The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

It has taken me a few days to let this book distil in my consciousness. Like all of the other Bowen novels I have read, this was an intense and all consuming experience. The pages were awash with beautiful, sonorous language formed into exquisite sentences that swirled through my thoughts, leaving lingering, evocative images behind. The characters are an eclectic mixture of creatures; some present, some merely disembodied memories, they are both haunting and haunted, emerging slowly into view from within the stifling, sickly atmosphere of the House in Paris like people stumbling from darkness into the sudden brightness of daylight. It is a world suspended; nothing happens in the present of the novel, where two children wait with trepidation in the muffled silence for the next phase of their journeys; a bitter, querulous old woman lies impotent in her white sheathed bed; and another younger woman shuttles up and down the stairs between them, consumed, as she always has been, by the drama of other people’s lives rather than her own. The great emotional thrust of the novel is in its middle section, where the memory of a summer ten years previous is resurrected to explain the coming together of these disparate people in this dusty, closed up house on a silent Parisian street. Once again Bowen excels herself in the portrayal of a tragedy caused by the constitutional repression of individuals brought up never to say exactly what they think or express how they truly feel. In a society where appearances are far more important than the reality, those whose hearts belong on the wrong side of respectability must suffer, and this time it is the innocent who do so the most.

The novel opens with the arrival in Paris of the precocious Henrietta, who, at 11, still carries a stuffed toy monkey with her wherever she goes, despite all of her airs and graces. Henrietta is on her way from London to the South of France, where she is going to stay with her grandmother, Mrs Arbuthnot. Mrs Arbuthnot has arranged for Henrietta to spend the several hours between her trains at the home of an old friend, Miss Fisher, a shadowy, submissive woman in her thirties, half English, half French, who lives with her bed ridden elderly mother in a narrow, dark house on a shabbily genteel back street. Henrietta is excited; it is her first time in Paris, and she is desperate to be taken out to see the Trocadero and have tea in a real cafe. However, Miss Fisher has news for Henrietta; she will not be the only one spending the day waiting in the house. Leopold, a nine year old boy with large dark eyes and just as much self conscious precocity as Henrietta, is waiting at the Fishers’ for his mother, whom he has never met. Adopted as a child by Americans living in Italy, this is the first time his mother has requested to meet him, and his nervous excitement has made him fractious. Miss Fisher is ill at ease with the children in the house; her mother is very ill upstairs, and she is wracked with concern that something will prevent Leopold’s mother, her old friend, from coming to fetch him. When the doorbell rings too early and a telegram is brought, the worst is suspected. From here, we are launched ten years back in time, when the House in Paris was a sought after place for well to do American and English girls to stay and become ‘finished’, when Madame Fisher was a mesmerising woman whose opinion was sacred, when Miss Fisher was in love, and when a young and beautiful Sloane named Karen Michaelis had returned from the House in Paris to her home in Chelsea, prepared to marry a nice but dull man approved of by her parents, despite being helplessly and fatally in love with a man she had left behind.

Karen Michaelis was Leopold’s mother; how she came to fall from grace and give birth to a child outside of wedlock is the crux of this strange and beautiful novel. Brought up in a well to do middle class family, with highly respectable and loving parents, Karen appears to have it all. In her early twenties, she is sent off to Paris to stay with the Fishers for a while, and is mesmerised by the calm and passive love of Naomi Fisher and by Max Ebhart, an enigmatic hanger on of Madame Fisher, and on the up in the political world. On her return to London, she becomes engaged to the achingly proper Ray, who she has known for several years. However, she is not sure of her feelings and is conflicted by her desire to live life with violent meaning, not merely repeat a blandly charming existence like her parents. Naomi comes to London for a few days, to deal with the estate of a dead Aunt. With her is Max. They are surprisingly engaged, but while Naomi’s heart is pure, Max has made a choice based on practicality and fondness, perhaps, rather than love. On a sunny afternoon in the garden of Naomi’s dead aunt, Max presses Karen’s hand into the grass, out of sight of his devoted fiancee. So begins an affair at once passionate and destructive, one which will irrevocably devastate the lives of all involved.

