Week 48: In Praise of Elizabeth Bowen

All great writers are great readers

All great writers are great readers

It’s confusing stuff, this modernism. In music, it seems to mean Mahler, Richard Strauss and Debussy (and they can happily go on the tracks list for a Modernist Desert Island Discs). In the sometimes arcane worlds of art and design, Modernism means angles and an austere rejection of ornament. For us literary types, Modernism came and went and we are all Post-Modern now: a topic for another day. Literary Modernism can be broadly dated from the First World War up to the beginning of the Cold War. Yes, I know you want to quibble, and say ‘but what about …?’, but to give us some boundaries to get hold of in our minds, the Somme and the Iron Curtain will do nicely. So, our Modernist bookshelf has probably already got TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce propping each other up. But I wonder if you’ve read Elizabeth Bowen, and if not, why not. It is the NorthernReader contention that she is one of the greats of English Modernism. Much more to the point, she is a joy to read: dry, witty and piercing. As the brothers Gershwin (great Modernists themselves) put it, who could ask for anything more?

Elizabeth Bowen was born in Dublin, thus giving her a place in the Irish pantheon together with Joyce and Beckett, but brought up in England. She was (one is tempted to say ‘of course’) friends with the Bloomsbury Group, and she had the almost obligatory affairs. Having inherited Bowen’s Court in County Cork, she and her husband lived there on and off from the 1930s to the 1950s and held a sort of literary salon to which pretty much anyone who was anyone – Woolf, Carson McCullers, Iris Murdoch – flocked. She died in 1973.

Her second published novel, The Last September, which appeared in 1929, is a haunting and sparely told story of love amid the Irish War of Independence. It is my everlasting sorrow that someone with actual, as opposed to Monopoly, money got there before me, bought the film rights, and made a complete hash of it. Alright, I am not an impartial witness, because I had cast it and directed it so perfectly in my mind.  Please, don’t see the film, read the book. And then you can join me in my Ancient Mariner impersonations, stopping people in the streets to tell them that they should read it too.

I’m going to implore you to add her next novel, Friends and Relations, to your bookshelf too. We could call it a comedy of manners, but it unflinchingly notes every tiny detail, every opportunity missed, every road not taken, as it tracks the constrained lives of two young couples. It is also the best-observed depiction ever written of the turmoils of being a teenager in bourgeois society. If you enjoyed EM Forster’s Howard’s End – and of course you did ­– this is definitely one for you. We could club together for the film rights.

TheHouseInParisOur Elizabeth Bowen collection must include (possibly my very favourite in a crowded field) The House in Paris. One of the tenets of Modernism is that it challenges the idea of a linear narrative – you know, one damn thing after another. Well, The House in Paris starts on a particular day, skips back for its central chunk to a narrative that may be entirely imaginary, and then catches up with itself exactly where we left off at the end of Part 1 – and oh, as Wordsworth would undoubtedly have said, had he been lucky enough to be around in 1935 to read a first edition, the difference to us! We return to the House in Paris, but we are now in the position of the person who says, ‘Well, if I’d known then what I know now …’. Only it’s cleverer, and more unsettling, than that, because we’re not sure that we know anything more than we did. All we know is that time, and places, and narratives, and – most of all – people, can’t be trusted. Elizabeth Bowen seems to have been incapable of writing a sentence that wasn’t graceful, lean and elegant, and The House in Paris will wind itself round you like an Hermès silk scarf. Only sadder.

Bowen's Court

Bowen’s Court

Just two more. She wrote almost a dozen novels, many short stories, essays, biographies and memoirs, including Bowen’s Court, the best biography a house ever received, but it is my purpose to whet your appetite, not give you a potted digest of every book she wrote. To you, the joys of browsing, especially as (unaccountably in my opinion) several of her books are out of print. So I am going to pick out another novel and a book of short stories. The Heat of the Day, first published in 1948, can sit beside Waugh and Manning who, you will recall, we have elected as the writers of the greatest fiction to deal with the Second World War. Set in London after the Blitz, it weaves together ideas about personal and national loyalty and betrayal. It makes us question our certainties about identity and truth. In true Modernist style, its narratives overlap and contradict each other. But don’t for one moment run away with the idea that Elizabeth Bowen sat down to write a Modernist Novel: not even, perhaps, The Modernist Novel.  No, like all the very best writers, she has something to explore and she found a way to do so.

The book of short stories I am going to recommend to you is A Day in the Dark (and part of me is shouting ‘No, wait! If you can really only have one, have [insert name of today’s favourite] instead!’ You can see I’ll be rubbish when Kirsty asks me which book I’m going to take with me to that island of hers). A Day in the Dark was published in 1965 and brings together nearly forty years of short-story writing. It is a selection made by the author, who prefaced it with the graceful disclaimer, ‘If this selection of stories does not please, I can blame nobody but myself – in the first place, for not having written better ones; in the second, for choosing wrongly from those there are.’ Dear Miss Bowen, no blame attaches: no-one has written better ones, and a selection made in the dark would be as pleasing.

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4 thoughts on “Week 48: In Praise of Elizabeth Bowen

  1. I was far too young when I first tried Elizabeth Bowen and didn’t understand it. We didn’t have altogether sensible reading lists at my school – books you should read, not necessarily books you want to read.

    I would like to read The Last September. And how fascinating to learn about her life.

  2. I bought her novel “The Death of the Heart” when I visited Dublin and I haven’t still read it. I don’t think she’s much known outside Ireland, which is a pitty, but I hope that one day she makes it into THE Modernists. I’ll bookmark this post and I’ll mention you and Bowen’s being discriminated against in my review 🙂

    • Thank you, Elena. Like Shaw, Yeats, Wilde and the rest of the boys in the band, she tends to get appropriated as English for lit.crit. purposes, but you’re right, much of her work is very distinctly Irish – Anglo-Irish, really, especially in The Last September and Bowen’s Court.

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