by Joshua Boaz Kotzin
Some three years ago I wrote an essay about a visit I made to Rome three years before that. I called the essay "Reading in Rome" and in it I wrote about reading Henry James's The Ambassadors while travelling in Europe. My narrator in that essay finds himself in Lambert Strether, James's dogged and decidedly unheroic hero. Since writing that essay, my brother, Daniel, the Chad Newsome figure of my story, battered by the world, has finally come home, and I, our Lambert Strether, have started and finished a doctoral dissertation, featuring a chapter on James, The Ambassadors, narrative perspective, and museums. On returning to that essay now that the urgency of its conflict has resolved and some of the murkiness encountered by my narrator has cleared, I am struck and even slightly embarrassed by the distance I feel from the narrative and from the essay's voice. What makes the pastness of the essay striking, I think, is not the nature of the conflict--it is not obsolete in that sense. Rather, I chose to narrate that essay in the present tense, despite the fact that the events of the essay took place years before I wrote about them. Furthermore, the force of the essay does not require the illusion of immediacy; very little happens. Still, now that more time has passed, there is a certain sense to its remaining in an illusionary present tense. Gently coaxing the verbs into the past tense would be too easy, so I preserve the essay's tense and bring the essay up to date by making other and more painful changes.
* * *
My embassy begins in a phone booth. Across the Piazza della Repubblica, across the swirling traffic of small cars and Vespas, I watch the crowded outdoor seating area of a sumptuous McDonald's. I rifle through my documents until I find my list of relevant phone numbers, insert the Italian phone card I purchased upon arriving, and dial my brother's number in Venice. When he answers, I am relieved that it is not Maria. We speak awkwardly. He listens while I tell him of my arrival in Rome this afternoon, that I am leaving to go back to the States early in the morning the day after next, that I am tired and broke but could not move my flight forward a day, that I had not planned to be here but am glad for the opportunity to talk. I tell him about my adventures since I saw him two months before: my deck passage on the boat from Venice to Athens to Israel, the friends I've seen, touring in Spain and Portugal and Morocco. He talks about his summer, the Italian class he's taking, how much basketball he's been playing. He reminds me again of the arrangements we have for his credit card payments, and I assure him that I will cover the small sum he owes me as long as he won't charge up the cards too much more. I want to ask him about Maria, about his plans, about his state of mind, but don't. We are very close, but you wouldn't know it from this conversation.
We agree to talk again the next night. He gives me the number of the pay phone down the block; I will call him there at exactly ten o'clock. This way, he will have some privacy.
I take out my map: a McDonald's map, normal in every respect but for the brightly colored logos marking all five McDonald's in Rome. I decide not to buy a bottle of wine and drink it somewhere historic. Instead I head back to my hostel near the train station. The dormitory is empty of people, but there are the scattered accouterments of the tourist on several of the beds: backpacks, guidebooks, baseball caps. Outside, I hear a man's voice shouting in Arabic. Two American women walk by arguing drunkenly about their next destination. I take out my book to read, but fall asleep before I get through a single paragraph.
Morning. Early. An old woman across the street sweeping the front of a store licensed to sell tobacco and salt. About half of the beds are filled with sleeping bodies. I wash in the bathroom down the hall, gather my things, and leave the silent hostel.
Ten o'clock in the evening. I am at the airport. I have spent a full day sitting in the Villa Borghese on a quiet shaded bench reading my book, Henry James's The Ambassadors. I call Daniel at the pay phone. I tell him about my conversation with our parents. I called to tell them when to expect me at O'Hare. They asked me why Daniel hadn't made the effort to meet me in Rome. Daniel and I agree that it would have been absurd for him to make the trip at such short notice, even if I had called him to let him know of my impending arrival we would have only had a day and a half together, and it's not a cheap train ride. As we talk I realize that I might have at least asked him to meet me and let him make the excuses himself. We don't return to this subject, but somehow there is little we will be able to say in our conversation that will overcome the initial setback.
