Sunday, January 30, 2022

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen (4)


Part Four of my review of ‘The House in Paris’ by Elizabeth Bowen continued from HERE

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7 thoughts on “The Most Insidious Of All

  1. PART 2 (12)

    “…and Karen again remembered Max’s saying that Naomi was like furniture or the dark.”

    Possibly one of the most evil of evils as hidden in plain sight that any other chapter in literature has conveyed…. All the insidious inchoateness (that I previously called ‘flabbiness’) of the N, K, M, Mme Fisher rhombus are bearing fruit,including the future’s baby as fruit in K’s belly that she already calls ‘him’ when talking to N about what happened to M, with all that gory Pyrrhic blood he shed, for whatever other reasons, on behalf of Mme F… any money worries of his, notwithstanding.
    All of this described as ponderous, stilted speech by N to K with the Michaelis mother ailing elsewhere…as if written by another evil succubus upon this book, a succubus masquerading as a false melodramatic, over-literary Bowen?

    “‘What she and I are,’ he said, ‘is outside life; we shall fail; we cannot live what we are.’ I said I believed love to make any life possible. ‘She does not know me, she does not know me,’ he said. […] My mother stood outside. She must have crept back or never gone away. She would have heard everything. You know our hall is dark and she wears black; I only saw her face, which seemed to be hanging there. When he opened the door she smiled and came in calmly, with the quiet manner she has when there is no more to know. […] I saw then that Max did not belong to himself. He could do nothing that she had not expected; my mother was at the root of him. I saw that what she had learnt about you and him pleased her, that she had pleasure in it in some terrible way. […] I saw then, that evil dominated our house, and that the girls who were with us should not be here. […] It may have killed him to see his love for me in her hands; but he had given you up by his own will.”

    “The fatal house in Paris still so possessed her that nothing was real that happened outside that.”

    “This child, don’t you see, may live seventy years. I want him to be born: if not, I suppose one could stop it.”

    “She [Mme F] is all mind and will, but she cannot make a tisane without flames running round the spirit stove. In the same way, when I am not there she burns herself out for nothing.”

    “As Karen left her to go to her own door, the idea of the night to come – darkness, comfort with Naomi in the echoing house – flooded her with peace for the first time. On their way down, they passed Mrs Michaelis’s door, open, and saw sheets on the mirror and on the bed.”

    What of Ray, though? Now, just an afterthought. The reader, too?

  2. PART 3: The Present

    “‘Something unforeseen must have happened. You know, even grown-up people cannot always do what they want most.’
    ‘Oh! Then why grow up?’”

    A côre chapter, not of a Bowen apple, but of a child-likeness, by two actual children, Leopold and Henrietta, lending tragic importance to even subtlest, otherwise noticeable, bodily aspects, events and emotions, although the eventuality is significant to all of us reading this book, in view of its past hinterland, the eventuality of his mother (Mrs Forrestier that Karen has apparently become) not coming, as sacredly planned by time’s standstill, to take this adopted boy, her son, to where she lives in England…’the misuse of time’, as this chapter later has it,

    “His eyes, looking round the prim, vacant, crowded salon, showed that involuntary contempt for the dead – for their ignorance of the present, their impotence now – that nothing in Leopold softened to pity yet;…”

    The pent-up evil of Mme Fisher above the ceiling, after her daughter, Miss Naomi Fisher, tells the boy of the crucial not-coming of what he had been promised. He now becomes, in fact, the predicted Coming himself, reminding us of when Karen once called him ‘him’ before he was born?….

    “Through the ceiling, silent after the tapping, came the impatience of Mme Fisher lying up there.”
    Much gives H the ‘creeps’, as for L, she “became the fact” — the fact of his mother not coming.
    “This collapse of his pride in his isolation left him without one ally.”

    “She [H] only clutched the door-knob.
    When she could not speak, Leopold turned round facing the mantelpiece and suddenly ground his forehead against the marble. One shoulder up dragged his sailor collar crooked; his arms were crushed between his chest and the mantelpiece. After a minute, one leg writhed round the other like ivy killing a tree. The clock ticked away calmly above his head.”

