Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > The House in Paris

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen
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Jun 29, 10

bookshelves: 2010, classics
Read in June, 2010

For my first foray into Bowen, who was a popular writer in her time, I picked The House in Paris mostly because it's from the 30s and I was looking for books written then. I don't know what year it's set in, but it's definitely between-the-wars. Perhaps due to knowing that another war happens, I am always expecting there to be some kind of sign, some conversation that shows a presentiment of danger, some sign that there's rumbling in the air. There never is any indication that the people, were they real, were at all aware of any undercurrents, any trouble on the wind. It surprises me, but when I stop to think about it: why should I be surprised? Maybe there wasn't and great rumblings of war, maybe people really thought the Great War was the end of it, and anyway not even modern authors make reference to political upheavals, distant wars etc. in their books, so why should Bowen?

Having knocked some sense into myself, I settle down and focus on the story. The House in Paris has a simple premise: ten year old Henrietta travels from England to Paris on her way to Mentone to spend the summer with her grandmother. She stops in Paris for the day at the home of the Fishers - Madame and Miss Naomi Fisher, who have the temporary care of a nine year old boy called Leopold. Leopold is expecting to meet his mother for the first time in his life.

The novel is divided into three parts - the first is set in the "present", and tells the story of Henrietta and Leopold; the second takes us back in time to the story of Leopold's mother, Karen, her friend Naomi Fisher and the man Naomi was to marry, Max - Leopold's father. The third part takes us back to Henrietta and Leopold and finishes the day. A.S. Byatt, in her introduction, says it's a novel about sex, time and identity. She also says she first read it when she was as old as Henrietta and Leopold, and I have to say if I hadn't read Possession I would never have believed it. This is a masterful novel, but the language - artistic in its intensity - isn't easy to read. That she understood, at 9 or 10, a line like the one she quoted - "The mystery about sex comes from confusion and terror: to a mind on which these have not yet settled there is nothing you cannot tell." - boggles my mind - I'm 30 and I don't quite get it! (It's the words "there is nothing you cannot tell" that confuse me. The rest I get after reading it a couple of times, but I had to break it down into its component parts and read it like grammar.) The novel has these lines sometimes that I get the gist of, but not the literal meaning. The words just aren't used in a way that my brain is accustomed to, and so it strains to find meaning that clarifies and crystalises it. It's like, the sentences turn into maths equations. In this case, grammar equations!

Speaking of grammar, I have to quote my friend Lisa here from her review on Goodreads, because it not only makes me feel like I'm not alone in this, but she says exactly what I wanted to say, so well:


I had a difficult time getting used to the author’s writing style which was spare and unusual, but lovely too. I felt stupid while reading because the writing style made reading this book feel challenging for me, but I felt as though I shouldn’t find it difficult. Because her language was so precise, I caught at least some of her grammatical errors, notably split infinitives. The fact that I noticed such things in a novel meant I was sometimes almost bored or at least not completely engrossed. Despite the beautiful prose, it took some effort on my part not to skim at certain points, but I never wanted to stop reading.




On the one hand, there is some absolutely beautiful language here, lovely imagery, and tonnes of atmosphere. On the other hand, there were some oblique sentences and even conversations that clouded my brain and reminded me of how I felt in classes like Critical Theory and Sex and Subjectivity in uni, trying to read Judith bloody Butler and the like. There are some styles that are like reading another language. You know the individual words, but the combination of them don't compute, the relationships of words are all new. Yes, like maths. It frustrates me. It was rather like skimming, not being able to understand properly. And I have to say, it's hard to admit that I don't. Makes me feel dim. I'm one of those people who wants to understand every. single. word.

You know what it reminded me of? Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus . There's so much to love, in books like these (books with this kind of language, language that's like an abstract painting). Lines like: "Her words showered slowly on to Leopold, like cold slow drops detached by their own weight from a tree stranding passive, exhausted after rain." (p.232-3) But I found it hard to concentrate on this book, and really take it all in as it deserved. There's a lot of detail, a lot going on between the lines and beneath dialogue. There were times when I'd read a page of description, and not take in a single word. Not because it was hard to read. It just wasn't concrete. Most of the time, I followed it perfectly easily. And yet, even as I'm reading the most straight-forward of sentences, I found that my usual reading technique - the way I read - wasn't the way I was reading this book. I was gaining impressions, rather than a literal word-by-word knowledge. It's really hard to explain. I'm quite fascinated by these things, but disconcerted too.

Yet, I know if I were to re-read this, I would have none of the difficulty and all of the joy. It's a comfort, but I don't expect to re-read it any time soon. Books are the voices of individual people, and while there are particular canonised styles, every author has their own voice, their own style of writing. But like with people in the flesh, there are going to be writers who just think in a different way from you, and their line of reasoning isn't easy to follow for you - maybe not always, but enough to perplex. It's not about being smart or stupid. It's about whether a voice clicks with you or not. Like looking at a painting in a gallery or museum: at the end of the day, it either clicks with you instantly or it doesn't. You can admire technique, you can even find it beautiful and you can see why others love it - but if it doesn't speak to you, if it doesn't make your soul sing, well, that's just the way it is. For now, at least.

