A Sacred Standstill

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

All my reviews of Bowen novels will be linked here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2021/11/27/elizabeth-bowens-novels/

All my links of Bowen stories: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/31260-2/

My gestalt real-time review will be conducted in the comment stream below:


9 thoughts on “A Sacred Standstill

  1. PART 2 (2)

    This chapter is the disarming, even diselbowing, essence of Bowen fiction as well as of Null Immortalis itself (and of Aickman’s gluey Zenoism)….

    These passages should be endlessly read aloud and learnt by heart with meaning…
    as well as learnt by the mindless rote of Bowen’s parrot fashion?

    “She did not so much ask herself why she was here as why she was ever anywhere. She supposed that is partly why women marry – to keep up the fiction of being the hub of things.”

    “It is a wary business, walking about a strange house you know 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 already begin 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. To come in is as alarming as to be born conscious would be, knowing you are to feel; to look round is like being, still conscious, dead: you see a world without yourself . . .”

    “The rooms smelt of Indian rugs, spirit-lamps, hyacinths. In the drawing-room, Aunt Violet’s music was stacked on the rosewood piano; a fringed shawl embroidered with Indian flowers was folded across the foot of the couch; the writing-table was crowded with brass things. In a pan-shaped basket by the sofa were balls of white knitting wool. Aunt Violet seemed to have lived here always. The fire was laid but not lit. Each room vibrated with a metallic titter, for Uncle Bill kept going a number of small clocks. Out of these high-up windows you saw nothing but sky. The rooms looked not so much empty as at a sacred standstill;”

    Followed by a semi-colon…

    These are the beginning days for Karen with Uncle Bill (UB) and Aunt Violet (AV), and tell of her receiving letters from Ray, her fiancé, on duty upon a ship, and we learn the backstory of this affair and K’s own earlier romance that once made her miserable.

    A chapter that includes a tea-cosy, a muffin-dish, a trawler outside on the sea, and UB’s act of rooting daisies around a barely maintained tennis court…

    “After that, the days here began to slip by faster and faster, not touching anything as they passed. Some afternoons, Karen walked inland behind Rushbrook, into bare open country near the mountains –“

    AV, who appears to be in terminal decline, is playing Schubert, and we have the apotheosis of his music in words as

    Death and the Maiden? K being the latter!

    “…the scene round her looked at once momentous and ghostly,…”

    “But everything here goes on as if it would never stop.”

    “…and Karen, looking up from some book she had found here, found her thoughts circling objects and light in the room as aimlessly and returning as a moth . . . All the ticking clocks did little to time here. Here they hung on their hill over the inland sea, and seemed as safe as young swallows under an eave. But fate is not an eagle, it creeps like a rat.”

    Fate creeping like rat… we feel that deep in each reader’s death of the heart.

    “…and Karen saw she already did not live where she lived, but was elsewhere, like the music that had stopped. She saw, too, why the peace of Mount Iris was so fatalistic, as though those two were a couple expecting their first child. Aunt Violet came down the steps from the top terrace to look at the heap of daisies. ‘Poor little things,’ she said, ‘it seems waste.’”

    “It was disarming, this disembodied closeness.”

    “This was like hearing a picture you had always loved to look at, dearer than a ‘great’ picture, sigh inside its frame.”

    “…nothing must make death more humbling than the idea of its ease: death should have a harder victory.”

    “Better to be rooted out hurt, bleeding, alive, like the daisies from the turf, than blow faintly away across the lawn like a straw.”

    And the presaged Bowen herself also embodied, even disembodied, in these words about AV…

    “The writing-table overlooking the sea, where she rested her elbows among the brass ornaments,…”

  2. PART 2 (3)

    “Beside Uncle Bill, a visitor’s dog sat up to beg politely; he, frowning carefully, dropped tea-cake into its mouth.”

    …an obliquely ironic Proustian emblem for future fading memories of K’s last attritional days at Rushbrook, amid desultory tennis games with UB, and grasping the nettle of needing to leave earlier than planned (to shake death off from the maiden?) on a evocatively conjured ship, and an overnight cabin, towards, somehow aptly, a place called Fishguard….

