I just finished reading Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris, which, unsurprisingly, I quite enjoyed. The structure of the book suggests that it was written for people like me (three distinct parts: “the present,” “the past,” “the present”). It builds on the themes of The Last September but history is not always at stake – – it is about ordinary, everyday life.
The story is about potentiality – – events that open up possibilities but do not actually take place so that reality never replaces the imaginary. Marriages are planned but never occur, anticipated meetings do not happen, and explorations of Paris must be deferred. The point, it seems, is that “the plane of potential” matters: that the very possibility of events subtly changes one’s relationship to the past as well as the future, even if the events, themselves, never take place (66).
Leopold, one the children at the center of the story, comes to Paris to meet his mother only to be told that she cannot meet him. He is disappointed, of course, and yet, the fact that they do not meet preserves something: “the mother who did not come to meet Leopold that afternoon remained his creature, able to speak the truth” (65). She is able to be remain “his creature” in part because he never has to confront her past. As the opening chapter to “the past” suggests, “He expected from her a past as plain as the present, simply a present elsewhere. She was his contemporary” (65). What unfolds in this section, however, is a clear indication that she was not his contemporary and her past was not as “plain as the present.” Her past is complicated, unfinished, and disruptive of the present. Although there are clear breaks in her life–before and afters–they do not correspond to easy divisions: her husband constantly claims and remakes her remembering (and prevents her from certain kinds of forgetting).
Leopold never meets his mother, but by the novel’s conclusion, she is no longer “his creature.” And yet, she is certainly not her own creature. She is Leopold’s, she is Ray’s, she is Max’s, she is even Mme Fisher’s and her family’s. This fact, ultimately, suggests that growing up is a process of negotiating potentialities (those imposed by others, those imagined) rather than acquiring power/self-possession.