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!!