Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The House in Paris (in which we learn that Darlene is right, is garlanded with flowers &c. &c.)


A while ago the very lovely (but, it turns out, fiercely competitive) Darlene laid down a challenge.  She would read a book by my beloved Ivy Compton-Burnett, if I would give her beloved Elizabeth Bowen a second chance.  "Game on!" said I, always happy to give respected authors two or three tries - but she comfortably beat me with her fabulous review of Manservant and Maidservant in early September, which you can read here.  I took my time, but I've finally managed to keep up my end of the bargain, and on my trip to the Lake District I managed to finish The House in Paris (1935).


Well, Darlene, you were right.  I didn't enjoy The Last September at all, but The House in Paris is beautiful.  Cancel the book burning, Bowen is back in business.

The novel has a layered narrative.  The first and last quarters (called 'Present') take place in the Parisian house, belonging to Mme. and Miss Fisher, where young Henrietta is spending the day between one chaperone and another.  Coincidentally, Leopold is also there - nervously waiting to meet his biological mother for the first time in his life.  The middle half reverts to 'Past', and concerns Leopold's mother Karen, who knew Miss Fisher (Naomi) when they were ten years younger, and the affair which led to Leonard's conception.

It is the beginning and end of The House in Paris that I loved, and I half wish that Bowen hadn't left the house in Paris at all.  The scenes between Henrietta and Leopold are so perfectly judged that it seems impossible that writing can be so beautiful as well as so plausible - surely Bowen (one thinks) would have to sacrifice one to the other?  But no, every moment described is a new insight into the way children interact, and beautiful because true.  This is the first conversation they have while alone together:
He said: "Miss Fisher says you're here for the day."

"I'm just crossing Paris," Henrietta said with cosmopolitan ease.

"Is that your monkey?"

"Yes.  I've had him ever since I was born."

"Oh," said Leopold, looking at Charles vaguely.

"How old are you?" Henrietta enquired.

"Nine."

"Oh, I'm eleven."

"Miss Fisher's mother is very ill," said Leopold.  He sat down in an armchair with his knees crossed and, bending forward, studied a cut on one knee.  The four velvet armchairs, each pulled out a little way from a corner, faced in on the round table that reflected the window and had in its centre a tufted chenille mat.  He added, wrinkling his forehead: "So Mariette says, at least."

"Who is Mariette?"

"Their maid.  She wanted to help me dress."

"Do you think she is going to die?" said Henrietta.

"I don't expect so.  I shall be out, anyway."

"That would be awful," said Henrietta, shocked.

"I suppose it would.  But I don't know Mme. Fisher."

It is never natural for children to smile at each other: Henrietta and Leopold kept their natural formality.  She said: "You see, I'd been hoping Miss Fisher was going to take me out." 
Leopold, looking about the salon, said: "Yes, this must be a rather funny way to see Paris."  But he spoke with detachment; it did not matter to him.
In the first quarter of the novel, little takes place to propel the plot.  Henrietta meets Mme. Fisher (slowly, wryly, dying in a bedroom upstairs); Leopold snoops through Miss Fisher's letters, and finds letters from his adoptive mother and Henrietta's grandmother, and an empty envelope from his biological mother.  What makes this section so special is the gradual, engaging way Bowen builds up the relationship between the children - character is paramount.  Although they develop a fragile and fleeting friendship, they have the child's selfish indifference to each other's feelings - as Bowen expresses so strikingly:
With no banal reassuring grown-ups present, with grown-up intervention taken away, there is no limit to the terror strange children feel of each other, a terror life obscures but never ceases to justify.  There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone. 
This passage demonstrates one of the qualities of Bowen's writing that I most admired and liked - the way she moves from the specific to the general.  Authors are often told "show, don't tell", and Bowen finds an original way to follow this maxim while subtly evading it.  She never plays too heavy a narrative hand with the characters, letting their actions and words form their personalities, but then she steps back a pace or two, and draws general conclusions about children or lovers or parents or people in general.  She shows with the cast, and tells about the world.

As the first part closes, Leopold learns that: "Your mother is not coming; she cannot come."  Isn't that sentence delightfully Woolfean, with its balance and half-repetition?  No wonder people have often drawn comparison between Bowen and Woolf - including Byatt, in her excellent introduction (which, as always, ought to be read last - and pleasantly blends personal and critical aspects.)

actual houses in Paris wot I saw once
In the central section of the novel, we meet Leopold's mother Karen, and witness her relationship with Naomi's fiancee Max.  Although longer than the other sections put together, 'Past' felt less substantial to me.  It is, essentially, the very gradual and incremental development of the relationship between Karen and Max - from distrust to love, and... onwards.  But here I shall draw a veil over the ensuing plot for, although plot is hardly primary in Bowen, it cannot be called negligible, and I shall not spoil it.

And, finally, back to Henrietta and Leopold, as they make proclamations about their lives, in the midst of situations they cannot understand for more than a moment at a time - and eventually they part.  Without giving away too much, I shall remove one possibility - they do not end up living like brother and sister; they will probably never see each other again.  Their encounter has been fleeting, and wholly at the whim of the various adults (present and absent) whose decisions so heavily influence the children's lives.  As a conceit it is not entirely natural, but we can forgive Bowen that - it structures the narrative perfectly, and gives opportunity for so many other moments where the natural triumphs against the artificiality of fiction: time and again novelistic cliches and truisms have the carpet whipped from under their feet, and the reader thinks "Oh, of course, that is what would happen."

