Posts Tagged ‘Ian McEwan’

The House in Paris

June 18, 2012

I’ve just finished my third book by Elizabeth Bowen and really she is a brilliant writer. She’s very good at creating a bewitching, utterly engrossing atmosphere that sucks you in and makes it quite difficult to climb out and get back into the real world. I mentioned (here) that when I read Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, it held me so spellbound as I read it lying in my carriage on the sleeper train up to Inverness, that I didn’t realise we’d arrived and very nearly didn’t get off the train. The stewardess looked bewildered when she opened the carriage door to give it a cursory look and found me lying there in my pyjamas, my head stuck in London in the Blitz. ‘We’ve been here quarter of an hour already,’ she said as though I were raving mad. I suppose, maybe I was a bit.

A similar thing happened with The House in Paris. Last week, I sat down to read it for half an hour one afternoon after lunch, and before I knew it, it was gone five and I’d nearly finished it. My flat had almost disintegrated; its whole quiet world with the hum of the washing machine and occasional ping of my phone completely faded out and I was there stuck in the book, caught up in its deeply mysterious feeling so that time really had disappeared along with everything else.

I began The House in Paris thinking that it would be a little like What Maisie Knew by Henry James, or, indeed the lower-brow Atonement by Ian McEwan. This is because it starts off being told through the eyes of Henrietta, an eleven-year-old girl who is suddenly in the middle of a very adult situation. I love books like this. I even began trying to write one while I was at university – although I didn’t get that far.

Children of that age are still childish, yet they have a loose, overheard grasp on adult issues, enough to ape an adult understanding of things, which makes them seem terribly precocious, when of course they don’t actually understand the darker subtext of a situation. This combination of childish naivete and pretence at being grown-up, when placed in a truly complicated, adult situation of lies and secrets, with adults dashing about trying to make everything seem fine, makes for a fascinating consciousness to use as a filter.

So eleven-year-old Henrietta arrives in Paris, ‘one dark greasy February morning before the shutters were down’. She is collected from the Gare du Nord by a mysterious Miss Fisher who is to look after her for the day before taking her to catch the evening train down to the South of France where she is to stay with her grandmother. She learns in the taxi of another two mysterious characters, who will also be at the house in Paris: Leopold, a little boy who’s come from Italy, but is not Italian, who is there ‘for family reasons; he has someone to meet’ and Miss Fisher’s mother, who is very ill.

Miss Fisher is tense and responds to Henrietta’s questions by telling her far too much. Bowen reflects:

One of her troubles was, quite clearly, being unaccustomed to children. Henrietta had the advantage of her, for, as almost an only child – she had one married sister – she was only too well accustomed to grown-ups.

Henrietta gets to the house and meets Leopold, who is definitely a strange child. We see him first through Henrietta’s eyes:

He wore a bunchy stiff dark blue sailor blouse, blue knickerbockers and rather ugly black socks.

But here’s where it all becomes quite unexpected. For having been in Henrietta’s head for chapter one, chapter two puts us inside Leopold’s:

Henrietta, composedly sitting up on the sofa, pushing the curved comb back, made Leopold think of a little girl he had once seen in a lithograph, bowling a hoop in the park with her hair tied on the top of her head in an old-fashioned way.

It’s surprising, clever, and makes one draw a sharp intake of breath. It thickens things. It makes one wonder, what will happen next.

Well gosh I could go on and on about this book forever, but to spare all of us, I better speed things up a bit. Essentially the first part of the novel is about these two children, in this very adult sinister house in Paris. They, of course, completely disobey the adults, learn far too much, but don’t understand quite everything. An uneasy but very special bond is formed between them.

Then we get to part two, where another strange thing happens in the narrative. Bowen explains why Leopold’s mother, at the last minute, doesn’t come to meet him (for that is the reason for his being in Paris). She says:

Actually, the meeting he had projected could take place only in Heaven – call it Heaven; on the plane of potential not merely likely behaviour. Or call it art, with truth and imagination informing every word. Only there – in heaven or art, in that nowhere, on that plane – could Karen have told Leopold what had really been.

