Hotel life.

This week Elizabeth Bowen took me to the Italian Riviera. It was 1927. There, I watched a group of seasoned travellers fritter their lives away in aimless drifting.

The start of the story had promise.

Miss Fitzgerald hurried out of the Hotel into the road. Here she stood still, looking purposelessly up and down in the blinding sunshine and picking at the fingers of her gloves. She was frightened by an interior quietness and by the thought that she had for once in her life stopped thinking and might never begin again.

I was prepared to like Miss Fitzgerald. All kinds of situations were possible. I rarely read the blurb on the back cover. It’s usually either wrong, or gives away key moments. So I had no expectations.

Inside the hotel, Miss Pym responds to the same situation.

She, after a short blank pause of astonishment up in her room, had begun to creep down the stairs warily. She listened; she clung to the banisters – tense for retreat at every turn of the staircase.

Something momentous has happened. Miss Fitzgerald has made a ‘violent exit’ from Miss Pym. She has said something terrible, ‘discharged with such bitterness of finality‘. The phrasing hints at secrets shared in trust, and weaponized in moments of crisis.

What I admire about Bowen is her economy. She moves the story forwards and backwards at the same time.

‘At this crisis of ungovernable agitation Emily (how well they knew each other!) would have taken to the hills. Miss Pym could see plainly her figure stumbling up in the glare towards the shade of the olive-trees, breast to breast with the increasing slope. She must be given a little longer to get away.

If only we could have stayed with these two women. By the second page, though, Mrs Kerr enters. She ‘stood beautifully, balanced either for advance or immobility‘. Who is she? What is she? It’s hard to say.

Though she is a focus of the attention of most characters, we’re not allowed access to her thoughts. Occasionally she tells someone about her emotions, but I’m not sure I always believe her.

Her profile did not commit her: it expressed an ironic indulgence to fashion in the line of a hat-brim, the soft undulation of hair, an earring’s pendulous twinkle, the melting suave lines of a scarf round the throat. Mrs Kerr took fashion in and subdued it and remained herself.

That’s as close as we get. I read on because I trust Bowen. She’d presented me with a group of repressed Brits sharing bathrooms, dining rooms and tennis in a sultry foreign landscape, surely something must break.

Theo Champion (1887 – 1952)

There were moments when I was interested. Passion is suggested and characters behave badly. There was comedy and some farce. But the truth is, I didn’t care. I tried to, but I began to feel that really, Bowen didn’t want that.

The guests at the Italian Villa mostly kept mannered distances from me, as well as each other, even in moments of tension. In our previous meetings, Elizabeth Bowen’s been a wonderful hostess. She’s introduced fascinating people, who’ve shared their joys and heartbreaks, and I’ve been sorry to reach the last pages of their stories.

I began to question whether this disconnect was a problem with me. Was I meant to be so conscious that these characters have too much money and luxury? A lot of literature produced up to this point in the twentieth century focused on the rich and privileged, and I don’t usually complain about it.

There was one exchange that offered an alternative explanation. On a rainy afternoon, as Joan, one of three pretty sisters, is writing a letter, Colonel Duperrier, who is a little younger than her father, starts a conversation about one of the few eligible young men in the hotel.

‘Can’t young Ammering get a job?’

‘No he can’t,’ Joan said defensively. ‘It worries him awfully. The War’s come very hard indeed on our generation. I don’t think people understand a bit.’

‘Perhaps they don’t,’ said Colonel Duperrier, who had also fought.

‘We have to make allowances for ourselves,’ continued Joan. ‘You see, nobody makes them for us. I know young people are always supposed to be fearfully idealistic and that sort of thing, but I suppose we can’t help feeling that, considering how hard things are on us, we aren’t really so bad.’

Perhaps, then, the novel intended me to feel uncomfortable. In this 1927 view life has not changed for the better, for the privileged at any rate. There is an emptiness at the heart of their comfortable lives. Behaviour, sex, class, marriage, careers and education all come under the spotlight.

I stuck it out to the end of the novel, and I’m glad to have read it. But it’s not one I’ll be keeping.

Six degrees of literary separation: from Atonement to Demon Lover.

This week I’m joining in with a reading meme run by Kate, on the booksaremyfavouriteandbest blog. What is a meme? The dictionary says:

an image, video, piece of text, etc, typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.

I’ll let Kate explain:

The meme was inspired by Hungarian writer and poet Frigyes Karinthy. In his 1929 short story, Chains, Karinthy coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’. The phrase was popularised by a 1990 play written by John Guare, which was later made into a film starring Stockard Channing. Since then, the idea that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by just six links has been explored in many ways… And now it’s a meme for readers.

On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

Here are the rules:

6degrees-rulesThis month’s starter-title is, Atonement, by Ian McEwan.  I’m adapting the rules, and creating my chain from short stories.

borden-600x445My first link, is ‘Blind‘, by Mary Borden. I came across it in The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, but it was originally published in 1929.  Blind draws from Borden’s behind-the-lines nursing experiences.  In it, the nurse narrator treats a soldier with a serious head wound.  It reminded me of Atonement so strongly, that I had to skim through the novel again.  Sure enough, Briony Tallis experiences a similar situation, though with contrasting outcome and intention.