This is a marvellously intricate novel, with so many fascinating characters, so many labyrinthine themes and ideas twisting and turning and forming a world of secrecy, silence, repression, passion, waste, treachery, pain, disappointment, innocence and love that mesmerises from the very first page. I can’t even begin to recreate for you its suffocating tenseness and its breathtaking flashes of luminosity when a clutch of words capture a truth so startlingly perfectly that you greedily devour them again and again, marvelling at Bowen’s genius for distilling all of life into such a tiny vacuum. As in The Death of the Heart, Bowen completely understands the loneliness of childhood; that gulf between innocence and understanding, when you know just enough to know that you don’t know anything at all. There is a faint whiff of the sinister about Leopold and Henrietta, who both take such un-innocent pleasure in hurting one another, while secretly longing to love and be loved, understand and be understood. The intensity of their presence is felt all throughout the house, and especially that of Leopold, whose very existence vibrates with scandal. Karen and Max’s brief love affair, with its fantastically revealed denouement, is as tense and menacing as that of Emmeline and Markie’s in To the North, and their youthful desperate vibrancy bursts into life on the page. Karen’s Aunt Violet, who has a small but vital part to play, is also intensely memorable; a quiet, gentle, quintessentially Victorian woman, inside her beats a wild heart that has always been smothered by respectability. For me, however, it was Madame and Miss Fisher who took centre stage; shadowy thwarted women, one angry, one passive, their presence has an almost terrible malignancy that hangs over the entire novel. Their house is foetid; by the end I was desperate to be let out into the fresh air, released from the weight of sadness that presses down, down, down, squeezing the life from these women for whom the world has dealt nothing but a string of disappointments.

The House in Paris is a tour de force; it reminds you of what brilliance is, and of what pleasure there is in reading slowly and carefully, revelling in language that is treated as an artform rather than as a means to a usually rather shabby end. Having picked up with Virginia Woolf again lately, I am all for slowing down, reading closely, thinking, mulling, immersing, treasuring. With writers like these, you have to do that to truly appreciate them. If you’ve never read any Bowen, this is an excellent place to start. Dorothy Canfield thought so too; inside my 1936 American first edition I found her review, printed by the February Book of the Month club – ‘The odd, elaborate and wholly successful construction of the story marks a mature masterful craftsman….Elizabeth Bowen gives us in this book everything we want in a good novel.’ I find her thoughts rather tepid – perhaps books this good were not so rare then – but it was certainly intriguing to understand contemporary thoughts on the novel. I love my edition; its jazzy art deco dustjacket is wonderfully anachronistic, and I can still remember the moment of utter glee when I found it nestled on a top shelf at the Strand in New York, beside two other lovely old Bowen hardbacks that I scooped up for a song on a sweltering summer evening this time last year. I’d had an awful day and was desperate to be alone and out of my stifling apartment, and I almost cried with happiness at such a serendipitous find. On my way home I stopped off at Shake Shack (much missed) for a pick-me-up burger and milkshake, then wandered into the park along the East River to watch the sun set over Queens. As I walked in, a swing band started playing in the bandstand, and I sat on a bench listening and flicking through my Bowens, wondering who had owned them before me and whether one day, when I am gone, someone would find them again on the shelf of a book shop, and take as much pleasure in them as I did at that moment of swing filled sunset over Manhattan. I do hope that someone will. I hope that you will too; if you still haven’t read any Bowen, then what are you waiting for?! I’ve pulled out all the stops to convince you!!

36 comments

  1. I own the exact same copy of this book, copyright 1935, published by Knopf March 2, 1936. I have picked it up several times but have not yet completely read it, or, for that matter, anything else by Elizabeth Bowen, barring some of her shorter literary articles and book reviews of other authors. Mentally I group her with Virginia Wolff (interesting that you refer to Woolf as well) as a writer that needs full attention. Uninterrupted reading and thinking time to fully savour such “complex” writers is scarce in my life at present, but your exceedingly well written review may be the nudge I need to tackle Bowen at last. Thank you for the time and effort you put into this post.

