Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris

I'm not, as a rule, a big fan of Elizabeth Bowen. But I have a friend whose opinion I respect who often talks about her, so that is one reason I persist in reading her novels: a few months ago, The Heat of the Day, a WW2 novel set in London, whose dialogues struck me, as Bowen's often do, as stilted and theatrical--unless they are utterly natural and simply out of my range.

But I've just finished The House in Paris, one I've been looking for for a while, which never seemed to be on the Bowen shelf in the library, and which I finally sought via its call number, and discovered, with tea-coloured pages, in a musty-smelling back section of the low-ceilinged, over-heated old stacks. I wanted to read it because of: 1) Paris; 2) the house. Houses are important for Bowen and often themselves as important as the characters in her books. I like houses too. This one seems to be close to the Luxembourg Garden, a high, narrow, dark old house, forbidding and foreboding. The story revolves around two children, strangers, and some mysterious grown-ups whose relationships are gradually elucidated. I have read that it was considered the most French, in style, of Bowen's books, though it doesn't seem particularly French to me, if I think of Colette and Duras and Sarraute and Beauvoir...

But it is psychologically subtle and finely written, or at least I found it so, and recommend it.

I turned down a page (many were dog-eared) so I could find a sentence again. It is from a scene between a mother and daughter. Of the over-devoted, controlling mother, the daughter, who is engaged to be married but has just returned from a rendez-vous with another manthinks: 'Dread of chaos filled the room... ."  And I thought, ah yes, the impulse to control comes from the dread of chaos.


Charles Boyle, aka "Robinson" of Robinson  and The Overcoat (see below), says in a blog post: "Careers and livelihoods depend upon just the right degree of non-seriousness. It’s a British code."

Well yes. But it's also a French code. Go to a dinner party and wax serious and pretty soon people are looking at you funny, as if you'd forgotten the rules of conversation. Oops, time to talk to the person on the other side.

In the US on the other hand, irony doesn't always go down well. Better to know the company you are in before you ironise and your neighbours take it at face value.

Canada is somewhere in between... .

Indra's Net

Some months ago Deborah Bennison of Bennison Books contacted me to ask if I would contribute to an anthology of poetry to raise money for The Book Bus charity (chairity I keep writing, and correcting; II'm not the dyslexic type and these slips of the keyboard interest me).

So I sent Deborah three poems, two from each of my previous books and a new one (which will be in my new book) and she read them and has published them along with many, many others, introduced by the British poet Carol Rumens. The book is called Indra's Net, and it has just been published and is available on Amazon. All the profit from sales will go to The Book Bus, an organisation that is trying to get books to children in Africa, Asia and South America.

An ordinary Saturday

Our apartment building is reroofing, so what wasn't ordinary was the pounding overhead. We escaped for lunch at the Cantor Museum café, and later in the day, after the roofers left, I went to the campus vegetable and flower farm to do a spot of weeding and deadheading. Normally I love weeding (makes the world more orderly) but resist deadheading. But 'deadhead all the flowers' was already on the list of tasks for volunteers last week, so I attacked the magenta dahlias (never much liked magenta anyway), strewing still beautiful dahlia flowers in my wake. When I returned this week--a week later--the magenta dahlias were thriving, so I guess they didn't mind and, as the chief gardeners say, the cut flowers make good compost. And I always set aside a bouquet for the kitchen counter. 

I deadheaded the dahlias (magenta, pink Japanese-painting ones, some tight, balled-up orangey ones) and then I weeded the field they grow in--another of the volunteer tasks. There were some tough-rooted things I couldn't get.

Meanwhile my husband had gone to practice on the music department harpsichord, and when he came back, he helped me with the last few weeds and we rewarded ourselves with some lettuce, fennils and herbs. It's amazing the difference in taste between lettuce you pick and lettuce from the supermarket. The sun was setting. Another volunteer, someone we hadn't seen in a while, came along with his daughter to pick flowers.


Reading List

Need to mention some books I've been reading. Mostly I tabulate them on my weekly agenda, so I have some record, memory otherwise failing; besides I tend to have many books going at once: always, almost, an Italian, a longstanding language project (right now it's an early collection of short stories by Calvino, with notably, his tale about the Count of Monte Cristo). Then there was the unputdownable The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks. And then there's Charles Boyle's Robinson, a wonderful rant cum meditation on just about everything, including RCrusoe, with tantalizing apercus of Boyle's own life. It's funny and sad and totally seamless, one of those books where you look up ten pages later and say 'how the hell did he get here from there?'  Couldn't put it down either.

