Thursday, January 31, 2008

House in Paris

The House in Paris / Elizabeth Bowen
New York: Anchor, 2002, c1935.

This is the only book I have yet finished for the Outmoded Authors challenge (although I have Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno started & waiting on the bedside stack). I can also count it toward my Place choice for Annie's What's in a Name challenge! I've been putting off writing about it, however, because I'm not sure what to say. 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. Perhaps I didn't quite understand the end, or perhaps the structure threw me a little. I'm not sure what it was.

In any case, the book begins with little Henrietta being met in Paris by an acquaintance of her mother's, who is essentially going to babysit for the day between Henrietta's trains. This lady, Naomi Fisher, and her stern mother Mrs. Fisher, have run a boarding house for young women for years, and are on this very day also babysitting a young boy, Leopold. It's really poor Naomi responsible for the children, as her mother is an invalid, ruling the house from her upstairs bedroom. Leopold is waiting to meet his mother, another friend of Naomi's, who is revealed to have had him via an affair and given him up. Leopold has never seen his mother, and doesn't know the true story of his life. As he and Henrietta come to terms with one another, their balanced tension ends part one of the story.

The middle section of the book is the backstory of Karen, Leopold's mother. This is the part I most enjoyed. Karen is a strange character, fairly passive and with no clear vision of the direction her very banal, suburban life should take. Staying as a student in the house in Paris, she meets a young man, Max, who visits the boarding house as a friend of Mrs. Fisher's. Although he is not supposed to talk to boarders, he does, and Karen takes him in dislike. It is through her friendship with Naomi that she meets him again a few years later, this time as Naomi's fiancé. It all goes to pot as Karen and Max begin what seems to be a rather short-lived affair. They meet once in France, and once in England (where the consequences of her actions catch up with her). She gives the child away, with no-one in England knowing about it. Strangely, it is Naomi who efficiently arranges Karen's 'trip abroad' and finds a family to take Leopold. After Karen is finally married she confesses to her long-suffering husband, who has the idea that they should bring Leopold to rejoin their family.

The affair has been precipitated by the unease Karen feels about her engagement to an earnest friend of her family, who is of the same class and will give her the same life she has always known. She begins to feel stifled by this idea and distances herself by taking a socially acceptable trip to visit her little-seen aunt in Ireland. This aunt and her odd Irish husband live in a small house overlooking the harbour, and it is when Karen first arrives that I think a very meaningful statement is made. Throughout the entire book, houses are minutely detailed. The erstwhile House in Paris, of course, but also Karen's family home, the empty house that Max and Naomi intend to purchase in England, the hotel where they have their tryst, as well as Aunt Violet's Irish home. Karen wanders alone through the living room, waiting for her aunt to come down, and thinks,

It is a wary business, walking about a strange house you know you are to know well...The you inside you gathers up defensively; something is stealing upon you every moment, you will never be quite the same again. These new unsmiling lights, reflections and objects are to become your memories, riveted to you closer than friends or lovers, going with you, even, into the grave: worse, they may become dear and fasten like so many leeches on your heart. By having come, you already begin to store up the pains of going look around is like being, still conscious, dead: you see a world without yourself.

It is this melancholy that permeates the entire novel. The setting seems blurred, a few precise houses linked by incessant travel. The characters are restless, they can't stay still.

The third section of the book then details the intersection of the first two. Karen is indeed in France, but can not bring herself to see Leopold after all. Her husband Roy goes in her stead, and Leopold, after some intense and dramatic disappointment, decides to go with Roy who on the spur of the moment takes him along when they drive Henrietta to her train. I think the idea is to go on to the hotel where Karen is staying. And that's where I'm not sure. Does Karen abhor the idea of meeting Leopold because he will look like his father? Or because admitting him into her life means she will have to acknowledge her premarital behaviour? Or simply because of the guilt of abandoning him so handily at birth? Perhaps by coming to Paris, Karen feels she is 'storing up the pains of going away'. I'm not sure her motivation is clear enough, at least not to someone not steeped in the social conventions of the era Bowen is writing about. I think I would have to reread, looking for clues carefully as I go rather than rushing to the end, thinking, does Leopold see his mother?!? And she did have me anxious about the poor lost soul.

I did find this book superbly written, in a quiet, precise manner. What I'd really meant to read was The Last September, but I couldn't find a copy at the moment I wanted it, so I picked this one up instead. It was intriguing, but I am still intending to find The Last September, preferably in the edition Eva talks about, which has a preface about writing the story, by Bowen herself. Doubly tempting. I'm glad I finally broke the ice between Bowen and I and intend many more meetings!


  1. Hi Melanie! I got Madonnas of Leningrad in the mail today-thank you so much. :) After the first paragraph of this post, I thought to myself "I'll have to recommend The Last September." heh

    This one sounds interesting, but probably won't go to the top of the list-I mooched To the North a while back, so it's patiently waiting on the shelf. (The cover has this woman in a dress that's such a gorgeous shade of blue)

    I went and got my copy, so here's the info: it's the 1964 Knopf Borzoi edition (third printing). I can't find an ISBN number, so I don't know if it's too early for one or if it's somehow hidden (I have an ex-library copy). Good luck!

  2. I've never read Bowen, and I honestly don't know a whole lot about her (not sure how I missed out). However, I always hear her discussed on various blogs, so I'm gonna give her a try. Off to Bookmooch!

  3. I felt the same way about The Death of the Heart -- I admired much of it, but I didn't fall in love. I've got The Last September and may try that one day -- I haven't given up on Bowen quite yet.

  4. Your review has me interested in reading Bowen but I think I will start with The Last September. Thank you.

  5. I'm just linking to this in a post that will appear tomorrow!


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