Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September

It was very interesting and somewhat disorienting reading The Last September so soon after Farrell’s Troubles. On the one hand, they inevitably have a lot in common. On the other hand, you almost wouldn’t know it, they are so different in tone, with Farrell’s novel so dry and yet violent, and Bowen’s so indirect and yet humming with emotional disquiet. Probably because I was better prepared for it, I didn’t find Bowen’s prose as difficult as I did with The Heat of the Day. The Last September is 20 years earlier, too, so perhaps Bowen was still discovering how she wanted her sentences to work – or what kind of (or how much!) work she wanted them to be for her readers. Still, they have the same tendency to break up or wander away before coming back around to their main parts, and as in the later novel, that sense of interference between our attention and the point prevents us from imagining that the point is, itself, in any way direct or obvious.

The title evokes a moment,  and that’s how the whole novel feels, poised on the edge of something. Lois, whose novel it mostly is, is poised on the edge of adulthood: it’s her last September as a girl, though at the same time she is already not a girl even though she hasn’t defined herself, or claimed her identity, as a woman. Those around her impede her development, offering her no meaningful guidance into what it would mean for her, or could look like for her, to move beyond her current unformed, unsettled self. “What they never see,” she says near the end, “is, that I must do something.” That desire to claim an occupation, even as she cannot see what it might be, puts in her in good company: inevitably, I thought of Dorothea (“What could she do, what ought she to do?”). In some ways Lois’s situation seems even worse than Dorothea’s, despite her being more modern, because Lois has not even an imaginative ideal to motivate her. Though Dorothea’s yearnings and fantasies of a noble life only get her in trouble, at least she has a sense of nobility, an aspiration. I guess that’s part of what marks her, and her novel, as Victorian.

Lois’s world too is poised on the brink: the novel is suffused with the threat of violence, but because it is kept so much more on the periphery than in Troubles, it is more shocking when it finally intrudes unequivocally. The tensions run throughout, and reports of “incidents” trickle through, but Lady Naylor’s attitude explains how the novel will treat them: “From all the talk, you might think almost anything was going to happen, but we never listen. I have made it a rule not to talk, either.” Neither not listening nor not talking is a useful or realistic strategy, of course, and inevitably the margins become the center of the story, though Bowen holds them off until nearly the very end.

I was surprised to find myself chuckling at many points in the novel. I don’t remember finding any humor in The Heat of the Day (though it’s possible I just wasn’t attuned to it). The absurdity of the denial exhibited by some of the characters provides from some wry amusement, but there were also moments that made me think of Wilde. “We must seem ridiculous to you, over here,” Lady Naylor says to young Gerald Lesworth, “the way we are all related”:

“Topping, I think,” said Gerald.

“Oh, I don’t know! Now you lucky people seem to have no relations at all; that must feel so independent.”

“I have dozens.”

“Indeed? All in Surrey?”

“Scattered about.”

“That sounds to me, of course,” remarked Lady Naylor, pulling her gloves off brightly, “exceedingly restless.”

The prose also, while occasionally convoluted to a point past patience, very frequently gave me a frisson of readerly pleasure – on nearly every page I marked a passage or sentence that I lingered over because I wanted to, not because I had to to make sense of it. A couple of examples:

Recollections of Laura were now wiped for him from the startlingly green valley, leaving the scene dull. Not a turn of the rocks with the river, not a break-down of turf along the brink, not the Norman keep with perishing corners (where they leaned and quarrelled till Laura had wished aloud it would fall on them) gave back to him what they had taken of that eroding companionship. He and she might never have come here; they were disowned. The sharp rocks breaking out from the turf, the impassive speed of the water, were naked and had to be seen as themselves, in some relation excluding him; like country seen from the train, without past or future. And, having given proof of her impotence to be even here, Laura shrank and drew in her nimbus, leaving only – as in some rediscovered diary of a forgotten year – a few cryptic records, walks, some appointments kept, letters received and posted.

Bowen is brilliant here, I think, about the complicated way memory and association, psychology and emotion, affect our relationship to landscape. And here’s a little bit that is more simply poetic:

An escape of sunshine, penetrating the pale sky in the south-west, altered the room like a revelation. Noiselessly, a sweet-pea moulted its petals on to the writing-table, leaving a bare pistil. The pink butterfly flowers, transparently balancing, were shadowed faintly with blue as by an intuition of death.