Above all, Bowen is a wordsmith.  She crafts sentences so perfectly.  They are not of the variety that can be read in a hurry - perhaps that is where I went wrong with The Last September - but, with careful attention and a willingness to dive into the world of words she creates - it is an effort which is very much repaid.  Darlene, thank you for refusing to let me declare Bowen done and dusted - she's now very much back in my good books.  You might have won this competition, but this is a case of everyone's-a-winner, right?


Others who got Stuck into it:

"From the very first page of The House in Paris when Henrietta is collected from the train station by Miss Fisher, both wearing cerise cockades so as to recognize one another, I adored this book.  Elizabeth Bowen's genius as a writer is staggering and to anyone who doesn't agree or simply does not get on with her...I could weep for you." - Darlene, Roses Over A Cottage Door

"The pages were awash with beautiful, sonorous language formed into exquisite sentences that swirled through my thoughts, leaving lingering, evocative images behind." - Rachel, Book Snob [Simon: this review is much better than mine!  Go and check it out if you haven't done already.]

"I wanted to love Elizabeth Bowen; one of my most respected history profs at university cited Bowen as her absolute favourite author and ever since then I've intended to read her. I liked this book, I even found some quotable passages which I delightedly copied out. But somehow it didn't coalesce into a Great Read, at least not for me." - Melwyk, The Indextrious Reader


19 comments:

  1. I am so glad you finally cracked Bowen. She is a wonderful writer and I hope you may venture into more of her novels now. On the other hand I can't stand ICB, and I did try.

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    1. I'm thrilled too! I was so sure I'd love her, and so disappointed when I didn't. Equilibrium is restored!

      Have you tried ICB a second time now, with the same lack of success? If not, then try, try again, please!

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  2. This is the only Bowen I've read, but I do want to read more - as you say, however, they require a certain slowness of approach. I like the way this book always seemed to be edging its way into surreality but then pulling back.

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    1. A definite slowness of approach needed - she's not an author to read just anytime, I think. I'll be spacing them out.

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  3. So far I have only read The Death of the Heart and you're right - her writing is really beautiful. Her books definitely can't be read quickly. I have this on my tbr - maybe I should sneak it up towards the top a bit!

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    1. Death of the Heart is on my shelf, I think... I'll have a gander next year sometime. Or maybe I'll try her short stories... I wonder what she is like with those.

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    2. I haven't yet found out - I have her collected short stories on the TBR mountain but that's as far as I've got! I have to be in the right mood for short stories.

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  4. I have yet to read one of Bowen's novels but I think I do have a copy of one of her books which I am planning to read at some point! I think authors always deserve a second or third chance, so good on you!

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    1. I look forward to seeing your thoughts, Sakura!
      Some of my favourite authors didn't hit home the first time (Muriel Spark, Barbara Comyns) so I'm definitely happy to give them a few tries!

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  5. Hooray, Simon! And you wrote about the things that make Bowen spectacular so much better than I ever could. The Last September will be my next Bowen read to find out how it matches up against the others I've read so perhaps we'll have another chat about Bowen in the future.

    Thanks for playing along and you are so right, we both win!

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    1. Hooray indeed, Darlene! You did very well not to bully me, as I bullied Rachel mercilessly until she read The Love-Child.

      I wonder what you'll make of The Last September? I look forward to finding out. And we'll have our Bowen talk in person one day!

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  6. What a fun idea to swap favourite authors, glad her writing worked for you this time.

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    1. Just one more example of how wonderful the blogosphere can be!

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  7. I should post this to an earlier entry, but am afraid you might not read it if I go too far back. Regarding your birthday photos (many happy returns of the day, by the way!) from the Lake District: Have you ever read the Silent Traveller books by Chiang Yee? One of them concerns a visit he made to the Lake District. He wrote quite a few travel books, and you might very well like them. If they are hard for you to find, please let me know somehow (does commenting on your blog give you my e-mail address? -- sorry to be so ignorant of this process) and I'll be happy to send you one of his books (not the Lake one, but it hardly matters). You might care to add it to your Reading Presently list. I love your blog. Keep reading and writing!

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    1. Thanks for your comment and your email - have replied to that one! :)

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  8. I had a similar experience with Elizabeth Bowen, Simon. I first read The End of September which left me cold but then went on to love The House in Paris, and also Death of the Heart so would recommend that too.

    I will probably give The End of September another try but will have to find another copy first, as the second-hand copy I read turned out to have squashed greenflies in it. Maybe another reason why I gave up on it!

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    1. How funny that we had the same progress through her novels, Dee! And the greenflies definitely wouldn't have helped ;)

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  9. SO glad you loved this Simon - and what a brilliant review. I'm sure you'll entice some more people to read Bowen - she's streets ahead of ICB!!! ;) You should definitely read To the North next. It's still my favourite Bowen! I wonder why you didn't love The Last September? I haven't read it yet - is it different in style to The House in Paris? Or do you think you just read it at the wrong time?

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    1. Haha! I'm afraid I still think ICB is a better and more important novelist than Elizabeth Bowen - Bowen does very well something that a lot of authors do; ICB is unique and extraordinary. Try her again!

      I think the problem with The Last September is that I was expecting to rush through it. And I don't much get on with Irish Troubles Novels. Hmm. And maybe it was more visual, and House in Paris was more about emotions.

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