    But, first, a gossipy letter (as future backstories’ info-dump ) that we see written by K to Ray before she leaves (e.g. “Oh, and here is some news (at least, it is news to me). Naomi Fisher is going to marry that man Max Ebhart, that French-English-Jewish man in a bank that they always see so much.”)
    And she meets an equally gossipy ‘Yellow Hat’ on board the ship, a strapping lass who talks to K so as to escape the attentions of a ‘fellow’ and who sort of reminds me of an Irish version of Louie Lewis….

    “Yellow Hat, sighing away regretfully, spread over half that table her elbows and bust. ‘I guess you think we’re all mad?’ she went on invitingly.”
    (…as Henrietta was later to enunciate when the Parisian house.)
    “Where would the Irish be without someone to be Irish at?
    ‘Now tell me,’ said Yellow Hat, ‘was this your first time over?’”

    “On the tables, glasses of porter had yellow slime round their rims; sauce-bottle stoppers were buttons of bright red; the cruets plied up and down.”

    “. . . This bright snug scene sealed up everyone in itself and made them seem bound for nowhere.
    The saloon vibrated once; the engines checked and ground on. The ship had turned out to sea.”

    Equating to the neutral, grounded reality of a zoo (cf passing each other in a nemonymous night)…
    “Meeting people unlike oneself does not enlarge one’s outlook; it only confirms one’s idea that one is unique.”

    A chapter that is like it says it is, a ship that passes in the night, soon to be forgotten, unless, one day, a teacake (or Yellow Hat’s guzzling Graves wine) re-ignites it?… you see, It had always been easy to expect never seeing Louie Lewis again after the first chapter of The Death of the Heart and its passing strangers sitting near each other beside a bandstand that could never set sail like a ship…

    “Forgetting to smile, they looked at each other askance, nodded, and parted – for ever. The ship ploughed ahead steadily through the dark.”

  3. PART 2 (4)

    “…an idea of the supernatural…” hovered — like another sacred standstill?…

    “She was in that flagging mood when to go on living seems only to be to load more unmeaning moments on to your memory.”

    Karen Michaelis returns to London with Yellow Hat’s ‘poison’ comment in her ears, and meets Naomi (Miss) Fisher at the Michaelis house. We gain much of K’s backstory in Paris with Naomi and Mme Fisher, a sort of finishing school, where Mme F maintained her steely sarcastic command, against which there was no Fishguard as it were… and today, with me at home reading, and K in London with her mother Mrs Michaelis, these are, I feel, the passages that are key…

    “And Naomi looked so much more like someone who’d lost an aunt than someone who’d gained a lover. Max should have given her something to smile about, or, at least, violets to pin on her black fur.”

    K has never liked Max in the past…

    “‘You know how glad I must be that you’re so happy!’
    ‘But you are happy yourself.’
    Naomi looked up almost accusingly, as though her friend spoke too much from the outside. She fixed her eyes on Karen as though daring her to stay calm. Her timid husk dropped off, or she lit up inside it; she stood with face and eyes exposed, turned burning to Karen, as much as to say: ‘Look . . . Surely you are the same?’”

    The latter question re K’s happiness’ with Ray Forrestier, the surname in phonetic assonance with ‘fiancé’…

    Then somehow a bond breaking, in three quotations …
    “All Karen herself felt was: here was this bond between them, or band round them, forged in that year in Paris (yes, forged – it was metal, inelastic, more than chafing sometimes) when she was so young, so much frightened of Max, so unable to ignore him, that Naomi there was what you had to have.
    “But at any time she [N] had a way of making straight lines bend and shapes of things fluctuate as though a strong current were flowing over them.”
    “Mme Fisher always withdrew opposition in such a way as to make your motive snap. If you went against her, she said: ‘But naturally, you know best,’ which at once drove dismay in. […] In short, she would keep no girl who did not know how to behave.”

    And two telling Zeno halves…
    “…not for nothing had Mme Fisher lived years with the English and discovered their liberalness and liking for the half-way.”
    “ . . . The hall clock struck: it was now half-past eleven. Karen thought how much she should like a bath.”

