I hope you all got a chance to read The Ambassadors this month. To start off our conversation about Henry James’s self-proclaimed masterpiece I thought we would look at the opening paragraph. If you were to look at this paragraph with fresh eyes, without the knowledge of what lies ahead in the book, how much would you understand? Why do you think James started the book in this fashion? I’ve excerpted the opening paragraph below in case you don’t have your book handy.
Strether’s first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted. A telegram from him bespeaking a room ‘only if not noisy’, reply paid, was produced for the enquirer at the office, so that the understanding they should meet at Chester rather than at Liverpool remained to that extent sound. The same secret principle, however, that had prompted Strether not absolutely to desire Waymarsh’s presence at the dock, that had led him thus to postpone for a few hours his enjoyment of it, now operated to make him feel he could still wait without disappointment. They would dine together at the worst, and, with all respect to dear old Waymarsh–if not even, for that matter, to himself–there was little fear that in the sequel they shouldn’t see enough of each other. The principle I have just mentioned as operating had been, with the most newly disembarked of the two men, wholly instinctive–the fruit of a sharp sense that, delightful as it would be to find himself looking, after so much separation, into his comrade’s face, his business would be a trifle bungled should he simply arrange for this countenance to present itself to the nearing steamer as the first ‘note’ of Europe. Mixed with everything was the apprehension, already, on Strether’s part, that it would, at best, throughout, prove the note of Europe in quite a sufficient degree.