There is one true story that says it all about this book...and about the writing of Henry James in general. The Ambassadors was published in 1903, and it was FIFTY YEARS later until someone realized that two chapters were in the wrong order. I find this hilarious because it totally points at truth: Nobody is actually reading irritating writing like this. The person who discovered the transposed chapters was an undergraduate (doubtlessly forced to read James for a class, because why else would you). Beyond thatand we've crossed this bridge before with the inclusion of Finnegans Wake on the listI think the Modern Library are just poseurs. If the book's so great, why did it take fifty years for someone to notice a giant error, huh? Answer: because no one actually READS Henry James; they just fake like they have.
Why is James' writing so unreadable? He likes it that way; it's a Jamesian trademark. He was big into style being a simulacrum of content. In other words, Henry James would tell you that if you're writing about bewildering situations, your writing itself should be bewildering. (Kind of him, isn't it?) In fact obfuscation is such a hallmark of his that his books by default always contain a 'ficelle' or two: characters who are 'readers' friends,' used for the express purpose of elucidation of the plot. (The alternative, of course, would just be to write clearly in the first place.)
Critics at the time of its publication wondered if The Ambassadors were too recondite and that readers might lose patience. Of course, 100 years on, the writing's only become murkier. The Ambassadors is indistinct from other Henry James novels in that it is a densely worded 500-pager packed with largely indecipherable prose. If James' characters would only HAVE A CONVERSATION in which they actually communicated somethinginstead of answering questions with questionsthen we would be spared entire Henry James novels, and the world would be a happier place. This author writes AROUND things, and his characters talk around things. Nothing is ever actually talked ABOUT...such that no information is actually ever conveyed. As a result, I can only vaguely tell you what this book is about...and I'm going to. There is no reason not to spoil it, because you shouldn't have to read it.
The Ambassadors is about a middle aged guy who is affianced to a wealthy woman in New England. She dispatches him to Paris to track down her errant son, whom she wants to come back home, get married to a young American woman, & run the family business. If her fiance does this successfully, she will marry him. The fiance gets to Paris & gets seduced by it & the various cast of characters there, especially a married woman the son is involved with. (At first the protagonist is convinced their attachment is pure, but near the end he discovers it has all along been a romance.) The patroness back in New England must now send another group of 'ambassadors' to find out what has happened to her son and her fiance both! In the end the main character ends up encouraging the son to stay in Paris because he understands the allure.
There. Consider it spoiled. Now you can fake like you've read The Ambassadors without actually ever having read it...which is what everybody else seems to do. There's no way the Modern Library would include this book, or The Golden Bowl, or Finnegans Wake on the list if they had actually read them. These books just suck to read, and I wouldn't recommend them to anyone. Now if you'll excuse me, I see the Modern Library is up to their posturing again and that yet ANOTHER Henry James novel is next on the list. So I'm off to go shoot myself in the face.