I think I may have rather indiscreetly and perhaps inappropriately punched the air when I turned the final page of The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen. I'm not sure the ending merited such cheery celebrations but I don't know how many times I may have tried to read a book by this great Anglo-Irish novelist and failed, so I felt I could treat myself to that little glow of final success and sense of achievement. This time round I had sat down, determined to crack it and all I can say is that success seems to be about a mixture of intense concentration and an eye for every word, along with the commitment of time.
Do you find as I do that some books just don't lend themselves to short, snatched bursts of reading??
I needed to set aside long-enough reading slots to enable me to really pick up the threads and totally immerse, there is so much here to miss.
In her introduction A.S.Byatt recalls being bought The House in Paris in error at about the age of eleven, her father having mistaken Elizabeth Bowen for Marjorie Bowen the historical novelist. Undeterred the young ASB ploughed on and with interesting results. Her final observation made in this introduction, uses a quote made by Elizabeth Bowen about Ivy Compton Burnett, but citing a quality that in the eyes of ASB is no less applicable to the work of Elizabeth Bowen herself...
'...this is the time for hard writers, and here is one.'
I think my determination may also have been down to reading this in the introduction to Victoria Glendinning's biography of Elizabeth Bowen,
'She is what happened after Bloomsbury; she is the link which connects Virginia Woolf with Muriel Spark. She changed with the century in approach and technique without losing her original inimitable voice...'
and that premise intrigued me. Two writers I love and here is a writer who bridges them both, to not read would be to leave a gap I could never know about. I couldn't quite bear the thought of that.
Two unconnected children meet by chance at the home of Mme Fisher in Paris. Little ships that pass in the night, eleven-year old Henrietta en route to her grandmother's home in the south of France from London, and nine-year old Leopold, having travelled to Paris from the Italian home of his adoptive parents. Leopold's journey (and how far must that have been for a child) made at the specific request of his mother, Karen, who he has never met and knows very little about. Karen has decided she finally wants to meet her child and the mysteries of that situation hover like a cloud of unknowing over the action until finally explained.
The children are introduced and conversation skirts around each other as children who are strangers to each other are sometimes wont to do. This one of the early moments, repeated so astutely throughout the book when Elizabeth Bowen captures the essence of a child-centred world,...
'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.'
The atmosphere in the Parisian house is close and airless and claustrophobic. Mme Fisher seems to be 'off her legs' (sorry, 1970's nursing parlance) and bedridden and is being cared for by her spinster daughter Naomi, and the children are parked in the house whilst events play out, namely the devastating news that Leopold's mother will now not be able to see him.
There are moments in the book when the airlessness of the house extended to me as a reader, this one of those devastatingly portrayed moments in fiction when there doesn't seem to be enough oxygen to go round us all...Henrietta, Leopold, and me eavesdropping on the moment when Leopold, strong for so long and not a moment longer eventually breaks down and weeps with disappointment in Henrietta's arms. Both children cry uncontrollably for a few long, inconsolable minutes, and a more heart-wrenching scene cannot have been written in any other book ever... well apart from that scene in A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry when Willie Dunne's father dons the apron and bathes his son in the bath in the kitchen on his unexpected return from the trenches of France.
But this is children, and they are alone in the room and the impact is profoundly moving..
'He wept like someone alone against his will. someone shut up alone for a punishment : you only weep like that when only a room hears...His undeniable tears were more than his own, they seemed to be all the tears that had ever been denied, that dryness of body, age, ungreatness or anger ever had made impossible...arrears of tears starting up at one moment's unobscured view of grief.'
I read that over and again...'arrears of tears'... perfect and when I reached this sentence, I think I knew I really had discovered a brilliant writer indeed..
'He is weeping because this is the end of imagination - imagination fails when there is no now. Disappointment tears the bearable film off life.'
When I read this a few lines later I was done for...
'Henrietta let her forehead rest on the marble too: her face bent forward, so that the tears she began shedding fell on the front of her dress. An angel stood up inside her with its hands to its lips, and Henrieatta did not attempt to speak.'
And time and again it became apparent that Elizabeth Bowen is a true wordsmith, quietly perceptive, astute and awake to a sentence's every possibility, moulding and shaping each word with immaculate care and attention until she has forged something fluid and molten into something solid, and cool, and permanent. So much from this book is now etched in my mind and I have been thinking about it for days since. Moments when I could still smell the foetid air of sickness in the house, or hear the clatter when Henrietta spills some things from her bag into the silence and onto the parquet flooring, or see the expressions of disappointment on the faces of the children and the embarrassment on Naomi's. When Mme Fisher is described as 'corrosive' no other words were required, one word did the work of many more as it fizzed away in my mind with all its acidic connotations and actions.
All is not completely lost as Elizabeth Bowen presents Mother of Leopold's side of the story, thankfully re-balancing my rather soggy emotions, though not completely, and redemption of sorts may or may not be available for Leopold. It is no spoiler to say the ending left me with uncomfortable uncertainties about the lives of the children which I feel sure was Elizabeth Bowen's intention, but I feel am 'into' her books now. I have a handle on Elizabeth Bowen's writing, her style and her range and I have been stock-piling in anticipation of this day, so any recommends about which next from this stack??
Perhaps last words of wisdom to Leopold...out of the mouths of babes etc..
'Some other day I know you will see your mother!'
'I don't see why', said Leopold.
Something unforeseen must have happened. You know even grown-up people cannot always do what they want most.'
'Oh! Then why grow up?'