 

‘She illuminated everything’: Bowen on Virginia Woolf

Elizabeth Bowen to Leonard Woolf, April 8, 1941:

Dear Leonard,

It was very good of you to write to me, as and when you did. I do thank you. I have been in Ireland for the last three weeks, so your letter, sent on from Clarence Terrace, reached me here last Saturday. I had not heard anything at all till the Thursday before that, when someone told me what they had heard on the wireless. English papers take nearly a week to come. It meant a good deal, then, to get your letter. You and Viriginia and Rodmell had, for those two days, hardly been out of my thoughts–not by day and not much by night. I had begun to imagine what I learned from you to be true–that she had feared her illness was coming back.

You said not to answer your letter, and above all I don’t want to trouble you with words now. And it is no time to speak of my own feeling. As far as I am concerned, a great deal of the meaning seems to have gone out of the world. She illuminated everything, and one referred the most trivial things to her in one’s thoughts. To have been allowed to know her and love her is a great thing.

(quoted from The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Hermione Lee)

‘Life would be insufficient’: Sampling Bowen’s Essays

I couldn’t find Bowen’s “Notes on Writing a Novel” online so I went to the actual library to get it (funny how rare this has become!). It turns out to be kind of rambling and not particularly illuminating, at least for my thinking about The Heat of the Day, but I have been having fun browsing the volume I found it in, The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen (selected and edited by Hermione Lee). After the careful convolutions of the prose in The Heat of the Day, it’s interesting how direct and frank her critical writing is (including about her own work). This confirms, of course, that her fictional style is deliberate, purposeful. Here are some samples:

From “Out of a Book,” about the influence of childhood reading:

Readers of my kind were the heady ones, the sensationalists–recognizing one another at sight we were banded together inside a climate of our own. Landscapes or insides of houses or streets or gardens, outings or even fatigue duties all took the cast of the book we were circulating at the time; and the reading made of us an electric ring. Books were story or story-poetry books: we were unaware that there could be any others.

Some of the heady group remained wonderfully proof against education: having never graduated these are the disreputable grownups who snap up shiny magazines and garner and carry home from libraries fiction that the critics ignore. They read as we all once read–because they must: without fiction, either life would be insufficient or the winds from the north would blow too cold. They read as we all read when we were twelve; but unfortunately the magic has been adulterated; the dependence has become ignominious–it becomes an enormity, inside the full-sized body, to read without the brain. Now the stories they seek go on being children’s stories, only with sex added to the formula; and somehow the addition queers everything. These readers, all the same, are the great malleable bulk, the majority, the greater public–hence best-sellers, with their partly artful, partly unconscious play on a magic that has gone stale. The only above-board grown-up children’s stories are detective stories.

From her ‘Afterword’ to Woolf’s Orlando:

We, in our twenties during the ’20s, were not only the author’s most zealous readers, but, in the matter of reputation, most zealous guardians. Her aesthetic became a faith; we were believers. . . . We regarded [Orlando] as a setback. Now, thirty-two years later, I wonder why this should have been so. . . .

Most of us had not met Virginia Woolf; nor did we (which may seem strange) aspire to. She did not wish to be met. Her remoteness completed our picture of her, in so far as we formed a picture at all. . . . We visualized her less as a woman at work than as a light widening as it brightened. When I say, ‘She was a name to us,’ remember (or if you cannot remember, try to imagine) what a name can be, surrounded by nothing but the air of heaven. Seldom can living artist have been so–literally–idealized.

Malevolent autumn of ’28–it taunted us with the picture of the lady given to friends, to the point of fondness, and jokes, to within danger of whimsicality. . . . What we loathed was literary frivolity. So this was what Virginia Woolf could be given over to, if for an instant we took our eye off her–which, to do us justice, we seldom did? . . .

That Orlando was beautiful nobody doubted: what we now see is that it is important–and why.