    A timely mention of the clock above, as we reach some achingly beautiful passages, crucial to the whole of Bowen — his tears reaching for a healing by physical communion between the two children with elbows

    “: 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 ever had been denied, that dryness of body, age, ungreatness or anger ever had made impossible – for the man standing beside his own crashed plane, the woman tearing up somebody’s fatal letter and dropping pieces dryly into the grate, people watching their family house burn, the general giving his sword up – arrears of tears starting up at one moment’s unobscured view of grief. She could not know how sharply Leopold realized everything that at this moment perished for him – landscapes, his own moments, hands approaching making him unsuspicious. She had seen the country he had thought he would inherit – her certainty of it made it little, his passionate ignorance made it great – trees rounded, standing in their own shadow, spires glittering, lakes of land in light, white puffs from the little train travelling a long way. He is weeping because he is not going to England; his mother is not coming to take him there. He is weeping because he has been adopted; he is weeping because he has got nowhere to go. He is weeping because this is the end of imagination – imagination fails when there is no now. Disappointment tears the bearable film off life. […] Finally, she leant her body against his, pressing her ribs to his elbow so that his sobs began to go through her too. […] After a minute like this, his elbow undoubled itself against her and his left arm went round her with unfeeling tightness, as though he were gripping the bole of a tree. […] An angel stood up inside her with its hands to its lips,… […] …each breath came sooner and was less painfully deep.”

    And before L is ominously taken to be seen by Mme F at her request, we have tellingly…

    “Grown-up people seem to be busy by clockwork: even when someone is not ill, when there has been no telegram, they run their unswerving course from object to object, directed by some mysterious inner needle that points all the time to what they must do next. You can only marvel at such misuse of time.”

  3. PART 3 (2)

    “So she lay rigid, sheets up to her chin, turning a little on one side to the red wall against which Leopold stood. ‘Well, we meet,’ she said.
    Leopold said nothing. […]
    ‘You may ask me curious questions, but not plain ones. We – my daughter and I – are not to answer questions: that was made the condition of your coming here.”

    The Grant Moodys etc. backstory of Leopold withheld or shared? Nobody had known, nobody but Mme F and N and perhaps Ray in this book about this backstory, the fruits of the N,K,M triangulation, a shadowy third of which has now been airbrushed. But ironically WE readers have known slowly and ineluctably this backstory, standstill to standstill. We readers are created parthenogenetically for each other by our own knowledge amid various different thoughts on this chapter about, say, Shelley and of God as an upper-case Him.
    Another crucial chapter in the Bowen canon…

    “Mme Fisher deliberately shut her eyes, which till the moment before had been burning at Leopold like an old lion’s out of their caves of bone. […] So, inside her tabernacle of bed-curtains, she relaxed to a hardly human flatness and stillness, in which to lie steadily watching Leopold – his fine eyebrows and narrow pale-skinned forehead tense with thought, his lashes cast on his cheeks, his unchildish deliberate and tactile fingers feeling their way over the padded arms of the chair, sounding creaks in the stuffing, stopping at every button. His blouse-cuffs fell away from his wrists, which she glanced at. Not an object in this unknown room had, since he came in, distracted his eyes a moment, but, sitting still, he knew of everything there. Everything, to the last whorl of each shell on the bracket, would stay sealed up, immortal, in an inner room in his consciousness. That her presence ran against him like restless water showed only in the unmovingness of his face. She re-read a known map of thought and passion in miniature.
    She said: ‘Have they told you downstairs that I am dying?’”

    Mme F’s impending death as a tangible swaddling? And a long speech placed into the mouth of Leopold as if a Shakespearean tragic hero, a speech ending …”They make me feel like a place with sheep eating on it the whole time. They are so pleased because I cannot remember anything else but them.’
    And Mme F takes up the ‘sheep’ theme. …

    “Before the story was done, her face was a flaccid mask, the lips worked by some other agency. Her words showered slowly on to Leopold, like cold slow drops detached by their own weight from a tree standing passive, exhausted after rain.”

    “Her being ill had been simply part of her presence, her personality, something put on by choice like a certain dress.”

    “– he diagnosed her as prey to one creeping growth, the Past, septic with what had happened. Knowing this, how should she not be ill?”

