have had her own series of novels in which she travels Europe befriending wealthy people and poking about in their affairs. She's honestly a bit of an aspirational figure for me, and I'm only kidding a little bit about that. The trouble with what James is doing with his prose and his obfuscation is that I didn't feel like I was spending time with the characters, I felt like I was watching them on a tv screen with the volume turned way down.

James throws in a touch more anti-Semitism here for good measure, in case you were wondering. He also, if you'll allow me to be facetious about one of the darkest communities on the internet, may have been the original incel, as evidenced by the name of the young man in the plot, and stuff along these lines:
He reconstructed a possible groping Chad of three or four years before, a Chad who had, after all, simply—for that was the only way to see it—been too vulgar for his privilege. Surely it was a privilege to have been young and happy just there. Well, the best thing Strether knew of him was that he had had such a dream.

If a vaguely dark comic story of a man having a turn-of-the-20th-century midlife crisis sounds appealing to you, and you want to work very hard for it, this novel might be the one for you. If you prefer for reading not to be work, I'd stay away.

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He had been wondering a minute ago if the boy weren't a Pagan, and he found himself wondering now if he weren't by chance a gentleman. It didn't in the least, on the spot, spring up helpfully for him that a person couldn't at the same time be both.
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"Well, the party responsible is, I suppose, the fate that waits for one, the dark doom that rides. What I mean is that with such elements one can't count. I've but my poor individual, my modest human means. It isn't playing the game to turn on the uncanny. All one's energy goes to facing it, to tracking it. One wants, confound it, don't you see?" he confessed with a queer face—"one wants to enjoy anything so rare. Call it then life"—he puzzled it out—"call it poor dear old life simply that springs the surprise. Nothing alters the fact that the surprise is paralysing, or at any rate engrossing—all, practically, hang it, that one sees, that one can see."
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Five Years Ago This Month: October 2014

Five years ago this month...

...I was distracted, belatedly.

...I reviewed the Dark Tower series as a whole. I also ranked the books from my least to most favourite.

...I was distracted. That California trip was my last solo trip to do something other than visit a person, and I'm kind of itching for another one. There's just something about travelling alone that can't be beat.

R73. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

Year Published: 1968
Pages: 296

First Sentence: The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.

The Last Unicorn was published in 1968, and fourteen years later, in 1982, an animated version of the story was released. This is, in my opinion, one of the most faithful adaptations ever made. Until my book club read this book, I thought literally every woman on the planet aged 35 and under had seen and been influenced by this adaptation as much as I have, but I was mistaken! So, I won't take it as a given that everyone knows what this book is about.

Aside from the title, that is. This is indeed the story of the last unicorn, who discovers that she's the last one day when two hunters enter her forest. She quickly decides that she's going to look for the others and embarks on a search. Out in the world, people do not recognize her as a unicorn, thinking instead that she's a white mare.

The only person who recognizes the unicorn for what she is is Mommy Fortuna, an evil carnival grifter of sorts who tours the countryside with a menagerie of pathetic animals who are dressed up to look mythical by magic. Except one: Mommy Fortuna has managed to capture a real harpy. Soon enough, that one exception becomes two, as Mommy Fortuna captures the unicorn as well.

There is a magician, Schmendrick, who works for Mommy Fortuna but not with her, and he also recognizes the unicorn. Soon after her capture, as the harpy tries to escape, Schmendrick helps the unicorn to get away and the two of them return to her search.

The search is a very long process, and they encounter a few different people along the way, none of whom recognize the unicorn, until Schmendrick is, shall we say, apprehended by Captain Cully, a highwayman type who fancies himself to be more of a Robin Hood type. It's in Cully's presence that Schmendrick actually manages to work some magic for once, and when the unicorn rejoins him, they're spotted by Molly Grue, who does the cooking but doesn't have much affection left for Cully. She recognizes the unicorn for what she is as well, and the duo becomes a trio.

This all takes up the first third of the book, and I generally don't write my summaries for anything beyond that except for romnovs, but in this case, I'll mention that there are hints that the three adventurers are following to a King named Haggard and a creature called the Red Bull, who have something to do with the disappearance of the unicorns.

So, Peter S. Beagle has produced such an amazing book that I can get my lone issue with it out of the way right off the bat: the style, which is I think deliberately a bit dreamy and distant, could occasionally be a bit alienating as a result. Usually I was fully engaged in this book, but then every now and then, it would just sort of kick me out.

That's so minor though. Let's get back to that adaptation I mentioned for a moment. I watched it probably a hundred times as a little girl. It's one of those things that I'm sure has contributed to my current taste and sense of aesthetics and God knows what else. It's beautiful and dark and a bit scary, and so is this book. I think many people don't realize that the movie is based on a book. I certainly didn't, until I or my sister stumbled upon it at the library fifteen or more years ago. This was the second time I've read the book.

The movie is a more straightforward fairy tale. Like I said, it's very faithfully adapted, however, the book has much more complex themes and ideas that are close to the surface. It's extremely concerned with identity and perception, and of course with the interactions between those two things. The unicorn is portrayed very much as something other, whose concern for the other unicorns is almost completely incidental, and whose connection with Molly and Schmendrick is likewise. Which is more real, the immortal, mythical unicorn who will witness the passage of time but won't give it any notice, or the human characters who will experience sorrow, joy, and death? Or, as the setting reminds us, with its deliberate anachronisms and poorly defined borders, are they all unreal? Are you a unicorn if nobody can see that you're a unicorn? Should you call yourself a magician if you can't do magic? Will the beautiful girl love you if you write poetry for her, or would it work better to be the best hero you can be, and slay the most dragons?

The book poses so many questions and doesn't offer answers, leaving that up to the reader. So you should obviously read it as soon as you can.

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"I'd quit show business first," she snarled. "Trudging through eternity, hauling my homemade horrors—do you think that was my dream when I was young and evil?"
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"The eyes are perjurers, right enough," grunted the second man, who seemed to be wearing a swamp. "But do you truly trust the testimony of your ears, of your nose, of the root of your tongue? Not I, my friend. The universe lies to our senses, and they lie to us, and how can we ourselves be anything but liars? For myself, I trust neither message nor messenger; neither what I am told, nor what I see. There may be truth somewhere, but it never gets down to me."
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"Of course I know," answered the cat, with a glinting, curling yawn. "Of course it would be simpler for me to show you. Save a lot of time and trouble."
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