And so, we talk about my day, about the book I've been reading. I tell him that I was sick of touring and broke and I just sat all day in the Villa Borghese with a loaf of bread and a bottle of water and around sunset I finished The Ambassadors. Daniel, who has read everything, has of course read this novel by James, and even though I am well on my way to a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century American literature and Daniel is not, he, the elder, is again the expert. We argue about the ending. Daniel believes that Lambert Strether is wrong and weak, while I venture a more sympathetic reading.
The plot of the novel revolves around Strether, a middle-aged American who is sent to Paris by Mrs. Newsome, his betrothed, to retrieve her grown son, Chad, from a bohemian lifestyle in Paris and a sinful affair with a mysterious French woman. During his sojourn in Paris, Strether decides that Chad should remain loyal to his Parisian lifestyle and his mistress. Strether gives up his own marriage plans with the wealthy Mrs. Newsome in order to take a stand on this point. By the novel's close, Strether has fallen in love with his companion, Miss Gostrey, but he must renounce this relationship, this last chance at happiness, because he can't in conscience feel that he has gained any personal advantage from his ill-fated embassy.
The point of contention has to do with Strether's reliability as a narrative perspective. Should he be taken as the reliable, objective, uninvolved voice of reason, a man who in good faith is trying to navigate a world of deceit and corruption, or should he be read as another of James's famous unreliable narrators, reading corruption into those around him and feigning innocence--even in his most private moments--in order to escape the guilt of his own machinations. I argue that Lambert Strether is too much like the middle-aged James to represent a wholly unsympathetic character. Strether may lose himself in the labyrinth of plot and counterplot, but he certainly has Chad's best interests at heart and may be justified in remaining aloof at the novel's close. Daniel parries that Strether may be what James imagines he would have been like if he had not devoted his life to writing, had not spent most of it in Britain and Europe, had not escaped provincial New England. By Daniel's account, Strether is unreliable in his self-serving observations and more than weak in his failure to take moral responsibility for his actions throughout the novel, a failure that culminates in Strether's final abdication from life and love.
I read one of the passages I've marked, a rare moment in which Strether thinks back upon his life before the action of the novel, long before his affiliation with Mrs. Newsome:
Old ghosts of experiments came back to him, old drudgeries and delusions, and disgusts, old recoveries with their relapses, old fevers with their chills, broken moments of good faith, others of still better doubt; adventures, for the most part, of the sort qualified as lessons. The special spring that had constantly played for him the day before was the recognition--frequent enough to surprise him--of the promises to himself that he had after his other visit never kept. The reminiscence to-day most quickened for him was that of the vow taken in the course of the pilgrimage that, newly married, with the War just over, and helplessly young in spite of it, he had recklessly made with the creature who was so much younger still. (115-16)
Daniel begins to make impatient noises, I tell him what he already knows, with James you can't just read a short passage to make your claim. You always feel like you haven't started the reading far enough back, that you should go back and back until you get to the beginning, and even that may not be enough. He is restless to move on and asks me how many thousands of lira I have left on my phone card. Before I have time to answer, he asks me what my point is anyway about Strether. I tell him that the point is that this is Strether's second trip to Paris, that he is remembering the first time he was there on his honeymoon, that he remembers the "lemon-coloured books" he bought but never read and that Strether is full of regret for his unspent life. Also, and this would have been in the passage if Daniel had let me read more, after Strether's wife died, he was so grief stricken that he sent his son away to a boarding school where he died of rapid diphtheria. Guilt and pain seem to mix with nostalgia and regret in Strether's memories of an earlier Paris. Most importantly, I argue, it is not his attitude to Paris that makes his life sad, but his need to have his real experiences, his emotional watersheds, while a tourist. Strether's first day in Paris, James tells us, "had really been the process of feeling the general stirred life of connexions long since individually dropped, " occasioned by "sudden flights of fancy in Louvre galleries" (116). I become a bit confused here and sense that I might have made Daniel's point about Strether being an unreliable narrator or at least a pathetic tourist with this last claim, so I change course. I ask Daniel directly: why have you been living in Europe the past four years?
He laughs, you know why I'm here, it's because I have free rent with Maria. No, he gets serious, it's because I can't stand the prospect of going back to the States and getting a job and doing that.
