Reading Elizabeth Bowen

I’m reading The Heat of the Day for my local book group, which meets tonight. I haven’t finished the book yet: that’s my main agenda item for today! This is my first experience reading Bowen and it is going a bit slowly, which is why I’m not done. I’ve had the book for a long time: my copy is inscribed to me from my mother on my birthday in 1987 (the same year she gave me Disturbances in the Field, which I have read probably 20 times). So not only is it going slowly now, but it has taken me a long time to get to this book. But then, it’s a book that goes slowly itself: so far, very little has happened, but always with infinite nuance and weight. Nobody walks across a room without the movement being freighted with significance. As I read, I have had in mind Lauren Elkin‘s comparison between Bowen and Winifred Holtby, that “Bowen seems more interested in the possibilities of form, whereas Holtby seems more interested in the possibilities of message.” This has helped me be patient with the book: when it seems to meander, regress, or just stall, I mutter “late modernism” to myself until I stop fretting. The reward for persisting (besides the accumulating sense that, indeed, the actions in the book are significant, and the characters and their story are going somewhere interesting) is that there are passages of sublimely wonderful writing. The opening pages of Chapter Five, in particular, offer a splendidly evocative, lyrical description of London in the autumn of 1940, “that heady autumn of the first London air raids.” A sample:

Out of the mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter; between the last of sunset and first note of the siren the darkening glassy tenseness of evening was drawn fine. . . . The diversion of traffic out of blocked main thoroughfares into byways, the unstopping phantasmagoric streaming of lorries, buses, vans, drays, taxis past modest windows and quiet doorways set up an overpowering sense of London’s organic power–somewhere here was a source from which heavy motion boiled, surged and, not to be damned up, forced itself new channels.

The very soil of the city at this time seemed to generate more strength: in parks the outsize dahlias, velvet and wine, and the trees on which each vein in each yellow leaf stretched out perfect against the sun blazoned out the idea of the finest hour. Parks suddenly closed bdcause of time-bombs–drifts of leaves in the empty deck chairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes–presented, between the railings which girt them, mirages of repose. All this was beheld each morning more light-headedly: sleeplessness disembodied the lookers-on.

In reality there were no holidays; few were free however light-headedly to wander. The night behind and the night to come met across every noon in an arch of strain. To work or think was to ache. In offices, factories, ministries, shops, kitchens the hot yellow sands of each afternoon ran out slowly; fatigue was the one reality. You dared not envisage sleep.

It goes on–the next bit about the traces of the dead mingling with the living is also wonderful, and the whole set piece compellingly backs up the claim that “that particular psychic London was to be gone for ever; more bombs would fall, but not on the same city.”

Here’s another passage, also intensely descriptive and also evocative of a mood and a perspective:

She was at the foot of the most advancing promontory of the Mount Morris woods, at the point where, borne forward on inside rock, they most nearly approached the river. A rapture of strength could be felt in the rising tree trunks rooted gripping the slope, and in the stretch of the boughs; and there travelled through the layered, lit, shaded, thinning and crossing foliage, and was deflected downward onto the laurels, a breathless glory. In the hush the dead could be imagined returning from all the wars; and, turning the eyes from arch to arch of boughs, from ray to ray of light, one knew some expectant sense to be tuned in to an unfinished symphony of love.

The seeming of this to be for ever was astonishing–until a leaf fell slowly, veering towards her eyes as though she had brought time with her into the wood.

I’m willing to forgive a novelist a fair amount of opacity and even the occasional bout of tedium if the reward is writing like this.

4 thoughts on “Reading Elizabeth Bowen

  1. Annie May 31, 2011 / 3:33 pm

    I have several of Bowen’s books on my shelves but I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never read any of them. Each must have been bought after reading something like this and thinking that I really ought to explore her work without actually having anything to propel me forward. Perhaps I should choose one of them as my next book club selection. I’ll raise the possibility on Monday and see what others think.


  2. Mel u May 31, 2011 / 10:28 pm

    Bowen’s best short stories are set in the WWII years in London. She was an air raid warden during WWII and walked the streets of London making sure all the lights were out in her assigned area-She said she never felt more alive than during the time of the Blitz-I have read four Bowen novels -including this one-and her collected short stories-the consensus seems to be that her short stories are her best work-

    I think her short stories are a great treasure-I hope in time to read all of her novels-

    I really liked your post a lot and thank you for the wonderful quotes


  3. Rohan Maitzen June 1, 2011 / 2:15 pm

    Thanks, Mel u: I will definitely look for the short stories!


  4. Rohan June 2, 2011 / 5:35 pm

    A quick update: when I was at the library searching out her essays, I also got a volume of her stories, which I will post about as I read along. Thanks again for the tip! I think I’ll start with the war ones.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.