But enough of that. From the start, the book snagged my attention in a personal way. Henrietta's arrival in Paris and her entry into the Fishers' house was a familiar experience because I've been to Paris, and I've been inside people's homes there. Bowen doesn't use fancy descriptions, but the house itself came vividly to life, it breathed and hovered, faintly sinister, over all the drama.


The Fishers' house looked small because of its narrowness. It was three stories high, and also, stepping back, Henrietta saw another couple of windows, mansard windows, peering down from above. Its cream front was a strip marbled with find dark cracks; it just held, below the mansards, five wide-awake windows with grey shutters fixed back; two, then two, then a window beside the door - around these pairs of windows the house made a thin frame. ... The hall was dark, it had a clean close smell. Miss Fisher switched on the light, showing a red flock wallpaper; indoors, her manner became more assured and commanding. (pp.9-10)



The inside of this house - with its shallow door-panels, lozenge door-knobs, polished brass ball on the end of the bannisters, stuffy red matt paper with stripes so artfully shadowed as to appear bars - was more than simply novel to Henrietta, it was antagonistic, as thought is had been invented to put her out. She felt the house was acting, nothing seemed to be natural; objects did not wait to be seen but came crowding in on her, each with what amounted to its aggressive cry. Bumped all over the senses by these impressions, Henrietta thought: If this is being abroad ... (p.11)



Isn't that great? It was a strong image that managed to stay with me throughout the novel, lurking in the background. It makes for an interesting contrast for Naomi, or is a plain, fluttery sort of woman. She isn't so much straight-out described as coloured in in light strokes here and there, becoming fleshed-out through other people's rarely complementary eyes. Even though the people who know her are rather dismissive of her, we get a clearer picture of her by standing apart. The same goes for the other characters in the book: because we're not personally involved in the drama, because we don't know these people personally, we understand better.

It's also fascinating to realise how much the characters' perceptions and opinions start to influence you, how you form judgements about other characters based on what they say and think, and, later, how wrong you are. And you think, "how did I come to think that, to judge so quickly based on very little?" The characters have that power over us readers, and it's quite something to get swept up in it. It creates twists in the narrative - not real ones, but ones where you've let yourself be fooled into thinking one way, when the truth is something quite different. This is especially true of Leopold's mother, and Max.

Even though half of it is set in Paris, we don't get to see any of it. There's nothing French about this novel - in fact, it's decidedly English. The middle part is all set in England the Ireland, and even a trip to the coast of France could just as easily have been the coast of England. I was disappointed by that.

This is a quiet, carefully paced story, one of intimate drama and slowly revealed truth. It's a successful novel, really, and you feel taken care of while you read - you're in the hands of a clever, skilled writer who draws poetic scenes. There is still that other side to it though, of sometimes speaking over my head and leaving me behind, that either makes me lose interest or antagonises me. But, as I mentioned before - and I know from flipping through it just now that these convoluted sentences are already disappearing - that on a re-read I would probably be able to get more out of it. There's a lot going on here. I can imagine it being used in a class at uni.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Lisa Vegan Whew! You're so bright, Shannon, I feel relieved you identified with what I felt and said some things of your own. I'm not used to feeling dull witted while reading any book. Yes, I think I'd find it even more enjoyable if I reread it. I just don't want to take the time to do it, but I appreciate your review for providing me such a vivid reminder of this book.


message 2: by Aerin (new)

Aerin But like with people in the flesh, there are going to be writers who just think in a different way from you, and their line of reasoning isn't easy to follow for you - maybe not always, but enough to perplex. It's not about being smart or stupid. It's about whether a voice clicks with you or not. Like looking at a painting in a gallery or museum: at the end of the day, it either clicks with you instantly or it doesn't. You can admire technique, you can even find it beautiful and you can see why others love it - but if it doesn't speak to you, if it doesn't make your soul sing, well, that's just the way it is. For now, at least.

This part, especially, is brilliant.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Lisa wrote: "Whew! You're so bright, Shannon, I feel relieved you identified with what I felt and said some things of your own. I'm not used to feeling dull witted while reading any book. Yes, I think I'd find ..."

I don't like feeling dull-witted either Lisa :) Bit it's definitely not because we really are dull-witted! It does make me lose confidence in myself though.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Aerin wrote: "But like with people in the flesh, there are going to be writers who just think in a different way from you, and their line of reasoning isn't easy to follow for you - maybe not always, but enough ..."

Thanks Aerin - nice to know I can be articulate sometimes!


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