A Doomed Love Affair

I’ve never read any Elizabeth Bowen before, and I didn’t quite know what to expect from The House in Paris, with its themes of love, sex, betrayal, growing up and the search for identity. To be honest, after reading it I’m still not totally sure how I feel about it. It’s one of those books that left me a bit cold really, because somehow I didn’t quite connect with it or relate to any of the characters.  I didn’t hate it, but I certainly didn’t love it. It was an ‘almost’ book that I almost liked, but not quite. Even so, I can appreciate the quality of the writing, the restraint and subtlety, the observations of those quiet moments which seem so understated you almost miss them, but you know they’re pivotal, that something has shifted, and things will never be the same again. It’s kind of oblique – nothing is ever spelled out, motives are never clear, and even the ending is ambiguous.  

A 1976 Penguin edition of The /house in Paris.
In the first section two children are spending the day in a house in Paris. Henrietta, aged 11, is between trains, en route from London to her grandmother in the south of France. Leopold, two years younger, living in Italy with his adoptive American family, is awaiting the mother he has never met… but she never arrives. They are in the charge of Miss Naomi Fisher, half English and half French, dominated by her bedridden mother. 

Then we move back in time and the tragic events of the past slowly unfold as the tensions builds. The Fishers once ran a small ‘finishing’ establishment for wealthy American and English girls, including Karen Michaelis, who became friendly with Naomi. The two meet again when Naomi travels to England with her fiancé Max, a charming young man who has a very odd relationship with her mother. In Paris Karen disliked and feared him. Now she is besotted with him, and he with her. They see each other twice more – once when Karen goes to Boulogne for a meal with him, and again when they spend a night together in England. When Karen discovers her pregnancy she turns to Naomi for help so the birth can be kept secret, and her son handed to others who will care for him. Afterwards she marries Ray, the man she was originally engaged to. 

Finally, we’re back in the present, when Ray arrives in place of his fragile wife (and without her knowledge) and provides some kind of resolution for poor, lonely Leopold. 

All the characters seem lonely and disconnected, searching for a love that they never find,

Author Elizabeth Bowen.

trying to establish their own identity in a world they cannot understand. Adults and children alike are cruel to each other, with words rather than deeds. Even the Parisian house feels suffocating, ill at ease with the people who live in it and the city around it.  

That feeling, I think, emanates from Madame Fisher, as clever, manipulative and malicious as ever she was. It is she who tells Max that Karen loves him, precipitating the action that follows. Was it a ploy to prise Naomi and Max apart, to keep him in her power, knowing that despite their passionate natures any permanent relationship between Max and Karen is impossible? But even she can’t have predicted the outcome of the doomed affair and the way Max reacts to the pressures on him. 

Karen is hard to read. Is she ashamed of her behaviour all those years ago? Does she regret giving her child away? Whatever she felt then, she is unable to acknowledge Leopold now. Her reaction to her pregnancy has to be seen in the context of the time. The book must have seemed shocking when it was published in 1935, portraying a woman who pursued her sexual desires and had a child out of wedlock.
 

Only Henrietta has no connection with the past. She is an onlooker, there because her grandmother is acquainted with Naomi, and knows nothing of the tragedy (which left me feeling emotionally drained). Nevertheless, the day’s events leave their mark on her. 

Today was to do much to disintegrate Henrietta’s character, which, built up by herself, for herself, out of admonitions and axioms, (under the growing stress of: If I am Henrietta, then what is Henrietta?) was a mosaic of all possible kinds of prejudice. 

Leopold is intelligent, spoilt, self-centred, misunderstood, but he is not unloved – he is loved too much, by the wrong people, and yearns for his real mother. There’s a chance of him growing up well and happy if he sticks with Ray. And I know other reviewers believe Karen will join her son and her husband, but that wasn’t my interpretation.  

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The Wine of Solitude

The Wine of Solitude, published in 1935,
translated into English by Sandra Smith in 2011,

The Wine of Solitude is a sad sort of book, and although it ends on a note of hope that feeling of sadness remains, because we know author Irene Nemirovsky died in Auschwitz, and it’s all the more poignant since she based the story of Hélène Karol on her own lonely, unhappy childhood, and her troubled relationship with her mother.  

Hélène lives in the Ukraine, with Boris, her passionate, distant father, Bella, her beautiful, uncaring mother, and Mademoiselle Rose, her French governess, who is the only person to love the child. Bored Bella has other interests. With her claw-like nails and her thin, red mouth (like a line of blood), she dreams of Paris, where she can be alone and free.
Looking after the house and her child filled her with horror. She was only happy in a hotel, in a room, with a bed and a trunk, in Paris […]
To hold a man tightly in her arms when she didn’t even know his name, or where he came from, a man she would never see again, that and that alone gave her the sharp thrill of pleasure she desired.         
Hélène also dreams of being free in Paris – free to be a normal child, untrammelled by the restrictions of her oppressive middle-class environment and her unhappy home.
Her penniless mother married her Jewish father because she knew he would make money. And so he does – though whether from his business interests or his gambling gains it’s hard to tell. For years he’s on a roll. He makes millions. The family move to St Petersburg, get caught up in WWI and the Revolution, escape to Finland, and move to Paris. Life is a mad whirligig of dinners, dances and parties. Boris Karol decks his wife with expensive jewellery and fabulous frocks, but somehow there is a sense of impermanence, and they have no real friends, just a circle of hangers-on.