    1. I do think Bowen is a writer that needs full attention – if you try and rush through her books, you won’t really understand what is going on. The pleasure is in letting the writing wash over you, savouring every word. You need a long afternoon with no distractions really, though I manage to read her on my commute – perhaps because I am used to her style now and am skilled at blocking out background noise! You are welcome – glad you enjoyed it and thanks for commenting!

  2. I have a part started Elizabeth Bowen waiting for me on the bookshelves. It just didn’t feel right to be reading it whilst commuting, more like a holiday read. I shall now prioritise it for this, oh so nearly upon us, summer holiday.

    1. Yes, you really do have to be in the mood, don’t you? But you will have PLENTY of time to sit and enjoy over the summer – lucky you! You deserve it!

  3. I borrowed it from the library a couple of years ago, and although I too found it enthralling, it still is the only Bowen I’ve read, besides some short stories from her collection The Bazaar and Other Stories (http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0748635726), which I highly recommend, especially to those of you who don’t have enough time to focus on demanding literature for long stretches.
    By the way, that is a lovely edition. No wonder it made your day!

    1. Glad you have read this, Azahara, and I quite agree – her short stories are perfect as an introduction for those with a little less time on their hands. Thanks – it is amazing, isn’t it? So of its period.

  4. I often wonder where my books will go. A friend whom I don’t see often phoned the other day to say she had been given a book with my name in it. I was so glad that it had found a new home where it will be loved. Thank you for setting others on the Bowen path . I love her writing and am going to reread AThe House in Paris. I must recommend Love’s Civil war by Victoria glendinning – the letters of Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie .It is most moving ( to use a cliche )

    1. What a lovely coincidence, Enid! I’m glad you’re a Bowen fan – it’s always special to find people who know and love her – I haven’t met anyone in real life who does yet (aside from people I know through blogging!). I very much want to read those letters – thank you for reminding me!

  5. I’m convinced, I’ll add Bowen to my ‘watch list’ of authors. Her style sounds perfect winter reading, meant for one of those nights where it is just me, a real fire roaring in the grate, the cat beside it, a book of many threads and a slowly sipped glass of whisky…🙂

  6. I still have the Death of the Heart to read for my TBR Dare — I’ve never read anything by Elizabeth Bowen and I’m looking forward to it. This one sounds really good too.

    I love your expression about how you had to “distill” the book. I’ve sometimes waited between books so I could absorb one, but I think I like “distill” better.

    1. The Death of the Heart is very good indeed – not her best but very good regardless. Once you start, you will be hooked, I am sure!

      Yes – distilling is important – just letting it rest and settle on your mind. I love authors that make me do that!

  7. A PERFECT review, Rachel. I knew you’d do my very favourite book of all time justice – and you have. In all my long reading this remains for me a jewel of a novel, complete in every sense.
    I am so pleased that you told about Karen and Max’s hands in the grass – that early spring day in London was beautifully told, so much atmosphere, the blossom and the tea cups. I loved every moment with Karen: her strange calm visit to Ireland, all those small clues about the future. And the past is given to us in tiny sips: Max’s dark, intriguing, shadowy presence in the rooms downstairs while she was staying as a young lady being ‘finished’.
    Then the skilful hinting at Paris waiting for poor Henrietta and never achieved, except very briefly through Ray’s kindness at the end (and wasn’t he just right with them?). As for those children, they are a showcase for Elizabeth Bowen’s superb talent where making children come alive is concerned. I loved Leopold, felt utterly scandalised and furious with those odious adoptive parents. And the perfect rightness of his being the result of those sensuous meetings each side of the Channel. Dear brave Henrietta, so sensitive and curious, with her monkey and that waistband that wouldn’t stay put since she hadn’t a waist yet.
    I mustn’t go on, especially since you know all this! Just to give you my appreciation of your acknowledged of this masterpiece. I sometimes get tired of hearing even well-read people say, ‘Bowen, no never heard of her.’
    PS The cover of my penguin copy, bought and read in a flat, in very wet Frankfurt one long ago summer, has a lovely old painting: a room like the one I was confined to by the weather, long muslin curtains blowing at a balcony window. Pure Paris.

