Thursday, November 08, 2012

House Ghosts

Elizabeth Bowen's The House in Paris, first published in 1935, is the most meaningful representation of adoption in fiction for me.

I stumbled upon it in a used bookstore in Cambridge when I was 21 and read it on a warm summer's day. I couldn't put it down. I hadn't realized when I bought it that it was about adoption (a young boy waits in a house in Paris for his original mother to meet him; she doesn't not come; he feels disappointment, and imagines the story/circumstances that led to his birth). It was a modernist tour de force at the time of its publication, praised by no less than Virginia Woolf, another one of my idols.

Oddly enough, I would love to quote from it here, but the same used copy that I bought back in that dusty bookstore 1990 is now in my nmother's house. I lent it to her to read.

I remember being intensely jealous of Leopold, the young boy, waiting for his mother--he knew who his mother was--at the same time that I felt profoundly sad for him when his mother did not have the courage to meet him. The hollowness of promises, knowing what we represent as adoptees, the shame. People think that they can have "normal" relationships with us, but usually it's extremely difficult because of the baggage we carry/represent. Even back when I was 21 I could see this, and the poor child, Leopold, in the book was 10 years old, or thereabouts. I cannot rightly recall his age.

I was impressed by Bowen's graceful thoughtfulness about the feelings of the both adoptee and his mother, rightly characterizing the pain of the child and the ambivalence of the adults in visiting their shame on him without consciously knowing what they're doing. It's difficult, terrible, sharp, and painful to read. Honest. Not to mention the child-on-child psychological violence. We have all been there.

Bowen's work is sadly not read as widely now as it was 80 years ago; she deserves rediscovery. She was one of the best writers in English of the 20th century and had much to say also about the social and political issues in Ireland, as well (she was Anglo-Irish: read moneyed Protestant landholder, but thoughtful, all the same) in the 20's and 30's. One could not be Irish of any stripe and not be marginalized in the metropole. She also wrote fantastic ghost stories, if you are into those; shame and guilt play a huge part in her thinking. Try "Pink May," on the mild side, or "The Demon Lover" if you are in the mood for hot and heavy self-flagellation.

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