In the cage: Elizabeth Bowen, First Stories

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), First Stories

My Everyman hardback copy of Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories (2019) runs to 860 pages of fairly small print. This post will therefore focus on the first section – a collection of 14 stories first published as Encounters in 1923, when she was only 24 years old.

The usual approach to consideration of a collection of stories like this is to identify common threads or themes. But each of these stories is a finely crafted entity in its own right. If there are such themes, they’re probably to do with people using plenty of fine-sounding language but failing to communicate – or to articulate what they really mean (if they even know themselves). There’s very little action or plot in the stories; instead we see people gossiping, assessing each other (often not very favourably), scoring points, deflecting, struggling with social expectations.

The first story, ‘Breakfast’, published when Bowen was only 21, is a good example. A man steels himself to join the breakfast group in the house where he’s a paying guest. ‘Behold, I die daily’, are his unspoken thoughts as he descends from his room to join the unsympathetic group already eating. His landlady, the owner of the house, passive-aggressively chides him for being late to the meal, then proceeds to accuse him of profligacy in losing collar-studs – his excuse for his lateness.

The story sets the tone for most of what follows. There’s wit and psychological perception in the portrayal of these sparring characters. Bowen’s modernist approach means there’s a lot of free indirect thought, disconnected or inconclusive musings and dreams, epiphanies and obliquely observed scenes which reveal depths and complexities in the characters that the reader has to work at figuring out. It’s worth the effort. Atmosphere prevails over exposition.

Bowen was born to a wealthy Protestant Irish family. Her mother’s ancestors included a Viscount Powerscourt (a fine estate in Co. Wicklow; I attended a wedding there with Mrs TD some years ago when a relative of hers had his reception in the big house – now an upmarket hotel. Her father as a lad had climbed the rockface behind the waterfall in the grounds).

The author spent her childhood summers at her father’s family home, Bowen Court in Co. Cork, but she lived mostly in England, moving there with her mother permanently in 1907 when her father had a mental breakdown. When her mother died in 1912, when Elizabeth was only 13, she went to live with great-aunts in England. This peripatetic early start to life, and the traumatic events she experienced, seem to have influenced her writing. Another aspect of these stories includes characters who are dislocated, disengaged, unfulfilled. Maybe as a person who was perceived by many in Ireland as not a true Irishwoman, and by the English as a colonial, she felt inclined to write about outsiders, people estranged from those around her.

She conveys the passion and anger felt by a small girl when her mother isn’t home to lavish praise on her for the essay her teacher had read out to her class at school. Her immature instinct is to lash out when the mother finally appears.

There are wives who feel they live in an ‘intolerable cage’, like the woman in ‘The Evil that Men Do -‘. She receives a florid love-letter from a man she’d met at a poetry reading, and with whom she’d shared a bus-ride afterwards. This leaves her in a romantic flutter; she feels she’s lived her life ‘on the defensive’. She doesn’t like her solicitor husband any more, she concludes. He doesn’t even glance at the poetry books she leaves lying around. When she sat gazing at the fire for hours, or out of the window, he never asked her what she was thinking about (T.S. Eliot used a similar trope about the same time). He often left her alone with the children and servants for days on end (the characters in these stories usually have servants and grand houses). She bemoans this solitude, but also embraces it: ‘of course solitude was her only escape and solace.’ She adds this self-consciously poetic thought to the postscript of the letter she’s writing to her effusive admirer.

The story’s conclusion provides an example of Bowen’s capacity for sly humour: the unsentimental, neglectful husband buys his wife a pretty gift, and she’s instantly won over. Her romantic fantasies vanish, and she’ll never know that for fateful reasons her correspondent will never read her letter.

This is not the only story in which a married woman (or one with a selfish, possessive brother) has a third, shadowy man in the background. In ‘The Shadowy Third’ this third person is the late wife of a man whose second wife, as in Rebecca, is uncomfortably aware of this ghostly, possibly better-loved predecessor.

Loneliness is also apparent in the schoolmistress’s life in ‘Daffodils’. She tries to engage with a trio of her girl pupils, inviting them as they pass her house to take tea with her. But she puts them off by berating them for their lack of perception of life or fully ‘seen’ things, symbolised by those Wordsworthian flowers that she’d just bought. ‘Nothing ever comes new to them…or impresses them…Their sentimentality embarrasses me.’ It’s no surprise when they up and leave, grateful to escape this sad woman; they for their part cattily agree the teacher ‘has never lived.’