It was important to the writer. She was the better, one feels certain, for writing it; in particular, for doing so when she did. More irresponsible than the rest of her work in fiction, it has the advantage of being less considered and more unwary. This book corresponds with a wildness in her, which might have remained unknown of–unless one knew her. This was a rebellion on the part of Virginia Woolf against the solemnity threatening to hem her in. Orlando is, among other things, rumbustious; it is one of the most high-spirited books I know. . . .

I have a theory–unsupported by anything she said to me, or so far as I know, to anyone–that Virginia Woolf’s writing of Orlando was a prelude to, and in some way rendered possible, her subsequent writing of The Waves, 1931. Outwardly, no two works of fiction could be more different; yet, did the fantasy serve to shatter some rigid, deadening, claustrophobic mould of so-called ‘actuality’ which had been surrounding her? In To the Lighthouse (coming before Orlando), she had reached one kind of perfection. This she could not surpass; therefore, past it she could not proceed. In Orlando, delicacy gives way to bravura, to rhetoric. It was a breaking-point and a breathing space at the same time, this fantasy. She returned to the novel, to The Waves, with–at least temporarily–a more defiant attitude to the novel’s ‘musts.’

Finally (for now, at least!), from the thought-provoking comparison of Victorian and Edwardian fiction that leads off her review of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s Elders and Betters:

The great Victorian novelists did not complete their task, their survey of the English psychological scene. One by one they died; their century ended, a decade or two before its nominal close. then–as after one of those pauses in conversation when either exhaustion or danger is felt to be in the air–the subject was changed.

There came, with the early 1900s, a perceptible lightening, if a decrease in innocence: the Edwardian novelists were more frivolous, more pathetic. their dread of dowdiness and longwindedness was marked; content to pursue nothing to its logical finish, they reassured their readers while amusing them, and restored at least the fiction of a beau monde. They were on the side of fashion: to shine, for their characters, was the thing. Competent, nervous, and in their time daring, they redecorated the English literary haunted house. Their art was an effort to hush things up. Curiously enough, in view of that, almost all the novels I was forbidden to read as a child were contemporary, which was to say, Edwardian. They were said to be too ‘grown-up.’ (To the infinitely more frightening Victorians, no ban attached whatsoever: a possible exception was Jane Eyre.) When, therefore, I did, as I could hardly fail to, read those Edwardian novels, I chiefly got the impression of being left out of something enjoyable. Here was life no longer in terms of power, as I as a child had seen it, but in terms of illusion for its own sake, of successful performance, of display.

Even aside from the foolish pleasure I always get from the word “rumbustious” (I think A. S. Byatt uses it to describe George Eliot somewhere, which I love for the sheer surprise of that!) there’s a lot here that makes me want to jump into conversation with her. This is the same effect that, say, Elizabeth Hardwick’s criticism has: not that I’m persuaded to her view of things, but that her view is well-informed, specific, and a little unexpected, so I want to know more about it, maybe argue about it (is it true that the Victorians’ primary “task,” in their fiction, is ” a survey of emotion as an aggressive force, an account of the battle for power that goes on in every unit of English middle-class life”?).

Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day

‘Atmospheric’ and ‘evocative’ seem to be popular adjectives for The Heat of the Day. I agree that the book is both of those things; in my last post I highlighted a passage, for instance, that struck me as especially powerful at summoning up not so much the look as the feeling of wartime London, and cumulatively I think the whole novel brings to us the fraught, anxious, oppressive yet inarticulate sense of a world under siege literally but also morally and psychologically.

It’s that shift from the literal world into something intangible and abstract that finally interested me the most about this novel. Bowen’s style overall is very intrusive, by which I don’t mean that her narrator is intrusive (though occasionally that is true too) but that at really no point in the novel could I lose myself in it. The plot is too minimal and develops too slowly to generate suspense the way you might expect of a war novel centered on an accusation of spying for the enemy. And the emotional elements of the novel, though very intense, were too indirect or intellectualized to prompt laughter or tears (though there was the occasional wry chuckle). Throughout, the syntax is difficult and obtrudes on our awareness, so that we have to know at all times that we are reading, and we have to work pretty hard at it, too.