What about graduate school, I ask.
God, that would be even worse.
So what are you going to do?
I'll be fine, I'll get a new credit card every year or so, and keep robbing Peter to pay Paul.
What can I say to such a reasonable plan? I press him about his feelings on travel. Don't you think, like Strether, that living in a foreign country gives you a sense of importance, unleashed from the humdrum routine?
Even as I make this I claim, I realize that I am describing my own tendencies, not Daniel's. I am the one who is Strether in our little drama, for I am the one who places inordinate significance on the dislocation of travel. I am the one who cordons off certain times as those that will one day be important. Daniel's problem is that he is unable to live outside the present, unable to save or sacrifice.
In an effort to avoid a more serious clash, we don't discuss Daniel's plans anymore. We begin to talk about the past. I talk about the last time I was in Rome. I was then also on my way back to the States, after having spent my junior year of college in Israel. Daniel and I had been roommates at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I remind him of the postcard I had sent him from Rome: a picture of the sculpture of Laocoon in the Vatican. A bearded man in the center, his body stretched in agony, with a child on either side, all three gathered in the coils of a serpent. I selected that card, I remind Daniel, because we had both read and enjoyed John Barth's The End of the Road where Laocoon is a figure for anguish and inertia. I saw the statue of it at the Vatican and learned that Laocoon had been a Trojan priest who tried to warn the Trojans against the seductions of the wooden horse.
Daniel reminds me of when he taught me to read English. The story we tell goes like this: I am in the fourth grade, he is in the fifth. Our family has recently moved to the States from Israel. We are living in an apartment complex in Atlanta, Georgia. There is a tennis court with no net where we play kickball or whiffle ball or sometimes Nerf football with Roland Block, Stretch and Junior. Inside our apartment: lots of old beige carpet and a red bunk bed I share with our younger sister.
It is early in the morning, and we are sitting on that beige carpet. I cannot read English. I know the letters, I speak English comfortably, but I refuse to read it. Earlier that week, my teacher at our new school asked me to take some reading comprehension tests in a workbook. I take the exam alone out in the hallway. The other children have already taken the test and received a placement. I do not, cannot, read the passage, but it is multiple choice, so I answer each of the questions. When the teacher scores the test, it takes her a few seconds to realize that most of my answers are wrong. She sends me back out to the hall to try again. I erase all of the answers and replace them with new letters. This doesn't fool the teacher. Eventually, it is Daniel who gets me to do the proper operation. We cannot remember what he said that permitted me to transform letters into words.
As we talk on the phone I am thinking about what it was like for Daniel at that moment when he taught me to read English. He had been so happy in Israel. The smartest kid in his class, he also was selected to take the first sudden-death penalty kick in the all important inter-class soccer championship. He made the shot, but the two other kids from his class missed and his class lost anyway. He had a special way of relating to adults. When, in 1973, my father gone, fighting in the Yom Kippur war, my pregnant mother up all night in the living room listening to casualty reports on the radio, Daniel, a precocious four-year-old sat up with her, providing comfort, while I slept in the bedroom.
Later, when my parents sent him to a psychiatrist because he had been arrested for activities related to gambling, the theory was formulated that he was acting out of hostility toward my parents who had uprooted him from the country of his childhood. He has been in most kinds of trouble since then and still hasn't held a job for longer than a couple of months.
I wonder if, when we sat on that carpet and he taught me to read, he was already angry. Was he already bitter about having left the place where he was at home? Or was he still hopeful? Did he feel that reading in English, something at which he was remarkably good, would somehow hold the key to his happiness? To my happiness? Maybe he was just a bit wistful then, mourning his lost world, and it was not until the full onset of painful, suburban puberty that he gave up hope.
The lira are rapidly diminishing on the phone's digital readout. The call is almost up. I tell him to take care of himself, to write me a letter, to be careful. He tells me how good it was to talk, that he's doing fine, not to worry about him. The phone call ends.
