Friday, April 30, 2010

The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen

In January I read an extremely positive review of Elizabeth Bowen's short fiction in a 1930s New Yorker magazine. Unable to find any of her short stories at the time, I instead read "The Heat of the Day," which I found tedious in its obsessive examination of people's thought processes. In short, I was impressed by her approach and her zeal but I found the book extremely annoying.

Now, after a long slog, I'm finishing off "The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen," which apparently contains all of the short fiction she ever wrote...and let me tell you, she wrote a lot. Many of these stories were ones that the New Yorker reviewer raved about. How has it been?

Complete collections of a prolific writer's short fiction should come with a big warning, which unfortunately I know I'd disregard anyway: "Do not read all these stories in a row. They were not meant to be read this way. They previously appeared in diverse periodicals and smaller collections. You have been warned."

So I'm warning you: just as the complete short fiction of Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges can drive you insane, so can the complete short fiction of Elizabeth Bowen. Not because it's BAD -- it's brilliant, in fact -- but just because there's too much of it.

And like the complete works of ANY writer I found myself noticing the trends in her work, most particularly:
  • The trauma of moving to different houses, particularly among the upper classes. Her characters suffer the sale of the ancestral homes and the purchasing of newer, awkward, unpleasant homes which turn out of have sweaty plaster.
  • The trauma of living off another person's charity, especially when the other person isn't charitable and -- in reality -- just keeps people around to traumatize them.
  • The strange boredom of off-season luxury resorts.
  • The thought processes of alienated, troublesome children.
  • Aunts. Everybody's got an aunt who is the most significant secondary character.
These are things that you wouldn't notice if you read her stories occasionally, and they're entirely superficial to the plots themselves, but when you're reading them all in a row it's like "Oh yes, a new house, a strange aunt, now let's get to the heart of it please."

And the hearts of these stories are devastating, especially the ones written during the '20s and '30s. Most of them are about the slow, mundane grind of everyday relationships and the hidden compulsions that modernists so loved to write about. Bowen has a particular ability for troubled children who are so lifelike that you almost want to turn away. The precocious Maria (in the story of the same name) the crying little boy with his ducks (in "Tears, Idle Tears") and the absolutely doomed Hermione (in "The Easter Egg Party") are permanently stuck with me.

Bowen's style isn't one that relies on an all-encompassing statement to make its point; instead, the drama builds and builds through successive examples, leaving you squirming with the terrible, truthful awkwardness of it all. Here's a description of Hermione, viewed through the eyes of a pair of aunts who are trying a last-ditch attempt to integrate her with other children.
She shook hands with a rigid arm, on which all the bracelets jumped. She looked straight at everyone, but from a moody height: what was evident was not just fear or shyness but a desperate, cut-off haughtiness. In her eyes existed a world of alien experience. The jolly, tallish girls with their chubbed hair, the straddling little boys with their bare knees, apt to frown at the grass between their sandshoes, rebounded from that imperious stare. Either she cared too much or she did not care a fig for them -- and in either case they did not know how to meet her.
And that's before things get bad. You see, it's both normal and abnormal, expected and unexpected: it's the odd part of people and everyday life that you try not to look closely at.

Elizabeth Bowen writes almost all of her stories about these situations.

Then there's the other, somewhat less satisfying trend, the one that the New Yorker reviewer had particularly liked: the ghost stories. These appear from out of nowhere in the collection and they disappear just as quickly and bafflingly. Why did Bowen write about ghosts as often as she did?

Well, most of the ghosts are catalysts for the emotional outpourings of her characters, and likewise the reader is uncertain as to whether they're REAL ghosts or not...except in two stories, one of which (Green Holly) is surprisingly gruesome.

Unfortunately Bowen had an occasional tendency to doddle, in which case her longer stories end up in the same vein as "The Heat of the Day," seeming directionless, obsessive, and far too inward-looking. Her writing was at its best at ten pages or less. I found every story that was longer than 15 pages to be virtually unreadable (and believe me, I have a high threshold for this sort of thing).

Rather than tell you to go out and read the whole book (which I don't recommend) or tell you NOT to read her work (which would be a disservice), I suggest you pick up her Collected Stories and only read the ones from the '20s and '30s, and only the shorter ones. If you have a personal interest in the London Blitz then you should read the War-Time stories as well (and at least give "Mysterious Kôr" a try, which harkens back to her best creepy character studies).

If any Elizabeth Bowen fans read this, please let me know which novels YOU would suggest. I have another one lying around someplace but I don't think I can handle it right at the moment.

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