I often suggest to my students that they look for clues about how to read a novel from what the novel itself is doing or emphasizing or sounding like. Though it was not necessarily pleasurable working my way through Bowen’s sentences (though sometimes it was intensely so–again, see previous post!), they were never truly impenetrable and often yielded to slower reading and closer attention. Working through them came to seem to me like part of the point of the book, which is very much about what people are not able to say, or can’t (or won’t) say directly–those layers of meaning behind seemingly innocuous actions and phrases, for instance, but also the ever-present risk of mistaking glib fluency for honesty and accuracy, surfaces for sufficient truths. At every moment, after all, there are all the things you feel but can’t articulate, and maybe aren’t even conscious of yourself: I was reminded of Woolf’s comments about post-Victorian novelists becoming “aware of something that can’t be said by the character himself.” One effect of the war, too, is that it makes open emotion, as well as open conversation, more difficult, potentially even dangerous; to the general human difficulty of understanding and articulating our experience, then, is added the particular pressure of this historical moment. This is the murky verbal territory which this novel seems to be navigating. Wishing it were clearer and simpler is a bit like wishing both life and feelings were clearer and simpler, or at least that the novelist had undertaken to clarify and simplify it for us. There are novelists who do this, and render complexity with superb lucidity. George Eliot comes to mind (I know, when does she not, for me?!)–but Bowen is obviously not one of these, and for reasons that I’m sure have to do both with her place in literary history and with her individual theory of the novel. (I have been trying to get my hands on her essay “Notes on Writing a Novel”: from the snippets I’ve seen, it is quite illuminating about her aesthetic principles.)

When the narrator is speaking in The Heat of the Day–or, since there isn’t really a particularized narrator, when we get direct exposition–the language tends to clears up, limning in contexts or proposing frameworks for understanding the characters’ situations. I thought this passage, describing Stella and Robert as they sit at their coffee, was particularly suggestive about why the book has the components and structure that it does:

But they were not alone, nor had they been from the start, from the start of love. Their time sat in the third place at their table. They were the creatures of history, whose coming together was of a nature possible in no other day–the day was inherent in the nature. Which must have been always true of lovers, if it had taken till now to be seen. The relation of people to one another is subject to the relation of each to time, to what is happening. If this has not been always felt–and as to that who is to know?–it has begun to be felt, irrevocably. On from now, every moment, with more and more of what had been ‘now’ behind it, would be going on adding itself to the larger story. Could these two have loved each other better at a better time? At no other would they have been themselves. . . .

Not just the choices Robert and Stella face are meaningless outside of time, but also their very identities: there is no timeless, universal ‘Stella’ who has to figure out what to do about her suspicion that her lover is a spy, but only Stella in 1940, or 1942, or 1944, her thoughts and feelings and experiences interwoven with, generated by, “what is happening.” In order to appreciate Stella’s actions, we have to accumulate as much as possible about her thoughts and feelings but also about the environment in which they are moving, or by which they are being shaped. There’s a literal sense here, again: the whole issue of leaking secrets to the enemy can arise only during a conflict. But there are more diffuse issues here too, I think: the relationship between our personal and political loyalties, the nature of our identification with our country, our expectations of family, are all things we take for granted but could (probably should) historicize. Victorian novels are sometimes described as historical novels about their present. I think Bowen is doing something similar except that she has zoomed in so that both the history and the present with which she is concerned are tiny moments magnified–and not, again, explained with the magisterial authority of her 19th-century predecessors. George Eliot’s characters are often confused, her readers rarely. Here, I think we too are stymied about just what it is, exactly, that Stella should do once Robert admits his guilt. Interestingly, her action is inaction: she does not try to stop him from heading out by the roof, even though she clearly understands his intentions.

I was intrigued by the abstract way in which Robert’s treason is represented. Again, I am trying to take my cues from the novel to find the significance of Bowen’s choices. It would, surely, have been easy enough for her to spell out his motives much more clearly, specifically, and politically. As it is, I think the words ‘German’ or ‘Nazi’ are never used–only ‘the enemy’ or ‘them’ (or ‘us,’ depending on who’s speaking). He makes a vague, almost Carlylean argument about people’s inability to handle their freedom (arguably, the portrayal of English society in the novel does little to defend democracy against his careless dismissal):

Tell a man he’s free and what does that do to him but send him trying to dive back into the womb? Look at it happening: look at your mass of ‘free’ suckers, your democracy–kidded along from the cradle to the grave. . . . Do you suppose there’s a single man of mind who doesn’t realize he only begins where his freedom stops? One in a thousand may have what to be free takes–if so, he has what it takes to be something better, and he knows it: who could want to be free when he could be strong? Freedom–what a slaves’ yammer!

