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. Continue reading
July reading: Blackburn, Ridgway
Some months go by and you look at the list of books you’ve read and wonder: how so short? How can I have read so little? The reasons are often dull, though sometimes they do come down to a lack of engagement with the books to hand, sometimes a lack of engagement with the idea itself of reading, or perhaps the idea of reading novels.
After finishing Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child (which I’ll get to below) I picked up and put down Christoph Simon’s Zbinden’s Progress (didn’t grab me at all), Richard Beard’s Lazarus is Dead (oh, I thought, after reading less than two pages, it’s Joseph Heller’s God Knows) and Thierry Jonquet’s Tarantula (as recommended by a detective in Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory… but, my god, the translation is appalling, and the “story of obsession and desire, or power and revenge” more or less the level of any other Sade knock-off). Perhaps I’m jaded. Perhaps I’m read out. Perhaps I’m waiting for August, and the chance to leave London and sit outside a tent or by a pool and really get into a ‘big’, ‘proper’ novel. Continue reading
A short screed against the word ‘heft’
Flicking open a book in a bookshop yesterday I was brought up short by the word ‘heft’. What a foul, pestilent, egregious word that is, I thought. I shuddered and replaced the book. Part of the shudder, I think, is that I recognised the appeal of it, its restrained physicality, the way it codes its silent, domineering sexual vitality within a very bourgeois respect for the objectitude of objects, the thingness of things.
I’m talking about ‘heft’ as an abstract noun, the use of ‘heft’ in fiction to denote a certain relationship not just between a character and the thing they have in their hand (the thing they have in their hand), but between the prose itself and the illusory world it would have you take as real.
It’s the ultimate realist word, a word that makes you feel the weight of the world of the novel in the weight of the word itself – and, of course, oh so cleverly, you have the book in your hand, as you read it, as a kind of promissory note, or guarantee. The word is underwritten by the very object, this codex, that carries it. If you’re reading this on a computer monitor, the word ‘heft’ has no such physiological back-up; on a mobile phone, a little; but if you were reading it in a book, in a novel – especially if you were reading it in a paperback of a certain size – then it would carry with it a certain thrill, almost synaesthetic in its exactitude.
‘Heft’. It’s a good Anglo-Saxon word. The OED has it as probably deriving from ‘heave’ (on the analogy ‘cleave/cleft’, ‘weave/weft’) which only reinforces my suspicion that there is something sexual about the word: Continue reading
March reading: The seduction styles of Gale, Le Carre, Sebald
March has been a strange month for reading. It looks like not a lot got read, but there was plenty of Adorno and Benjamin and DeLillo, mostly in bits and pieces, that’s just not going to get a look-in on this blog. From last month I’m glad to say I finished Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature – a slim, wondrous book, that I was thrilled to be able to pass on to my brother-in-law, who’s about to enter that strange second world of parenthood – and I was equally thrilled to read Just William’s Luck’s review of Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits, which I’ll be looking out when I’m in the US next month. Together these two books make up what must be the totality of that minor sub-genre Intelligent Dad-Lit. Any other contenders, let me know.
Reviewing-wise, I read Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (for the TLS) and Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man (for the Indy). A sobering pair of authors for someone just having had his own novel sent out to publishers, and seeing the first rejections come back. Here, you might think, is how to write bankable books. Gale’s characters, especially, are delivered up on a plate – so touchable, so knowable, it’s almost fetishistic. People should stop going on about Franzen and McEwan – Gale is today’s realist novelist par excellence, if you take realism to be the strand of literature that sets out, above all, to flatter the bourgeois readership that they, too, have, if not immortal souls, then inviolable selves. Good god, you think: if these characters on the page seem real, then how much more real must I be! (The comeback, of course, being that you only feel real, dear reader, because you’ve been hypnotised into it by all those novels you’ve read.) Continue reading