Bowen is saying that the whole premise of the first part couldn’t actually happen. As far as authorial asides go, this is pretty far out. And then it gets stranger yet:

This is, in effect, what she would have had to say.

The rest of the second part, which is around half the book, is the story of Karen, Leopold’s mother, and how Leopold came into the world.

It is a bizarre way of bridging the two stories, it feels perhaps clumsy, too obviously seamed, but somehow it works. And it was Karen’s story with which I sat down on the sofa and got completely wrapped up in for hours.

I think I shouldn’t give anything else away about the plot, but I will just mention one more thing that Bowen does very well: seedy meetings in ghastly restaurants.

One of the most memorable bits in The Heat of the Day is when Harrison makes Stella have dinner with him. He takes her to a fantastically hideous place, down some stairs into:

a bar or grill which had no air of having existed before tonight. She stared first at a row of backviews of eaters perched, packed elbow-to-elbow, along a counter. A zip fastener all the way down one back made one woman seem to have a tin spine. A dye-green lettuce leaf had fallen on to the mottled rubber floor; a man in a pin-stripe suit was enough in profile to show a smudge of face powder on one shoulder … The phenomenon was the lighting, more powerful even than could be accounted for by the bald white globes screwed aching to the low white ceiling – there survived in here not one shadow: every one had been ferreted out and killed.

It sounds just dreadful. A dodgy, horrid, underground place. They go on to have a terrible, tense, fateful confrontation of a conversation. And the setting, with its grimness, lends the whole thing an air of being unnatural, forced, not at all right.

In The House in Paris, there is another illicit meal in a restaurant. This restaurant is French and rather nicer, but there is still something hideously oppressive about it. It is lunchtime and blazing hot sunshine outside, but going in:

was so suddenly dark – and so suddenly chilly, making her cup her bare elbows in her hands … [he] read down his menu Napoleonically, and she looked at her menu blotty with mauve ink … Karen looked at a vase of roses on a middle table, then round the restaurant, with its embossed brown wallpaper, in which they were shut up with what Mme Fisher said.

These meals in these restaurants are acutely uncomfortable to read. The feeling of claustrophobia and oppression is remarkable. There is the clash of an intensely private meeting taking place in the public sphere, the smash of the outside against the inside.

In each situation, it’s the woman who feel this oppression rather than the man, who remains quite comfortable, even ‘Napoleonic’. The woman feels the outside world pressing in on her, strangling her private affair. Perhaps Bowen is iterating a woman’s need for her own private space – somewhere she can exist privately without the press of the outside. Just a few years earlier, Woolf had phrased it so famously as a woman’s need for ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

What Bowen does so well with her writing is create a fictional room of one’s own. Her books are so overpowering in atmosphere that they utterly succeed in taking you out of whatever real space you happen to be in and putting you inside this other space, which exists just for you and the characters of the book. Reading one of her books – even in the seediest of restaurants – one is safely transported to a private imaginary and immersive space. I, rather greedily, long for a whole fictional house made up of Bowen’s intensely atmospheric rooms. I can’t wait to read the next.

The perils of sending a message

March 14, 2011

We live in an age in which everyone is sending messages to everyone else all the time. Telephone calls and text messages; Facebook and Twitter; emails and instant messages … there have never been so many different ways to communicate.

Before all this technology, the only alternative to saying something face-to-face was to write a letter. Penn a note, seal it up and then dispatch it with a messenger … maybe it only sounds really fun because it’s so old-fashioned. But, whethere it’s fun or not, it has definitely served as an excellent literary device.

Letters can hold absolutely vital information so, in novels, a great deal rests on keeping them out of the wrong hands and delivering them safely. Letter-related plots tend to go along the lines of: X writes a terribly important letter to Y, but Y doesn’t get it in time. Or Z sees Y reading it and that ruins everything. Or Z reads it instead of Y …

‘One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.’