    Pantheistic Mme F had had the girls shadowed…
    “The girls [N & K], discussing this, hovered between an idea of the supernatural and Naomi’s having been told off to shadow them.”

    “….when she [Mme F] handed over the room to the girls for their friends’ visits, was as constant, uncommenting as the tick of her clock. She was somewhere all the time.”

    Of all the girls in Rue Sylvestre Bonnard, “Of all these, only Karen had left a mark, known Naomi,…”

  4. PART 2 (5)

    “Slowness of movement in a quick-thinking person makes you feel some complication of thought or feeling behind anything that is done.

    …indeed with Bowen fiction, too.
    I can’t help thinking that this chapter centres upon the requisite flabby part of this novel, but it still describes people and objects with quick wit, thus paradoxically with a gluey Zenoism of obsession, almost a mutant, even psychotic, view of time as well as well as the events and people that slowly swell time in and out as a space we all inhabit, while this chapter possesses the shadowy triangulation of Max, Naomi and Karen, both in the past when K was 18 at Mme Fisher’s, and now as N deals in London with her deceased aunt’s affairs. But above all the slow shades of Max’s adumbration (French or Jewish, or both?) are filled out in relation to this triangle as well as to the young girls at Mme Fisher’s. ….
    Karen is thus naturally forgetting Mount Iris and the Irish, and the death of her own soon to be deceased Aunt there.
    Psychotic Bowen as the observer within us. Her frequent dance of the cigarettes also in this chapter as a neuro-diverse masking?

    “Their meeting, yesterday, had been pointless and pleasant. Karen and Naomi had lunched with Max at his hotel in the Adelphi. In five years Max had not changed; he was still very much himself in unmoved disregard of how you might feel.”

    “What few gestures he made, from the wrists only, moulded sharp surprising shapes on the air.”

    “No plain man would ever care for his mouth. But he was in no way supersubtle or florid, and no doubt could have been a gentleman had he wished.”

    “She watched Max’s hand, while he talked, touching objects – the stem of a glass, a salt spoon, a cigarette – she looked at objects he picked up when he had put them down. Becoming Naomi’s lover ‘placed’ him, and far away.”

    “Every movement he made, every word she heard him speak left its mark on her nerves. He was the first man I noticed, she thought now.
    She thought, young girls like the excess of any quality.”

    “; their [that of the young girls in Paris and elsewhere] natural love of the cad is outwitted by their mothers. Vulgarity, inborn like original sin, unfolds with the woman nature, unfolds ahead of it quickly and has a flamboyant flowering in the young girl. Wise mothers do not nip it immediately; that makes for trouble later, they watch it out.”

    “For Max was very nice. As her host at lunch today she met him for the first time. […] But Karen, looking at Max, against a stuffy draped curtain, thought: This is like an epilogue to a book. You hardly read on, the end is so near: you know.
    That had been yesterday.’

    “Many sensations of pleasure made up the moment and hummed in the silence between Max and Karen like bees in a tree.”

    “‘It is those wretched American girls, waiting. I suppose they feel, as I probably felt at their age, that the Fishers exist for them.’
    ‘You [K] still exist in that house – haunt it, if you prefer.” […]
    ‘But how should it waste time to be eighteen? Any year of one’s life has got to be lived. Five years hence, you may dislike what you are now.’”

    The perspective of Time as a flabby essence and its separately sharp Proustian selves evolving within the single self. A perspective within this book’s sacred stillness.

  5. PART 2 (6)

    “Why split a blade of grass, and not speak?”

    The ungraspable flabbiness for me continues surrounding the KMN triangulation (Katherine Mansfield or Nabokov?), their last days of ‘holiday’ in England, N arranging for a carrier to take the books that had emerged to someone called Helen Bond who may like them. A side issue but everything is someone else’s side issue, I guess.

    “With three or more people, there is something bold in the air: direct things get said which would frighten two people alone and conscious of each inch of their nearness to one another. To be three is to be in public, you feel safe; the person so close before becomes a face at the other side of a tray. Are you less yourself than you were? You will never know.”

    The nature of K’s Englishness discussed, or at least thought about afterwards by me.