He associates his disaffection with the retreat from Dunkirk: “It was enough to have been in action once on the wrong side. Step after step to Dunkirk. . . That was the end of that war–army of freedom queuing up to be taken off by pleasure boats.” But his complaints never distill into specific political statements, and they are never attached, either, to political or historical contexts the way, say, Lord Darlington’s fascist sympathies are in The Remains of the Day. So, I conclude, taking my cue as much from what Bowen does not include as from what she does, the spy plot is something of a thematic feint (though on this I would be happy to hear other views): it’s not betraying Allied secrets to the Nazis that’s the issue but a more general problem of betrayal or loyalty, a question of how or why we form the loyalties we do (in Robert’s case, it seems to be something more visceral or temperamental than political, though I thought he remained too enigmatic as a character for us, or Stella, to really understand his motives).

I have a lot of questions remaining about the book, about aspects that interested me and seemed significant but that on this one reading did not settle into patterns. There’s the side plot, for instance, about Louie and Connie: why is it there? I ended the book thinking Louie was there partly as a witness to the other story, but the letter Connie writes about her pregnancy also creates a thematic resonance, about lives thrown off kilter by the war and people affected in unexpected, maybe inexplicable, ways: “It is no use,” she writes, “for you or me to judge, you simply have to allow for how anything is going to take a person, as to which there is no saying till you see.” That certainly describes the other characters, so maybe there are further parallels, or maybe the juxtaposition illuminates the central issues of love and loyalty in ways I didn’t pick up on. What does Mount Morris bring, to Roderick, who to Stella’s surprise takes so seriously his role as master of the house? Is it the continuity that matters, given the great uncertainty stalking the rest of his life and indeed much of the wider world? Is it nostalgia for identities that are rooted in one place? Harrison, for instance, is unsettling in part because nobody knows where he actually lives. What about Harrison? There’s something so morally unpleasant about the way he tries to blackmail Stella into intimacy, but in the end he seems steadier, more admirable, if just as enigmatic, as Robert–whose name (in a nice little doppelganger-ish twist) it turns out he shares. What about Stella herself, living under the shadow of a scandal we learn was always founded in error, ending up in scandal again after Robert takes the roof exit from her “luxury” flat? Why does the knowledge (again, imperfect) that Stella is “not virtuous” prove so inspirational to Louie? Finally, for now, what about the war itself? On another reading, I would want to track more carefully the convergence of major events in the war with the more minor cataclysms on the home front. At the every end of the book we get an unusually specific review of military events, from the German capitulation at Stalingrad to “the Russian opening of their great leafy Orel summer drive,” on into 1944, “The Year of Destiny,” and the D-Day landings. We sit in Stella’s new apartment during the “Little Blitz,” and the guns, instead of being threatening, buy her time in the conversation–her relationship to the war itself seems to have changed. And yet it’s Louie who actually ends the novel, watching not the bombers, which “invisibly high up, had droned over” a little before, but swans, “disappearing in the direction of the west.” Is that a hint that the unnatural condition of war is coming to an end, or just another reminder of the omnipresence of time?

This was my first experience reading Elizabeth Bowen. It wasn’t easy, and I was glad for the external motivation of my book group meeting, which helped me make concentrating on the novel a priority. (Unfortunately, I was the only one at the meeting who had finished the novel, which is one reason I still have so many questions lingering! Please, Bowen readers out there, help me out!) The Heat of the Day does not seem to be considered Bowen’s greatest novel: from what I’ve read, just poking around the internet, people seem to identify that as The Death of the Heart. I’m interested enough that I think I’ll look around for a copy of that. In the meantime, it’s back to Testament of Friendship, which has been on hold for too long.

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.