Tag Archives: elizabeth bowen

It Was Raining When the Taxi Arrived (Elizabeth Bowen)

house in paris

(Please remember: My titles are always the ironic, boring version of what the author actually wrote!)

In my endeavors to enter graduate school, I’ve been researching (going down several rabbit holes) to further tease apart that elusive “author-self” relationship in the narrative, specifically that apex of choosing: memoir or true fiction? Synonymously, I’ve been delving deeper into Elizabeth Bowens’ writing by reading (or dare I say swimming in?) The House in Paris. Her main characters: Henrietta and Leopold both possess the sophistication beyond what we today call “tweens.” Writers usually have focused on the Bildungsroman – that coming of age so compelling because of the nature of that “age” where they finally reach some sort of place past epiphany. But what of Bowen’s adult children stuck in time, or to use Passage to India’s extended metaphor: butterflies in a net? The net is woven by uncaring parents, or parents who don’t have the wherewithal, emotional substance/inventory, or funds to provide for their children and these children remain in stasis.

So goes the tale for Henrietta and Leopold in The House in Paris. This novel is not for the reader who enjoys turning pages. If you enjoyed Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or constantly quote Stephen Dedalus’s “shout in the street,” than this book is for you. A.S. Byatt’s foreword in my Anchor Book paperback version reveals Bowen’s “cool judgment” she enlisted to show how both children and adults can be stuck in the same ineffective life-loops.

I’m always drawn to Bowen’s language, first. Plot second. All external events reflect an internal world. Near the end, we intimately know how dejected the main characters are and step back out into the day, released for the moment into physical real time (the whole novel is in the span of one day, a la Woolf).

“The taxi stuck in blocks, jarred, swerved clear, darted between lit buses solid with heads. On kerbs [sic] people watched it come and drew back suspiciously. I have not met the French, Henrietta thought. It was funny to stare into their unseeing eyes. The taxi pumped itself through wet-evening Paris in jerks” (262).

I won’t get into Hypotaxis but suffice to say, we are subjected and awash in Henrietta’s one small thought amidst the taxi: jarred, swerved, darted. I teach this stuff and yet to write it, I think there’s a deep editing that’s almost a mystical experience in which these masters engage.

Notice the adverb stand out? That is what you call a well placed and intentional adverb. I’m sure Stephen King (eschewer of adverbs) would approve. The unseeing eyes of the French are also the unseeing eyes of Henrietta’s reality. She can hide. This paradox lies in that passive nature of being unseen: this notion is both convenient for when a child wants to hide in anonymity but also tragic for when that terrible humanity rises, and the child needs love.

Her Dress was Wet from the Cold

In my undergrad writing class: Advance writing, my teacher told us to dig out our manuscripts we were about to hand in and asked us to go through and cirlce all the “was’s” that we could find.  Change your manuscript to exclude them.

We had beautified our stories and visibly shuddered as we took our red, purple, black, orange or chartreuse pens to cross out every “was” we found, which I can tell you were many!

No one dare ask why in that class.  We just did.  Here’s something I had written:

“Engagements are applauded.  Weddings are revered.  Divorces tend to dissolve one’s existence.”  It’s something I threw away.  I started over after this and wrote a highly detailed dissolution of my marriage that was later published.  I started out with was and are, but I ended up with “dissolve.”

I am reading The Death of the Heart and keep thinking of the main character, Portia, wiggling into a damp dress in a damp house by the seaside.  It’s so tactile, I wonder if Elizabeth Bowen ever had to sit and take out her “was’s?”

“A black night wind was up and Waikiki (name of beach house) breasted it steadily, straining like a liner: every fixture rattled.  This all went to heighten a pre-party tensity of the nerves.  Portia wormed her way into her black velvet, which, from hanging only behind a curtain, had taken on a briny dampness inside: the velvet clung to her skin above her chemise top…She was first downstairs and, squatting on the tiled kerb in front of the fire, heard the chimney roar.  With arms raised from the elbows, like an Egyptian, she turned and toasted her body, feeling the clammy velvet slowly un-stick from between her shoulder blades.”

Okay, yes, we do have some “was’s” in this passage, but look at all those yummy active verbs.  “Wormed,” and “rattled” and “taken on” and “toasted’ and “un-stick.”  There’s also “briny dampness” and “clammy” velvet.

I’ve had the great luck of being a nanny for a family with a seaside house.  What?  You own a seaside house?  Can I visit?  At any rate, the clamminess is spot on.  Everything takes on salt.  I remember that fine line between being annoyed by the sound of the sea and being lulled by it.   I want to take the next flight to a rocky crag of a beach line in England, so I can do what I love to do with reading and that is experience the synchronicity of the exact surroundings of the book I’m reading at the time.  It’s a rare occurrence, but delicious.  Actively seeking the surroundings in which a book was written is perhaps the nerdiest goal I have. I allow myself all the was’s of a writing moment, though.  It’s through the “was” and “are” that we get to “wormed.”

Somehow, I think Ms. Bowen didn’t have to cross out a single “was” for this one.