“There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.” – The House in Paris, by Elizabeth Bowen

May 31, 2010 at 1:12 pm (Book review, books)

The time is the 1930s. The Fisher abode in Paris is serving as a way station for two children. Henrietta is simply passing time between rail journeys. She is on her way to her grandmother’s home in the countryside. But for eleven-year-old Leopold, a momentous event awaits: he is to meet the mother from whom he was separated in infancy.

Henrietta and Leopold regard each other warily, performing a delicate pas de deux as they await developments. Supervising them, Naomi Fisher tries not to betray her agitation. To add to the  strangeness of the situation, the family matriarch lies upstairs in her bedroom, ill and possibly dying.

The House in Paris is divided into three sections: The Present, The Past, and once again, The Present. The first section comprises about a third of the novel and takes place almost exclusively inside the house. The next section is far more plot driven. In it, we learn the story of Leopold’s mother. By the time the action returned to the present, I felt a far greater empathy with the children. I hated to bid them farewell.

There is much beautiful, provocative writing in this novel. For example:

‘It is a wary business, walking about a strange house you are to know well. Only cats and dogs with their more expressive bodies enact the tension we share with them at such times. 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 are already beginning to store up the pains of going away. From what you see, there is to be no escape. Untrodden rocky canyons or virgin forests cannot be more entrapping than the inside of a house, which shows you what life is.

(Transcribing this passage just now, I am remembering a dream I had years ago of the house in which I lived as a small child. I was walking through to the back kitchen door, expecting to encounter the back yard with the swing set. Instead, I entered a lovely conservatory filled with flowers and evocative scents. Two elderly women smiled and greeted me. One of them said, “There you are, my dear!” What was I reading at the time? I can’t recall.)

In her thoughtful introduction,  A.S. Byatt mentions Bowen’s debt to Virginia Woolf and Henry James:

‘She writes, for all her elegance, with a harshness that is unusual and pleasing. There are moments of vision and metaphor, akin both to James and to Virginia Woolf, but recognizably Elizabeth Bowen‘s own.

Elizabeth Bowen 1899 - 1973

3 Comments

  1. Thomas at My Porch said,

    I really enjoyed this particular Bowen.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks, Thomas, for the comment, and for reading “Books to the Ceiling.”

      Which other novels and/or stories by Elizabeth Bowen do you recommend?

  2. Adultery and Goshawks: Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris and Heather Allen’s Leaving a Shadow | A Year of Actually Reading My Own Books said,

    […] opinions: Giraffe Days, Books to the Ceiling, The Reading […]

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