(When I was a kid I read the gemütlich version of Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson. Much later in life I decided to read all of Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, but stopped reading it when I realized it was fiction.)

Then there's the sleeping pill book, at the moment Elizabeth Drew's 1974 Washington Diary, a day-by-day account of the last two years of the Nixon administration. It more or less parallels what's going on in Washington right now, and so when I've run out of the latest riveting 2017 news, I turn to it. A few pages are enough...

I had forgotten...

one of the pleasures of hot days (and nights) in a country where the houses have shutters: sitting in a cool, dim room, relishing every breeze that seeps through the louvers.

It is still light at 11 pm here, unlike the Bay Area where it is dark at 8 or not long after. People are up and out late--or is it only that one hears them more because one throws all the windows wide open once the sun goes down? I left the windows open but closed the shutters when I went to bed. This morning the air through the still-closed shutters has a coolness, but it feels already as if it is going to be a scorcher.

Yesterday was the first day of the Colloquium in honour of Hélène Cixous at the Maison Heinrich Heine at the Cité Universitaire. A fascinating, almost too-stimulating day of talks and meditations on her work (with much talk of Derrida, too) around the themes of memory and origins. Especially notable (for me) were the talks by the writers Cécile Wajsbrot and René de Ceccaty, along with those of some of the scholars, such as Maxime Decout from Lille and Ginette Michaud from Montreal.

More talks today and a dinner this evening on the rue Racine.

This photo is of a reading at the much regretted Village Voice Bookstore on the Rue Princesse in March 2004. St. Patrick's Day, I seem to recall. The occasion was the launching of the translation of Cixous's Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint (un jeune saint juif). I remember an overflow crowd to hear Cixous and Derrida.



It's a summery Sunday morning and the church service across the street has just started to the tune of mournful hymns sung at the tempo of a dirge, but I can't quite bring myself to close the windows and deprive myself of the flutter of pigeon wings, rolly bags, high heels, cars cruising for parking spots. Last night the street noise went on late; I was wakened sometime in the wee hours by African-accented voices having a loud argument under my window. The argument began on the left and faded away to the right, and I didn't get up to see what all the shouting was about, though I was sorely tempted. When I did finally get up it was to the sound--new here, though perfectly normal in San Francisco--of mandarin. A young couple going their different ways around the church and exchanging last minute instructions--or so I imagined.

Yesterday I went to the Marais late afternoon for a reading and saw a wedding party leaving the church--on bicycles. The groom and bride led the cortege, she sidesaddle on the luggage rack, he peddling, dragging a couple of white enamel kitchen pots behind them. Then came the parents, and the friends. All very noisy and cheerful and head-turning.

I waited at the bus stop, Carrefour de l'Odeon, next to a woman sitting on the base of the statue of Danton, who told me she wasn't waiting for a bus, she was people-watching: she didn't get into Paris (from surburban-but-barely Boulogne-Billancourt) very often and she'd been to the Poetry Market and now she was watching people, from her perch on the pedestal about a foot from the bus lane. She worked, she said, in the Tourist Office.

Paris, Marché de la Poésie, Place St Sulpice

Around the Place, white tents sheltering poetry publishers, mostly small presses, but so many of them and how attractive their volumes are: generally sober with text rather than images on the cover. Then there's a central tent with a stage and microphones and some white plastic garden chairs for listeners and lookers. Yesterday I listened to two Korean poets, Lee Sumyeong and Park Sangsoon, read, sponsored by the bilingual review, La Traductière. They both read again later in day at the Café Les Éditeurs at the Carrefour de l'Odéon, along with a poet from Japan, one from the UK, and two or three French poets.

In the morning I had been to the flower market on the Ile St Louis; the plants on our kitchen balcony (a grand word for a couple square metres of territory really meant to hold mops and buckets) were dead on (my) arrival and I needed to replace them quickly with something living, swaying, green, light-capturing. Furniture is all very well, but it just sits there, unchanging; a plant or two changes everything, brings it all to life.

The weather? Sunny, summery in a way northern California never is, although I would also say, not at all contradictorily, that Palo Alto has an ideal climate, hot during the day, cool at night, cool foggy mornings. Here the weather is sultry-summery, you don't need or want a sweater in the evening. It feels very different, I mean life under this weather feels different: streets full of people attesting to a change in the air.