    “…the outline of her body shaken by rasping breaths. If she still knows I am here, she is not able to show it. At one time he was glad . . . His eyes went anxiously to the clock. I have been here a long time,…”

    The evil passes? Or the evil as succubus is taken within us as readers, thus to start a healing, an onset of inadvertent sacred stillness as a new religion created by such high-born literature inside our heads? I also turn my eyes anxiously to the clock. I have been here a long time now with Bowen, and I still have three more of her novels to ‘do’ after soon finishing this one, I guess.

  4. Plot spoilers and broken ashtrays

    PART 3 (3)

    “She had taken the lid off a white alabaster crock and, putting it upside down near the edge of the salon table, left it to be an ash-tray; they had no other now.”

    A prophecy of the dying art of cigarette ‘dancing’ in our relatively smokeless era today, except perhaps for our equivalent of a Louie Lewis? There is much cigarette
    dancing, though, in this chapter by Ray Forrester, in dialogue and osmosis with his wife’s son, from the alabaster crock to the dry cuttlefish and the crooking of Leopold’s arm (the word elbow tellingly unspoken) round the door, the crack when the ‘ashtray’ crock lid eventually breaks and the use of another cigarette when the autonomously fateful osmotic decision is made for Leopold in the RKL version of the shadowy triangulation : from adoption to abduction. To help understand this chapter I have set out a skeleton of passages below (Bowen passages to die for) relating to Bowenesque time, the astonishing HE/SHE playlet as part of Leopold’s co-osmosis with Ray…

    “…he [RF] stood half-way across the room, wishing the room were likely to be empty for longer. He looked at the plush monkey propped up on the sofa, asking himself if this hideous toy could be Leopold’s.

    “He was here, that was all. The world had come to an end.”

    And first RF sees H…

    “…when the salon door opened – ‘When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing’ – and Henrietta had started up, staring at him inside her falling fair hair, he thought they had all been mad: Leopold was a girl.”

    “…he came as brittle and dry as dried cuttlefish. What else had been him stayed resisting, suffering with her in the hotel bedroom, or was perhaps now walking away among the trees in the park.”

    “I can go back alone and take up the old fight that makes us three all the time.”

    “…crooking his arm round to hold the outside handle, spine pressed to the edge of the door, swinging a little with it nonchalantly. His eyes measured Ray with no kind of expression. But his nonchalance was, still, faintly polite: he had the resigned air of a child sent down to see someone.”

    The man whom L sees is told by a passage left unquoted here but crucial Bowen nevertheless, and L see s RF as a train-corridor man…

    “Quotation marks were apparent:”
    Karen not well at Versailles’ hinterland of patterns, not well in mind if not body…while RF comes here instead of her to see L.

    “HE: While he is a dread of yours, he is everywhere.
    SHE: Simply a child! He is more to you than that.”

    Lighthouse ….Max, in a page or two of this playlet.

    “SHE: Yes, no, yes. The you I wanted wouldn’t have wanted Leopold.”

    The RKL shadowy triangulation in and around sharing jigsaw parts of PART 3’s Chapter 3 takes shape… who needs whom for who to be whom. Who the shark in the dark?

    “Such dialogue, being circular, has no end. Under silences it can be heard by the heart pursuing its round, and, though it goes on deep down, any phrase from it may swim up to cut the surface of talk when you least expect, like a shark’s fin. Karen’s resistance to Leopold and Ray’s idea of Leopold hardened each time the shark’s fin showed.”

    “No wonder it worked; they had been sure of themselves. It was understood that their childlessness, though an infinite pity, kept their companionship uninterrupted and close;”

    Summary of other characters in this book and what they are doing in PART 3’s present.

    “That third chair left pushed in at a table set for a couple. […] When, travelling, they might have been most together objects would clash meaningly upon those open senses one has abroad.”

    “When they made love she thought: We are not alone,…”

    “So he has not forgiven. He forgives me for wanting Max while there is my not wanting Leopold not to forgive me for.”

    “‘She dreads the past.’ […] Karen’s unalarmed smile appeared in Leopold’s lips when he had said this, but his deliberate look was from someone else’s eyes.” […] ‘It wastes time saying things you don’t understand.’”