Irene Nemiroskvy

Then there’s Max, Bella’s lover, 15 years her junior, living the good life on Karol money. And what of Hélène, who loves her father and hates her mother, but is neglected by both? Friendless, she stands apart from the world, watching and listening. In Russia she begins to write about what she sees and hears, which provokes a terrible row with her mother. In Finland she falls in love, a brief, tender episode.

And in Paris she sets out to make Max falls in love with her. As she changes from child to woman she exults in her power, but never softens her hatred for him and her mother. Even so, she becomes fascinated by him. At this point it would have been all too easy to let Hélène pay her mother back for all the years of cruelty and neglect by marrying Max. But Nemirovsky is far too good a writer for that, and in a stroke of sheer genius she allows Hélène to exact a far more terrible revenge by rejecting Max and dismissing him from their lives.
Bella is a monster, obsessed with keeping her youth and her looks, her life ruled by diets and beauty treatments. She needs money (and plenty of it) but I don’t think she needs love. She’s driven by lust rather than love – as long as she has a young lover she feels young and alive, like some kind of evil fairy from a folk tale, sucking the life out of her lovers so she can extend her own her own youth. Her husband adores her, and will admit no faults: if he does, his world will come crashing down. He has no eyes for anyone else, not even his daughter. He’s as disinterested in her as Bella is.
According to the blurb on the back, the book has been been described as an end-of-innocence story, but I’m not sure I agree. Hélène is never under any illusions about the adults in her life. What she lacks is self-knowledge. But gradually she becomes painfully aware that she has inherited character traits from the mother she hates, as well as the father she adores.
By the end of the novel she is able to walks out of her old life and into the new, head held high, unafraid, because she is young and full of hope, for the future, and the difficulties of her odd childhood have strengthened her and made her what she is.
But the final sentence stays in the mind, because it must have seemed so uplifting when it was first published in 1935, and no-one knew of the horrors that lay ahead:
She stood up and at that very moment the clouds parted , between the pillars of the Arc de Triomphe, blue sky appeared to light her way.
This is another contribution for Paris in July and the French Bingo Reading Challenge 2015 for Square E2 (Translated from the French)

                                                                       

Revolution and Markets in Paris

I love Paris, but it’s a while since I’ve been there and, sadly, I’m unlikely to make it this year either, so I’m making do with a ‘virtual’ trip to the city, thanks to Paris in July, a month-long celebration of all things French being organised by Tamara over at her Thyme for Tea blog. As usual I’m behind-hand, even though I signed up in advance, and I’ve actually read several of the books, but haven’t got round to writing anything!


Paul Alexis reading to Emile Zola, painted by Cezanne in 869/70.
So here goes. First up is Emile Zola, who I read as a teenager, ploughing my way through Nana and Germinal because he was a Great Socialist Hero and a Man of Principle. But I didn’t like the books, and I’ve avoided him ever since. However, Paris in July seems an ideal opportunity to revisit Zola, so I’ve opted for The Fat and The Thin or, to give it the French title, Le Ventre de Paris which, apparently, means The Belly of Paris. And before anyone asks, no, I’m not reading this in French – my failed ‘O’ Level may equip me to order a meal and black coffee, or ask for directions, but there’s no way it’s up to the task of reading a book! 

The novel is set in and around the great food market of Les Halles during the middle of the 19th century, in the days of the Second Empire, when France was ruled by Napoleon III. It follows the fate of Florent, who was arrested by mistake after a failed coup against the Emperor in 1851, and imprisoned at Cayenne, in Guinea. Seven years later he escapes and makes his way back to Paris, and it is at this point that the story begins.  

Historical photo of Les Halles from Paris en images, courtesy of 
Parisian Fields
Florent finds shelter with his prosperous step-brother Quenu and Quenu’s wife Lisa. They pass him off as a distant relative, and reluctantly he accepts a position as inspector at the fish market and (less reluctantly) makes friends with a small group of like-minded socialists who spend their evenings discussing politics. They plot and scheme against the government, and one of them acquires a gun, while Florent makes red armbands.  

Their uprising is doomed from the start – there is government manipulation, and agents provocateurs are at work.  But in the end it’s human nature that brings Florent down. Idealistic and naïve, he fails to grasp that people don’t want to be free. They’re happy as they are, they’re deeply suspicious of anything (or anyone) new or different, and they don’t want their lives upset and they’ll do anything to protect their well-being. 

Old scores are paid off, new rivalries are played out, and actions are governed by greed, petty jealousies, and spite. Rumour and gossip abound. Revenge and treachery are afoot. Even the would-be revolutionaries worry about their status, and as Florent becomes important previous leader leaves.   