It’s such a marvellous opening to Howards End. And there are several letters in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge – the one which reveals to Henchard the secret of Elizabeth-Jane’s birth, and the incriminating stash of love letters between him and Lucetta. Of course, Bleak House sees Dickens using a stash of love letters too. Even Ian McEwan uses a, now infamous, letter at the start of Atonement.

Too many novels make use of letters for me to list them all here. But let’s not forget plays and, let’s certainly not forget Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet must make the most tragic use of this plot device. When Friar Laurence tells Juliet of his plan, for her to take a ‘distilling liquor’ that will make her assume a ‘borrowed likeness of shrunk death’, vital to its success is that ‘Shall Romeo by my letters know our drift’.

And Romeo expects these letters, asking his man Balthasar, ‘Hast thou no letters to me from the friar?’ But the messenger fails to deliver the letter to Romeo and Friar Lawrence laments:

‘The letter was not nice, but full of charge,

Of dear import, and the neglecting it

May do much danger.’

And we all know how it ends up. All because the message didn’t get to Romeo.

Nowadays, there are still plenty of opportunities for a message intended for someone to be read by someone else. How many of us have accidentally sent a text about someone to that person instead of to the friend to whom they meant to send it?!

But at least messages don’t go astray as they used. There’s no messenger running around delivering very important sealed letters and so there’s no opportunity for the messenger to get waylaid. Instead, someone makes a phonecall, or sends an email, or a text message. The message is instantly delivered. Yes, ok, there’s a very slim chance that the message might get lost somehow. The email could go into the Junk Mail folder, or the phone number’s wrong. But I don’t think it would really be believed in a novel.

But now we have so many different ways of communicating with each other, how do we pick which one to use? Why a facebook message rather than an email? Why a text message over an instant message?

If, for instance, you’ve had dinner at a friend’s house, how do you thank them the next day? Does a text message seem a bit flippant? Is a postcard a bit OTT? A phonecall would definitely be weird. Would an email be too formal? And, of course, what seems like the right choice for you, might well not seem right to them.

And, now we’re so used to instantaneous communication, when should the thank you be sent? A text the next morning? What if you forget until teatime? And if you send a postcard, that means there’s going to be a whole day’s wait – will the host spend that day thinking that you’re rude? Once, on the way home from a dinner, the host sent me a thank you text. Had I already left it too long?

Dating brings a whole new dimension to this quandary. In Jane Austen novels, Mr Darcy (or the equivalent) always turns up at the young lady’s house. Or he might send a letter confessing his love. When I was younger, if a boy liked you, he’d get your number and then phone you up to ask you out. This was pre-mobile phones, so the chances were, he’d speak to one of your parents, or big brothers, first. It must have been terrifying. Now, it comes down to no more than a text message. ‘Do U Want2C a film on Fri night? x’ (Although I think anyone who asked me out in text-speak got an automatic rejection.)

It seems that the age of the phone call has been superseded by the age of the text message and email. It’s odd, really, that we’ve moved away from this form of spoken communication back to written.

I wonder why we prefer expressing ourselves in writing. As anyone who’s ever sent a text message to someone they fancy knows, a hell of a lot of time can go into its composition … and into analysing any message from a potential date. Should I write ‘Hi’ or ‘Hey’ or ‘Hello’, or none of them? Should I ask a question so they have to reply? What does he mean by two kisses at the end?

I’m slightly ashamed to admit to having spent an entire evening helping a friend compose a text message, only to then spend the whole following day waiting with her for a response.

And that’s another thing key to written communication instead of spoken. One has to wait for a response. The ‘conversation’ can be drawn out over a whole week. Especially when one takes into account the rules of playing hard to get, not replying within a day, teasing everything out in a noncommittal way. It would be so much easier to phone someone up and get it all sorted out then in a five minute call. So much easier, but so much less ambiguous … and so much less fun too.

Unless, that is, the feeling isn’t mutual. How long can one wait for a response to a text message or an email before accepting the rejection? Most of us tend to invent excuses rather than take it as a no. I don’t think it sent properly. I think he said he was on holiday this week. Maybe his phone got stolen. It must have gone into his junk mail.

