Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sunday Salon 20th July: A HOUSE IN PARIS by Elizabeth Bowen

Does anyone else find that some books take a ridiculously long time to read, especially at first? For instance, this morning, I read another few pages of A HOUSE IN PARIS by Elizabeth Bowen. I see from my Revish reading list that I began this book on the 22nd March - almost four months ago. I keep reading a little and then putting it down. It is the sort of book where nothing much happens, and yet somehow it is too intense, like a particularly delicious dessert. I can only take so much at a time.

It reminds me a lot of Anita Brookner's work - an author I used to read a lot, but then realised I felt like I was reading the same book again and again. Some authors do seem to write on the same theme, I think. Each one is a gem, but variations of the same gem - different shades of sapphire perhaps. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact it might be good, but if you reach their whole oeuvre all at once, things seem to become a little too familiar.

But I have become side-tracked - back to the Elizabeth Bowen. I am about a third way through this book and I can see it is atmospheric. Every time I pick it up I am immediately submerged in its stifling atmosphere. It is about, predictably, a house in Paris, and in this particular house two English children, Henrietta and Leopold (who are strangers to each other) are waiting for relatives to pick them up and continue their journeys. Their temporary guardian is a spinster aged about forty called Miss Fisher, and she has a mother who is teminally ill upstairs. This illness is infecting everything. Every action is pondered over and then usually curtailed. Conversations are stilted because every word that is uttered is examined by the children. They are curious creatures, these children, unrealistically wise beyond their years; when they are hurt they swallow that hurt manfully (or womanfully); when they play they do so with restraint.

I hope I am not making this sound like an unattractive reading experience, because it is not. The last couple of pages have been almost unbearably tense. Someone came to the door and the maid answered. We followed the door shutting and then the maid's steps upstairs. We then heard her encountering the spinster on the landing and the two of them interrupting each other in French.
'The women came down with a kind of congested rush, like lava flowing as fast as it can. The soughing of Miss Fisher's petticoats made the house seem tiny. Nothing was said: Henrietta could almost hear them make warning eyes at each other. Then the flat step of Mariette went away down the passage; Miss Fisher was left waiting outside the salon door, so acutely silent you only knew she was there. Henrietta and Leopold both dreaded, as she was palpably dreading, her coming in...'
This sort of thing goes on for another page so at the end of it the reader feels the same desperate anticipation as the children - and is not disappointed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought I'd been having problems with Frank Tallis's 'Mortal Mischief' when it took me a week, but that experience pales into insignificance! On the subject of Brookner I had exactly the same reaction after her first three or four books and haven't gone back to her, which is a shame as she is a real craftsman in what she does do.

Sun Jul 20, 10:25:00 am  
Blogger Kay Cooke said...

A great review.

Sun Jul 20, 11:11:00 am  
Blogger JL said...

It took me a year to read Gary Wills' INVENTING AMERICA, with it's detailed description of the difference between Lockean and Hutchesonian philophosies, and their interaction with Iroquois concepts of 'federation'...

Sun Jul 20, 02:45:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

A week for most books would be jolly good going for me, Table Talk - I'm a really slow reader.

Thanks Kay.

JL: Well I'm sure that would take me a long time too. That sounds quite challenging. I think some books need to be savoured. I once tried reading a Thomas Pynchon very quickly - that didn't work at all. I ended up disliking the book - but I'm sure if I'd been allowed to take my time it would have been a much better experience.

Sun Jul 20, 03:27:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I ought to read that one... And yes, I share your feeling about Brookner. Some people really only have one story, and variations thereof.

Clare, try sending it again? You are in my address book, so I don't know why the dratted thing wasn't more welcoming.

Sun Jul 20, 05:45:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, some books just take longer than others. I've stopped trying to figure that out. I've lately read a biography of Alexander of Macedon that took me ages to get through-- the material just demanded more attention.

The Bowen sounds quite interesting, thanks.

Mon Jul 21, 12:47:00 pm  

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