    “…the mantelpiece, against which he [L] had wept. He saw not the mantelpiece but a woman with long hair being propped up in bed to sign away Leopold, then his own head helplessly bobbing and rolling on that journey to Italy, like a kitten’s or puppy’s. Nothing said undid that. He understood that this Mr Forrestier had begun by wooing him, but now liked him less. This left Leopold cold; he wanted not just one ally but everybody’s submission. Twitching a shoulder under his square collar he said, without turning around: ‘Didn’t you know my mother gave me away?’”

    “Their immaterial closeness up to each other, the silence after Leopold had turned round, made their sudden common demand for an understanding tower outside this afternoon and this room. There was not a sound over the ceiling: Mme Fisher lay in rigid silence upstairs.”

    That evil upstairs — as often felt by any of us who think with the heads above not hearts below?

    “Leopold who watched Ray, first each step he took, then that fanatic immobility.”

    From sacred standstill to fanatic immobility.

    “Watching Ray’s cigarette being held between his fingers, fuming, watching smoke being puffed out sharply against the light, Leopold contemplated this theft of his own body that was being proposed, rejected, decided upon.”

    “…this amounts to stealing you?”

    From adoption to abduction…

    “Put in time?”

  5. PART 3 (4)

    “She [N] put her hand to her forehead. ‘I reproach myself,’ she said, ‘that you have not seen more of Paris.’
    ‘I [H] shall some day, I suppose.’”

    Departure, with both H and L escorted to the Parisian train station in a taxi with Ray. A taxi tellingly with not enough elbow room for three. N could not take H there as planned because Mme F is even worse in her bedroom.
    Cerise cockade later to be given by H to L when she has seen her new escort’s twin cockade at the station.

    “His [L] demoniac pride, his remorseless egotism made Henrietta lower her shocked eyes. […] . . . There was dead silence behind Mme Fisher’s door.”

    “No, she [Mme F] is always ill. Tonight she makes herself more ill.”

    That cigarette ‘dance’ now a dance of death…
    “Like smoke coming under a door the dead silence of Mme Fisher seemed to pervade everywhere. […] (It is absurd, the silence, thought Henrietta, she must be lying and listening, she knows perfectly well.)”

    N touches L’s face in farewell. 


    “The taxi stuck in blocks, jarred, swerved clear, darted between lit buses solid with heads. On kerbs people watched it come and drew back suspiciously. I have not met the French, Henrietta thought. It was funny to stare into their unseeing eyes. The taxi pumped itself through wet-evening Paris in jerks. […] …and Henrietta’s monkey keep lurching against his thigh. […] Ray was boxed up with two restless octopi.”

    Ray elicits secrecy from H, ‘eye to eye’.

    Ray to L…
    “Your grandmother died of you.”

    Sacred or sacrilegious standstills have insidiously become bloated time…
    “Henrietta discovered that half-past six is 18.30 in Paris: clocks must be larger, she thought.”

    L, the “stolen boy”, at the station…
    “Sustained sound in the shell of stone and steel, racket and running, impatience and purpose, make the soul stand still like a refugee, clutching all it has got, asking: ‘I am where?’”

    Make the soul stand still, indeed.

    “Now peace rests on girders of clever honour, like that glass roof on clever girders of steel.”

    Stand steel in Glass.

    “Ray strode like a robber with one babe through a wood. Their inappropriateness to each other made people stare.”

    Ray’s inner monologue about L ends with…
    “There will be many things that you will not like. There are many things that I do not like about you.”

    After H departs with her new escort to Mentone… a man’s tone develops, in submission to this new ‘Him’?…
    Egotism and panic, knowing mistrust of what was to be, died in Ray as he waited beside Leopold for their taxi to come: the child commanded tonight, I have acted on his scale.”
    We have, at last, as readers, acted in scale to this book, too. Opened our minds and scried its insidiously closeted codes. Or developed a new tone in time, too?

    I think back to H when she thinks (in the station, or was it in the taxi?)…
    “There now, thought Henrietta, I have forgotten my Strand.”

    But we are never alone with a Strand. Or with a book by Dickens.

    “‘Have you seen a tree growing out of a crack in a grave?’”