Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Short Stories Should Be Required Reading

Elizabeth Bowen is the kind of writer who teaches us how to write short stories. Born and raised in Ireland, when Bowen married, she moved to London where she lived and wrote before, during and after the Blitz. Her settings of half-bombed out homes of the aristocracy, small London flats and families getting by in their survivalist modes, still taking tea at four o’clock, in the suburbs and in the countryside merely indicate what has happened and what may take place at any tense moment around the clock. Her beautiful landscapes hardly evoke war but rather burst forth in light and color, nature, flowers, trees and life.

Bowen’s characters are very English. Their thoughts and dialogues rollick along in quick, cheeky cadences. These are often ordinary settings made rich with Bowen’s sumptuous depictions. Sunday Afternoon takes place in the Irish countryside outside Dublin. Henry is from London on a short visit after having lost his flat and everything in it to the Blitz. His aristocratic friends living in Ireland do not know quite how to feel about the bombings. In one of Bowen’s many Jamesian moments, out on some green, sloping lawn, one of the picnickers says, “Henry’s not sure… he looks pontifical.” The writer adds to the unsettling atmosphere by creating a beautifully turbulent milieu out of the landscape.

Another cold puff came through the lilac, soundlessly knocking the blooms together…
a breath of coldness fretted the edge of things.

Henry, slow to voice his quick thoughts, ruminates to himself: With nothing left but our brute courage, we will be nothing but brutes.

He seems duty-bound on returning to London. Bowen is a romantic; the strain of little romances electrifies nearly every story. Love does not stop for war. Hardly in an amorous frame of mind, will Henry be paired with Mrs. Vesey, who is older, or with the very pretty and spirited Maria, who is much younger and inexperienced? Maria thinks that London will be an adventure with heroes.
She looked secretively at her wristwatch. Henry wondered what the importance of time could be.
Mysterious Kor is said to be among Bowen’s very best short stories. Something of the supernatural enchants this tale, with its moon and its Mysterious Kor, a forsaken, possibly imaginary place, alluring the three main characters. On this night, the blackout is ineffectual, as there is a full, bright moon shining down on all of London.

London looked like the moon’s capital … from the sky, presumably, you could see every slate in the roofs, every whitened kerb, every contour of the naked winter flowerbeds in the park; and the lake, with its shining twists and tree-darkened islands would be a landmark for miles, yes, miles, overhead.

From the Underground, a young couple emerges into the shadowed, moonlit streets, arm-in-arm. Arthur is a soldier and Pepita is his diminutive yet headstrong girlfriend. They seemed to have no other destination but each other.

The atmosphere of the quiet, illuminated night is heightened by small, singular acts, like a woman peeking out and calling her cat timidly, a clock striking midnight and resounding in the dazzling distance.

Pepita’s roommate, Callie, has not yet met Arthur and she anticipates him as if she were in love. She goes to bed, tired of waiting up for them, and the moonlight takes on a new significance. Diverse and brilliant light pervades Callie’s room. Searchlights protecting the city move across the spaces and crevices not covered by the blackout curtains, and moonlight shines-on invincible and powerful.

Before sunrise, Callie hears Arthur lighting a cigarette. She steps out of her room, still glowing, it seemed, from the moonlight that infused her as she slept. They have a quiet, friendly chat in the otherworldly shadows of her living room, and Arthur tells her about Mysterious Kor. Callie asks, “the core of what?” She has never heard of it. Arthur construes that Kor is where Pepita goes when she sleeps so soundly. When Callie tells him that Pepita does not always sleep so soundly, he remarks, “then she doesn’t always make it”. Their conversation eventually trails off, and Arthur asks Callie, “So, how’s your moon?” She marvels over the familiarity, ‘her moon.’

“Not so strong,” she says.

Yet, Callie’s naïve question to Arthur, “The core of what?” is meaningful. This mysterious place, Mysterious Kor, seems to be at the core of something large… as large as the human spirit or humanity. One interpretation suggests that Elizabeth Bowen’s three characters are actually in Purgatory working out the unfinished business of their previous lives when they were killed in the Blitz.

Other stories, not part of the War Years, are among my favorites: the precision of Ann Lee’s, the fearlessness of The Parrot, and The Storm, which is a bit of a ghost story about an English couple who travel to Rome. The story begins with some harsh bickering, a startling lover’s quarrel:

“Don’t come near me,” she said, turning sharply. “I hate you! Why do you keep on following me about?”

The husband takes this in stride. He is used to her minor explosions. However, their histrionics have been overheard by three Danish girls who sit by the fountain taking pictures of each other. Here the writer switches perspectives, first from the wife’s point of view, then the husband’s and finally from the perspective of the Danish travelers. “The English lady seemed to be finished scolding her husband.”

The couple is exploring a villa, and as they argue a wind seems to be following them through the many rooms, terraces and the chapel. She has become so annoyed by her husband that she tries to lose him, but then this wind harasses her. She is convinced that the wind is the ghosts of nuns. Then she panics when she realizes her husband is nowhere to be seen. It is a story of emotions, of power-struggles – who can win-over whom? And finally, of people who need each other despite resentments great and small.

Bowen uses powerful personification of windows, the sky, the air and rooms, not only to create a beautiful, spellbinding landscape but also to heighten suspense and intrigue.

The air was warm and tense, stretched so taut that it quivered… forms assumed a menacing distinctness, blade-like against the architecture of the clouds… the insistence of the fountains… the dark room within was attentive… little bald, square windows, lashless eyes staring out on to the darkening sky.

The writer’s best stories portray her connection with nature and landscapes, and her brilliance at conveying dialogue and the feelings of adults as well as of children. The stories about children, for example, Charity, The Jungle and The Visitor present extraordinary perception for both the inner and outer dramas that children experience along with their childish and also very mature responses.

The happiness that she had been waiting for all day seemed to have something to do with light behind the trees, the rooks, and the dry chintzy smell of the curtains when she leant back her head against them into the room. Also, there is something very heroic about dangling one’s legs at a height.

– from Charity

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