I am left in the Rome airport in the international terminal. My flight is the first one out the next morning, but I still have some time before boarding. I stretch out my sleeping bag on the cold, hard floor and take out The Ambassadors. I leaf through it looking at the places I've written comments, the passages I've underlined. I am thinking back on my day, about the Villa Borghese, and I think about something I didn't tell Daniel: while reading deep in the park, away from any other tourists, I am surrounded by stray cats, running through the underbrush, fighting with each other, squealing in pain and joy. In the late morning, as the hot July sun rises high in the sky, I begin to notice, under the random park noises and along the drumming of James's prose in my head, the persistent mewing of what I realize must be a kitten. By the time I recognize the sound, I decide I should find out whose plaintive cry this is, and if there is anything I can do to help.
It isn't hard to find the mewing kitten. If the kitten hadn't been in a bush so close behind my bench, I wouldn't have been able to hear its weak crying. Born in the morning, probably shortly before I arrived, the kitten is still covered in the moisture of birth. Its eyes are yet unopened. There is no sign of its mother or litter mates. Though there are dozens of cats patrolling the area, none take any notice of this infant kitten. Should I point it out to a responsible looking cat? What else can I do? I desperately want to do the right thing. Destroying it quickly might be the most humane act. Casting my eye about for a heavy object, I imagine what it would be like to bash the kitten's head with a nearby rock. But I cannot kill it as long as there is a chance its mother might return. With nothing to do, I return to my bench and my book. As the afternoon wanes, I hear the kitten's cries trail off into silence.
* * *
I live in New York now. I teach writing and literature at Yeshiva University in Washington Heights, on the northern end of Manhattan. One of the few museums in this part of the city is The Cloisters, the outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to housing the museum's medieval collection. More than a museum, The Cloisters is made of imported and reconstructed fragments of European churches. Part restoration, part imagination, The Cloisters baffles even the most cynical museumgoer. Most of the stones, the columns, the capitals were collected in France by a little known American sculptor, George Grey Barnard, and smuggled into this country before WWI. The apotheosis of The Cloisters' museological method can be found in the Campin Room, a room devoted to the display of a painted church relic made in about 1425, Robert Campin's Annunciation altarpiece (formerly known as the Merode altarpiece). The painting is a beautiful representation of an interior, domestic scene adorned by numerous mundane objects.
The room in which the altarpiece is displayed is full of period pieces--objects that are from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and that, like the architecture of The Cloisters as a whole, serve to put the viewer in the mood to better appreciate the art of the period. The period pieces are not cheap gimcracks. They are intricately crafted, rare and valuable objects. Stranger still, the displayed artifacts closely replicate the objects represented in Campin's painting. The captions in the museum guidebook explain: "Walnut bench with linen-fold panels and finials in the form of lions and dogs. French or Spanish. About 1500. Compare the bench in the center of Campin's altarpiece" (122). Indeed, the comparison is uncanny. The guidebook continues, "A brass laver with bird- or reptile-head spouts and handle-fitted into sockets in the form of human heads. Flemish. 15th century. Compare Campin's laver" (122). And, yes, the bowl could be the exact one depicted by Campin. The objects in the room seem to be imitations of those in the painting, set around to illustrate the medieval way of life portrayed in the painting. On the other hand, the abyss opens when we realize that the objects are more real and just as old as the painting. The painting is simply a reproduction, and an impoverished one-dimensional one at that, of the richness of active life.
In The Cloisters, evaluation does not hinge on the matter of truths against lies, authenticity over fakery, for all is equally true (or false) in this museum. The Cloisters erases more utterly than most museums the line between frame and picture, context and text. In The Cloisters, as sometimes in life, the picture overflows its frame, the text becomes the whole story. If the aim of museums, and of life, is to blur boundaries, The Cloisters succeeds, but if the aim is to become more fully attuned to the topography of preservation, to note more fully when we are looking forward and when we are looking away, then The Cloisters is an alarming and insidious place. As things are now, when I visit The Cloisters, I do not feel the stir of the past; all I can muster is a vague longing for medieval craftsmanship and simplicity, for the freshness of Strether's Paris, for the dislocation of my Rome.
James, Henry. The Ambassadors. 1903. (London: Penguin Books, 1986).
Young, Bonnie. A Walk Through The Cloisters. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum
of Art, 1979).