Bayswater Omnibus, George William Joy 1895Mary Borden had been a suffragette, so too was Evelyn Sharp.  Link two is her story, ‘In Dull Brown’, written in 1896.  It describes a flirtation between a ‘modern’ working girl, and a professional gentleman.  Imagine yourself into the historical context, and it is a subversive and involving argument about the obstacles faced by respectable women who wished to have a career.

On first glance though, ‘In Dull Brown’ is tame stuff (hence the title), just like, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel‘, by Katherine Mansfield.  I remember reading it when I was about fifteen. I’d heard Mansfield was an amazing writer, but I couldn’t understand the story. Why did it end like that?  What was it saying about the death of their father? Years later I tried again, and found an old, and previously undervalued friend, waiting for me to catch up.

Thinking of loss, and friendship, takes me to ‘Friend of My Youth’ by Alice Munro. The anonymous narrator tells the story of her mother’s relationship with Flora, using letters, dreams and memories.  It pushes us to consider how far we can ever know anyone.

As does, the penultimate title in my chain, Elizabeth Taylor’s, ‘The Letter Writers’. Can a man and a woman be friends without becoming lovers?  Read this one too fast and you’re liable to miss the layers.  It’s subtle, and wry.

My final link involves letters and a former lover, or rather fiancé.  Elizabeth Bowen’s, Demon Lover sends a shiver down my spine every time I return to it.  To say more, would give too much away, you need to read it.  Coincidentally, like a large part of Atonement, it’s set in London, during the second World War.

Six degrees from Atonement and I’m close to the place I started from, where, I wonder would you be?

Thinking about an unconventional romance by Elizabeth Bowen.

BowenscourtI found two Elizabeth Bowen novels in the bargain box at the Oxfam shop this week. Both from the 1950s.  If her short stories were to go by, I was in for a treat.

I opened A World of Love as soon as I got home.  It begins: ‘The sun rose on a landscape still pale with the heat of the day before.’  Hmm, I thought, does that make sense?  It’s a poetic way to describe a heat-wave.

I read on.  ‘There was no haze, but a sort of coppery burnish out of the air lit on flowing fields, rocks, the face of the one house and the cliff of limestone overhanging the river.’ I read slowly, not sure if I liked this, still niggling at that first sentence.

There were three long paragraphs of description, and it was in the same mannered style.  Wallow with me, Bowen seemed to demand. Love the idea of this place as I do.

‘This light at this hour, so unfamiliar, brought into being a new world – painted, expectant, empty, intense.  The month was June, of a summer almost unknown; for this was a country accustomed to late awakenings, to daybreaks humid and overcast.’

A flirtation with the mystical was all very well, but where were the characters? Neither the writing nor the story had hooked me yet and I was on page two.

In her short stories, Bowen’s style was clear and concise.  I hunted down The House in Paris, a novel she published more than twenty years before this one, and found the same clear prose.  A World of Love, then, was the work of a mature writer, someone with a literary reputation, who knew what she was doing.

I decided to persevere.  The main setting, Montefort, was a crumbling manor-house on the edge of a cliff, that may or may not be metaphorical, and was so central to events that it might have been intended as the real focus of the story.

The three principle characters, Jane, the beautiful young daughter of the house, Lilia, her mother, and Antonia, Jane’s aunt, seem to carry equal weight.  The power structure that has existed for all of Jane’s life is about to be challenged, by Jane’s discovery of some letters, written before she was born.

Nothing is explained, but gradually, things are said.  As one character interacted with another, usually acrimoniously, I became aware of hidden depths.  The writing that I found so obstructive forced me to read slowly, and therefore to think, to revise my initial judgements. Could that convoluted syntax be a deliberate ploy? Maybe she intended a resistant reader.

There were lively moments in the dialogue:

Once more Lilia was rallied by that thought.  ‘Well, I don’t mind – but that there’s no place I care to have ices in.  Also, spoiling our dinners.’

‘Mother, one can’t spoil rhubarb.’

But I continued to get annoyed with the deliberate oddities.  Why, ‘Pyramidal the flowers were upon the piano…’?  At one point, Peregrine ‘…vacillated over the rugs and parquet till he stood behind her..‘ I think I understand what she’s trying to convey about his manner of walking, but I would rather she hadn’t.

The rediscovered letters were cleverly played.  As character after character takes control of them, each reveals a fragment of their history and content, and taking temporary ownership brings unlooked for consequences, too.

As usual, I didn’t take proper note of the epigraph before I began reading.  Part of the line Bowen quotes is, ‘There is in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be…’   Wikipedia says that the author, fifteenth century poet-clergyman, Thomas Traherne, meditated on, ‘philosophy, happiness, desire and childhood’.  Yes, I see now that what she created was something fleeting and clever. It was a story of quiet actions, but deep resonances.

Bowen writes of one character, getting off a passenger plane:

His glance ran over the thin crowd, as he slowed down past it, not so much expectantly as with a readiness to be expected, an eagerness to smile could he find the cause.

I think that embodies my experience of this novel.

*Photograph from Bill Hammond, ‘Remembering Elizabeth Bowen at Farahy’