    1. Chrissy, you picked out such wonderful points – I love how Bowen hinges so many important things on tiny moments, like that hand press- it is barely noticeable, but means so much. She really does capture children so much – all the more a talent as she never had children of her own. Her powers of observation and insight are second to none. I also can’t believe how many people have never heard of her – it’s terrible! Part of the problem is that she is rarely taught at undergraduate level and hasn’t entered the ‘canon’ for some reason – perhaps she is considered too ‘niche’.
      I love the sound of your copy – and how books can remind us so vividly of when we bought and read them. You don’t get that with a kindle!

  8. What a lovely review – thank you. I am expecting to recieve a copy of this book soon following the literary blog hop giveaway. I am pretty sure I have read it before – as every time i read a review of it the descriptions of the house and the childrenwaiting resonate very strongly. I can’t wait to revisit it.

    1. Thank you Ali – well you are lucky and in for a treat! You’ll love reading it again and having it all resurface in your mind – I already am looking forward to coming back to it in a year or so and spotting new aspects to delight me!

  9. What a lovely review! Sitting here with rain drumming outside, this book seems like the perfect, tense novel to be enjoyed right now.

    Unfortunately, I imagine might won’t be the same beautiful edition that you found, though who knows what books come our way? Isn’t it also wonderful to find older books that have been given to you years ago and to read the inscriptions again? I find it’s similar to finding words from an unknown author–instantly makes you rethink where you were in that time you first received the book.

    1. Thank you Nikki – yes, it is definitely a rainy day book if I ever saw one!

      Who knows indeed! I’ve come across many a copy of something lovely when I’ve least expected it. Yes it is – I am always leaving things in my books as well, so I love opening them up and seeing a train ticket fall out and them remembering that trip or that day…you could probably write a book about that alone!

  10. Rachel, you’ve made me want to give Bowen another go. Enjoyed Death of the Heart and certain images, the frozen park, etc were very powerful. I didn’t love it though, so I’ll try another title. Good luck with your teaching, by the way!

    1. I think you’ll love her when you find the right starting point, Nicola – give To the North a go and see how you get on with that. Thank you very much!

  11. Lovely review! I’ve read quite a few of Bowen’s short stories and found them perceptive, elegant, haunting and in a couple of cases (‘The Cat Jumps’ and ‘The Demon Lover’) deeply and brilliantly unnerving but I’ve never tackled one of her full-length novels. Having read your review of The House in Paris however I’m definitely going to give this one a go as soon as I can. Thanks so much for posting! Somehow, at the end of a rather dreary Friday it has picked me up no end to read such a passionate and thoughtful review.

    1. Hi Greg, thank you, that’s very kind! If you love her short stories, then a novel will be a marvellous experience for you – I recommend starting with To the North as it has been the one that has moved me the most out of all the ones I’ve read. If that hooks you, then you’ll definitely love the others!

  12. I’ve never read any Elizabeth Bowen but having read your review, she has gone onto my TBR list – suitably marked as one that requires reading with brain fully engaged. Thanks for the tip

  13. You had that feeling too, of stepping out into the fresh air as the story came to an end. I shudder to think of any booklover going through life without discovering such magnificent writing, keep spreading the word!
    There can never be too many stories about dusty books you find stashed in the highest of places or darkest of corners, Rachel. Makes me smile every time…and that edition of yours is gorgeous!

    1. Yes – it was such a stifling book! Me too – it amazes me how many people have never heard of her – well read people, too! Glad you liked my tale, and yes I am so lucky to have such a beautiful edition!

  14. Reblogged this on Little Words and commented:
    Another brilliant review from Book Snob, one of my favourite bloggers. I have been meaning to read some Elizabeth Bowen for a while and this has only furthered my interest! Enjoy.

  15. I have just popped back to this lovely review after finishing The House in Paris last night. Goodness I did love it – though I know I have not managed to capture it as beautifully as you have, in my review – still so gad I have read it. It was yours and dovegreyreader’s reviews that made me so keen to read it and made me think I maybe had read it before a long time ago.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Ali! That’s so wonderful – Bowen needs to be more widely read as reading her is such an incredible experience! I’m delighted to have been part of giving you the inspiration to read it!🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s