Perhaps it is our literary heritage of written communication that comes into play here. We are very used to reading novels and plays about letters going astray, messages being intercepted, something preventing the sound completion of an act of communication. Rather than accepting the fact that we’ve been ignored or rejected, it’s much kinder to pretend that our message has gone astray. Even if the chances of that actually happening – when it’s a text message rather than a letter – are slim to none.

But, because we now send each other messages all the time, via so many different media, we are all much worse at responding to them. If someone gets one message a day, chances are, they’ll reply. If they get a hundred, chances are, they won’t. Yes your message was delivered, yes it was probably read, and yes it was ignored, or overlooked, because it wasn’t quite important enough.

Of course, if this is in the context of dating, then forget it – they’re not interested. But perhaps we need to be a bit more lenient to friends, colleagues and others who don’t reply when they ought. I’m sure we’re guilty of the same thing ourselves.

Or, failing that, maybe the answer is to go back to writing letters. At least for the important things in life. That way, if one doesn’t get a response, one can tell oneself that it really could have got lost in the post.

On a beach

April 12, 2010

There is something particularly perfect about being proposed to on a beach.

A beach is the edge of the country, the crust of the British loaf. And it’s an edge that is changing, shifting. Sand moves along the coast, waves erode away part of the shore as new land heaps up further down. Where else in the world does the landscape change so visibly, so dramatically right in front of your eyes? It’s as though the earth is stripped down to nothing – no covering of trees, plants, grass, or even soil, just sand. No wonder it’s by the seaside that we strip off down to bikinis and swimming trunks, rather than, say, in the middle of the forest.

There’s something almost magical about beaches. I know it’s mega-pretentious to quote my own novel-in-progress, but this bit is from a scene when the main character goes to a beach:

Her feet sank into the damp sand, and the pale wet of the sea cooled her, soothed her frustration. Adele turned around for a moment and saw that her footprints had been erased by the sea. And now, looking down at her ankles, she watched the sand bleach itself as the water shrank back, out of the ground, back into the body of the sea. Again Adele felt sure there was magic here. As though whatever happened here, happened here only – no record of it could seep into real life.

Beaches really are the very edge; where things change almost magically. It’s as though, if you get close enough to the edge, all trace of real life might just vanish.

On the beach there is space. Flatness. Sea and sky meet in a blue horizon, only occasionally interrupted by a distant boat or, perhaps, the outline of France. All the reality of the world, every mundane concern, shoes and socks are left behind, back in the car, the other side of the dunes, nothing can get in the way out here, on the beach, by the sea.

I read On Chesil Beach last week, thinking that I might find similarities with my own situation of being in love on a beach in the south of England. And as everybody is saying how ‘abominable’ (as Florence in OCB would say) McEwan’s new book Solar is, I thought I should try to see if he has written anything better.

The beach, in OCB, is the place where the actions of a newly-married couple will affect the rest of their lives. The book is about one particular moment, lasting for probably no more than an hour. Either Florence and Edward will be affectionate towards each other and overcome the gulf in understanding that lies between them, or they will be rendered apart forever.

McEwan deftly moves between Edward and Florence’s points of view, their memories, their thoughts, musings and expectations. He shows, at once, the differences that are key to the characters – the disparity in their interpretations of each other and events – but also, in the ease and fluidity that he jumps from one mind to the other, that the differences aren’t insurmountable, that they can be overcome, that Florence and Edward could exist together.

It is on the beach that the decision is made, that the actions – or lack of actions – happen. It is in a place, barely of this country or this world, removed from the London and Oxfordshire lives of the characters. And it is at night, when the beach is deserted, empty, as though the two of them are completely alone in the world. And although this night will affect them forever, they will try to forget about it; the episode will almost completely vanish from their lives, like footprints in the sand, wiped away by the sea.

But as beaches are the end of the land, they are also the beginning, a point of arrival, an opening into a country. Washed clean of normal life and its mundanities, people are at their freest on a beach, stripped bare of worries, more themselves than at any other time, able to start something new and fresh. And so, on that beach in Sussex, on that sunny windy day just over a week ago, a wonderful, happy, new life together was begun.