Shy, sensitive, emotionally wounded Elizabeth Bishop travels to Paris with three friends the summer after her graduation from Vassar in 1937. An avid keeper of journals, Elizabeth atypically keeps no notes while she is away from her traveling friends for several weeks.
During this period she visits northern France with philanthropist Clara Longworth de Chambrun, a patron of the arts and sister-in-law to Alice Roosevelt Longworth. The three weeks missing from Elizabeth’s real-life journals provide the background for the fictional “Paris, 7.A.M.”
Elizabeth Bishop is a well-regarded American 20th-century poet and short story writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956. The characters surrounding her in the novel are real people who were part of Elizabeth’s life. During their months in Paris, the specter of Nazism hangs over a city whose population tries to remain oblivious to the horror that is surely headed its way.
Elizabeth’s father died when she was very young, and shortly after that, her mother was moved to an institution because of severe mental illness. Elizabeth saw her mother only two times in her life after that; Elizabeth spent her formative years being shuffled among relatives in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. Her longing for parental love and care never leaves her.
In the novel, many scenes or incidents cause her to reflect on the deep wounds she has suffered from familial displacement. In real life, many of Elizabeth’s poems hearken to her yearning for the unconditional love family often provides.
The three imagined weeks depicted in the novel describe Elizabeth’s involvement with the French resistance movement that saved the lives of thousands of Jewish babies. Elizabeth is unwittingly drawn into the scheme to transport two babies to a convent in France. She is reluctant to get involved, but she later realizes that nothing she will ever do in her life will be of more value.
The great poet Marianne Moore, a friend, has given her words to live by: “You can’t see the world by withdrawing from it.” This pronouncement gives Elizabeth the courage to risk her own life for something greater.
Although this novel by poet and novelist Liza Wieland is fiction, many well-known literary people populate the pages: Robert Lowell, the aforementioned Marianne Moore and Clara Longworth, the painter Margaret Miller, and philanthropist Louise Crane. All traveled in literary and art circles with other famous people including Billie Holiday, Tennessee Williams and Randall Jarrell.
“Paris, 7.a.m” is a poem by Elizabeth Bishop as well as the title of the novel. It was written during Elizabeth’s few months in Paris.
The prose of the novel reflects that of a poem. It has no quotations around words of conversation. The description of places and scenery is suffused with richness in language and mood. I believe this book combines the best of poetry and prose. I loved the connections made between the fictional and real Elizabeth Bishop of whom literature students will certainly be aware.