Gone in the blink of an eye: Elizabeth Bowen’s contingent realism

I’m reading Elizabeth Bowen for the first time and finding it a slow-going but exhilarating experience – perhaps the closest comparison, in terms of necessary application to the page, is Javier Marías, someone else who won’t be rushed, whose paragraphs flow like dark syrup, not clear water.

One of the things that has most struck me – and that is very different from Marías – is the utter contingency of Bowen’s descriptions. Things are always shown in the light of the moment, not with any definiteness; so much so that you’d almost think that, were you to glance away from the page, and back again, the words on it would have changed, with the movement of a cloud across the sun, or the bough of a tree across a window.

As such, she is working very much against received ideas of ‘realism’ in prose writing, against what Henry James called “solidity of specification”. There is no solidity here; everything is always on the point of dissolution – and this sense of unreality is surely no accident; Bowen extends it to her characters:

The sun had been going down while tea had been going on, its chemically yellowing light intensifying the boundary trees. Reflections, cast across the lawn into the lounge, gave the glossy thinness of celluloid to indoor shadow. Stella pressed her thumb against the edge of the table to assure herself this was a moment she was living through – as in the moment before a faint she seemed to be looking at everything down a darkening telescope. Having brought the scene back again into focus by staring at window-reflections in the glaze of the teapot, she dared look again at Robert, seated across the table, between his nephew and niece.

Obviously the syntax is a brake on understanding; Bowen seems fusty and old-fashioned in her sentences, leaping back over Virginia Woolf towards the likes of James, even when what is being broached in those sentences – the sheer ephemerality of self-consciousness – is as modern as anything by Woolf. Stella (the main character of The Heat of the Day) has to steady herself by looking at the reflections of the windows caught in the glaze of the teapot before she can dare to look at her lover. Why ‘dare’? Well, because she’s scared that when she looks for him, where he was sitting only a moment before, he will have disappeared, sparked out of existence.

By concentrating on the play of light and shade, rather than the objects in the room, Bowen is even moving beyond the “useless details” that Roland Barthes cites as guarantee of a narrative’s realism in his analysis of ‘the reality effect’. His example is Flaubert’s barometer, which unlike the piano (bourgeois) and pile of cartons (chaotic) denotes nothing symbolic or contextual, but is just there. The objects in Bowen are scarcely ‘there’ at all.

A couple of pages on, Robert takes Stella upstairs to his old room in the family house, where his mother and sister have covered a wall with framed photographs of him, and they look at them together, Stella and Robert.

She put the picture back on its nail, and again looked round – this time at the narrow glacial bed, which, ends and all, had been draped in a starched white cover: in the neo-Sheraton book trough beside the bed the books gave the impression of being gummed together in some sort of secretion from their disuse. On the high dressing-chest, monogrammed backs of brushes stood high on their parching bristles. Everything was dustless; new air with all its perils came in now – he had opened a window. She exclaimed : ‘Robert, this room feels empty!’

‘It could not feel emptier than it is. Each time I come back again into it I’m hit in the face by the feeling that I don’t exist – that I not only am not but never have been. So much so that it’s extraordinary coming in here with you.’

‘But what were you doing then – and then – and then? ’ she asked, pointing from photograph to photograph. ‘Or at any rate, who was doing what you seem to have done?’

‘You may ask. I not only have no idea now but must have had even less idea at the time. Me clawing at that fur rug as a decently arranged naked baby seems no more senseless, now, than me smirking over that tournament cup, or in shorts on the top of a rock with Thompson, or outside the church as an usher at Amabelle’s wedding, or collaring Ernie’s labrador, or at Kitzbuhl or with Decima or that picnic hamper or Desmond’s horse…’

‘ – Still, those must once have been moments.’

‘Imitation ones. If to have gone through motions ever since one was born is, as I think now, criminal, here’s my criminal record. Can you think of a better way of sending a person mad than nailing that pack of his own lies round the room where he has to sleep ?’

This is as clear a statement as you could want (if you wanted your statements to come obliquely, through fiction) of the immateriality of the ‘self’ and its lack of continuity through time. ‘Who was doing what you seem to have done?’ Who were we in those photos we paste into albums – even though we don’t anymore. That’s one of the changes that digital photography is working on us: the point of taking a photograph is not to have physical evidence, in the future, that we were somewhere, with someone, doing something, but to fix the moment, and the person, into the imaginative narrative of our life through the fact of taking the photo – we’ll look at the image, briefly, on the screen of our phone, and maybe upload it when we get home, but we’ll probably never look at it again.

The act of taking a photo, on a smartphone, has become one with the gesture, familiar to anyone older than, say, 20, of pretending to take a photo of someone by holding up a hand to the face, carrying an imaginary camera, squinting with one eye and then ‘pressing down’ the index finger while making a clicking sound with your mouth.



  1. Pingback: A fresh vision of hell, the old dead scanning the new | Tiny Camels is Jonathan Gibbs
  2. Max Cairnduff

    There’s an interesting artificiality to the dialogue. Nobody speaks as Robert does in those passages, he speaks as a character in a novel. Do you think that’s a deliberate stylistic choice, a step away from realism in a broader context of the novel’s ambitions, or is it more a Jamesian mannered quality to the dialogue?

    I’m assuming given you’re quoting it you think it works in context. I mention that as normally the question that would interest me would not be is it intended (I’m not a fan of trying to analyse authorial intent, and don’t regard it as terribly relevant as a rule), but does it work?

  3. Jonathan Gibbs

    I agree it’s unnatural. I like it for what it’s saying, certainly, rather than how it’s saying. It would be interesting to compare to, say, Jean Rhys, whose dialogue – without running to get a copy – MUST be more ‘naturalistic’ than this. Yes, he is like a character in a novel… but then if you’ve read the novel (I can’t remember if you said you had) then artificiality is very much central to Robert’s character!

  4. Max Cairnduff

    I seem to remember Jean Rhys as seeming very naturalistic, but then her brilliance is somehow invisible on the page and just reveals itself slowly as you read.

    The what it’s saying is interesting definitely, as you draw out. Have you read anything more by her?

    • Jonathan Gibbs

      No I’ve not read anything else, though I now have in my hand The Death of the Heart (Penguin, 1962, with a lovely Paul Hogarth illustration) courtesy of Kirkdale Books. This is the one that people seem to be pushing me towards.

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