    Those grass blades, in hindsight, foreshadowing the end of the chapter that I have just read…significant that his elbow is also mentioned in this now to-be seen-as-crucial act….
    “Naomi filled his cup too, and put it down by him. Still propped on the grass on one elbow, he irresponsibly tore a handful of grass, and, smiling, tossed the blades on his hand, to show how much he was enjoying his holiday.”

    In the flabbiness a cutting across of idleness..
    “But his silence, cutting across the idle warm afternoon, had the proper ring: forbidding and unemotional. […] Outside the edge of shadow, the lawn blazed in sunshine up to the French window:”

    A flabbiness also cut across with exactitude by an onlooker, Mrs Micahelis, with her photos syndrome… an exactitude versus the Bowenesque?…
    “Without their indistinctness things do not exist; you cannot desire them.
    Blurs and important wrong shapes, ridgy lights, crater darkness making a face unhuman as a map of the moon, Mrs Michaelis, like the camera of her day, denied.”

    “She, not unfairly, found that an over-great sense of mystery too often leads to artiness.”

    “What Mrs Michaelis said about Max and his reasons for wanting to marry Naomi would be, no doubt, true – if you pressed him flat like a flower in a book.”

    Is this another Last September of just its echo?…
    “He took another breath, and looked at the sky. ‘An angel must be flying over,’ he said.”

    Which merges with due idleness if not pointedness to the grass blades again… (elbows and shoulderblades?)…

    “But they both sat back, her hand lying near his. Max put his hand on Karen’s, pressing it into the grass. Their unexploring, consenting touch lasted; they did not look at each other or at their hands. When their hands had drawn slowly apart, they both watched the flattened grass beginning to spring up again, blade by blade.”

    “What I say would often be right if I meant something else.”

  6. PART 2 (7)

    “The tip of a long magnetic wave from the Continent touches Victoria platform whenever a boat train starts:”

    Karen sees off Naomi and a, what turns out to be later mercenary, Max. She sees them off back to France…
    “If today goodbye is not final, some day it will be; […] Karen and Max, who, standing with their shoulders against the window, found themselves jammed face to face. There was no escape. She stared at his right shoulder. This undid their touch on the lawn yesterday; they faced each other unwillingly, defiant, dead.”

    The flabbiness and madness of “Max, Max, Max” maxed out, with the stoicism of marriage to Ray and to become Karen Forrestier (and mother of Leopold, I guess.)

    “The train stood as though built on to the platform, but Karen walking away down it, steadied herself against the frames of the windows as though the train was rocking at top speed.”

    It is May Day, the routines of the Michaelis family, and its Bowenesque sense of this season as well as its mayday, mayday…

    “A picture of a flower-pot on a balcony made Karen decide to go on painting: next morning she returned to the studio. That end of April had been in itself a summer:”

    “She could not see Ray: his face was gone as though a spot of acid had dropped on her memory.”

    “She had now to look for Max in Ray.” (The Max in May)

    Only fiction in novels can co-shadow quite distinct characters as one, in the wishful eyes of another who casts such shadows…

    “: Soon I shall be gone. She must rely on marriage to carry her somewhere else. Till it did, she stayed bound to a gone moment, like a stopped clock with hands silently pointing an hour it cannot be.”


    Ray’s married sister Angela says –
    “It’s better to inbreed than marry outside one’s class. […] I thought you looked rather cosmic –“

    A devastating if expected letter from Uncle Bill Bent about Aunt Violet…
    “No one died before. […] …the crack across the crust of life.”

    “…the evening paper, folded like a lily for a coffin. She would have heard by now; news travels downstairs through the bones of a house.”

    Suspense before Mrs M reading Mme Fisher’s unexpected letter…eventually a trivial matter, it seems, concerning an Aunt Belfrey. But it has a side issue that become a major issue for K — N’s sudden legacy…

    “once a board gives, the raft begins breaking up”


    A time-travelling Bowen from the future peeps in through the words of one of her characters? —
    “At my age, one must learn to recede gracefully.”

  7. Pingback: Hythe and Seek | Bowen KÔRner (The Circumflexing Elbow): The Brainstorming

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