Florent unwittingly becomes a focal point for people’s fears and unrest. All their resentments and hatreds seem to focus on him, and there’s an unacknowledged conspiracy against him, as if he is in some way responsible for all the ills of society. By the time he is caught and sent back to Cayenne there’s a sense that he is a scapegoat, punished so others can thrive and enjoy themselves.  

An old postcard showing market women in Les Halles. From
http://www.aparisguide.com/leshalles/
He’s definitely not a hero in the conventional sense (it’s fair to say there are no heroes or heroines in this novel) and he’s a very unlikely revolutionary. He’s ineffectual, a thinker rather than a doer, a sensitive man who finds it difficult to make friends. He’s had a hard life, but he makes hard work of it, if that makes sense.  

There’s a cast of wonderful (if unlikable) characters, like placid, self-satisfied, passionless Lisa Quenu, constrained by her corsets and her outlook on life. Set against her is the tempestuous fish girl Louise, unrestrained in behaviour and appearance. And there are market traders and shopkeepers, malicious gossipy old women, street urchins, and a host of others, all brought vividly to life. Standing apart from all is Claude Lantier, the artist who befriends Florent, and warns him about the battle between the Fat and Thin, the haves and the have-nots.  

The real hero of the book (if there is one) is the market of Les Halles. There are glorious descriptions of the huge wrought iron and glass pavilions and the vegetables, fish, meat and cheese piled high in market stalls and shops.  It’s very sumptuous, very sensual, very enticing, but very overpowering. There’s a surfeit of riches. You feel sated reading about it, sickened by the excess. When Florent comes back to Paris he is starving in the midst of all this. He remains thin, and is abstemious about what he eats, so the theme of hunger and gluttony, poverty and riches, fat and thin is maintained throughout the novel. 

Zola writes about the: 

… luxuriant fullness of the bundles of artichokes, the delicate green of the lettuces, the rosy coral of the carrots, and dull ivory of the turnips… 

Or what about this description of a butcher’s shop: 

There was a wealth of rich, luscious, melting things. Down below, quite close to the window, jars of preserved sausage-meat were interspersed with jars of mustard. Above them were some small, plumped, boned hams. Golden with their dressings of toasted bread-crumbs, and adorned at the knuckles with green rosettes…  

And I love his account of the hot soup seller: 

Along the covered way women were now selling hot soup and coffee. At one corner of the foot-pavement a large circle of customers clustered round a vendor of cabbage soup. The bright tin caldron, full of broth, was steaming over a little low stove, through the holes of which came the pale glow of the embers. From a napkin-lined basket the woman took some thin slices of bread and dropped them into yellow cups; then with a ladle she filled the cups with liquor. 
A soup stall in Les Halles – customers used the cups, and handed them back
for the next person. I downloaded this and lost the reference.

But there’s something faintly sinister about the richness, and Quenu’s kitchen made me feel positively queasy with its: 

…perfect battery of deep copper saucepans, and swelling funnels, racks of knives and choppers, rows of larding-pins and needles – a perfect world of greasy things. In spite of the extreme cleanliness, grease was paramount; it oozed forth from between the blue and white tiles on the walls, glistened on the red tiles of the flooring, gave a greying glitter to the stove, and polished the edges of the chopping-block with the transparent sheen of varnished oak… 

As you read on you become aware of what lies beneath the surface: the rotting vegetable, the slaughtered animals, the blood dripping and running through the market – symbolic, perhaps, of how Zola saw the government. 

The novel was worth persevering with. It was interesting and, on the whole. I enjoyed it, although there were times when I was overwhelmed by the long descriptive passages (not something which usually bothers me – it’s one of the things I love about Dickens). Some episodes didn’t seem to add anything to the story. But I will read more of Zola’s work. 

This made me realise how woefully ignorant I am about French history. I did discover there really was a coup against Napoleon III in 1851. Reprisals were very harsh indeed, and hundreds of people were transported to penal colonies in South America, where conditions were notoriously bad. 

Napoleon III was responsible for the way Paris looks today. He ordered the massive rebuilding programme undertaken by Baron Haussmann, and the market (designed by Victor Baltard and constructed in the 1850s) was part of the modernisation. 

But if there was a Napoleon III there must have been a Napoleon II, so who was he, and what happened to him? And how come the French, having staged a revolution and established a republic, abandoned ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ and ended up with an emperor? And how did the country become a republic again? I need a decent book on French history…

PS: Just came across a French Bingo Reading Challenge 2015 at Words and Peace, It looks interesting, so I’m giving that a go as well! There are 25 ideas for books with a French link, so I’ve marked this off for ‘part of a series’. And I reckon it qualifies for Paulette’s weekly meme, Dreaming of France, at An Accidental Blog – though I’m not sure how long I can sustain my ‘French Connection’! I’ll post a bit about all three challenges, and what I’m hoping to read, later in the week. (Edited July 15, 2015).