It’s difficult to convey the range and variety of these exquisite stories. I’ve possibly over-emphasised the connections between them, and their poignancy; there are also many differences, and each story is a vignette in its own right. I particularly liked ‘All Saints’, a story about an eccentric, ‘theatrical’, rather vampish middle-aged woman who leaves a vicar ‘nonplussed’ when she asks if she can donate a stained-glass window to his church: ‘I think coloured windows are so beautiful. They make me feel so religious and good.’ She wants it to be an All Saints window, but her idea of what constitutes a saint is highly unconventional and definitely not Christian. No wonder the vicar is shocked and wrong-footed.

Two novels by Elizabeth Bowen that I’ve posted about left me less than impressed, although I thoroughly enjoyed pre-blog readings of The Heat of the Day (1929) and The Last September (1948). Those two are:

Friends and Relations (1931) HERE

Eva Trout (1968) HERE

Claire Keegan, So Late in the Day

Claire Keegan, So Late in the Day. Faber, 2023

 Earlier this year I posted on Irish author Claire Keegan’s recent novella, Small Things Like These, describing it as ‘intense and profoundly moving’. I’d say the same for So Late in the Day, but in a different way (link HERE). The earlier book is set in the 80s when the Magdalene laundries were still posing as refuges for young women who were classed as sinful or undesirable by their families, but which were far more sinister and dangerous places run by nuns with retribution and exploitation as their prime objective, rather than the charity and loving kindness that was their ostensible mission. This new publication is a short story – less than 50 pages long – and is set in the present, and deals with the end of a relationship.

I approached this with a bit of scepticism, thinking that Faber were taking advantage of the buzz that’s grown around Keegan’s work over the last few years by publishing in hardback something so slight and brief. My suspicions dissipated rapidly.

Very little happens. Cathal finishes work and takes the bus home to spend the weekend alone. As the lonely hours pass, we are given access to his thoughts and preoccupations. It becomes apparent that this was to be his wedding weekend, but his fiancée, Sabine, has called it off ‘so late in the day’. We gradually learn why.

The brilliance of Keegan’s fiction is that so much is shown in very economical, beautifully written prose, with no extraneous explanation or analysis. She trusts her reader to tune in to the subtle implications of what Cathal thinks – or, quite often, pushes away from his thoughts, as he finds it too much like hard work to establish why Sabine behaved as she did, or found his behaviour unacceptable.

He emerges as an emotionally frigid, ungenerous young man. Through a sequence of past events that are sketched out through free indirect thought and oblique, dispassionately narrated scenes, we see how Cathal’s lack of emotional acuity, his tendency to meanness (in the sense of tight-fistedness as well as behaviourally), gradually wore down Sabine’s capacity to turn a blind eye to his shortcomings.

This bland summary doesn’t do justice to the superb poise and restraint with which Keegan pieces together this portrait of a man adrift. He has a vague sense that something is amiss in his character, but finds it easier to fall back on misogynistic, macho attitudes and evasions. To attempt to analyse and explore why this apparently loving relationship was wrecked would require a kind of emotional courage, insight and honesty that Cathal lacks.

Strangely, because perhaps of a few slyly positioned hints about his upbringing, I felt a small twinge of sympathy for him. As a man myself, I guiltily recognised some of those stereotypically dismissive masculine tendencies in myself and many of the men I know.

I’ve found it very hard to say much about this story without giving too much away. It depends almost entirely on its quiet accretion of small details that come together to form an immensely powerful profile of a human being who’s almost lost sight of his humanity. Here’s one example of Keegan’s method; this is Cathal reflecting on an event where his demeanour caused friction between the lovers:

That was part of the trouble: the fact that she would not listen, and wanted to do a good half of things her own way.

It’s no surprise when soon after she moves in with him, Sabine tells him what a female colleague of his had told her over a bottle of Chablis:

A good half of [Irish] men your age just want us to shut up and give you what you want, that you’re spoilt and turn contemptible when things don’t go your way.

When Sabine adds some of the shockingly vile words such men use about women, he dismisses them, saying:

‘Ah, that’s just the way we talk here…It’s just an Irish thing and means nothing half the time.’

That’s the second time the use of ‘half’ reveals all.

In the same post earlier this year where I wrote about Keegan’s Small Things, I also commented on Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait. I’d say that Keegan’s 47 pages represent a more sustaining, artistically successful account of the human condition than O’Farrell’s 438 sprawling pages.

Trollope, Lessard, Keegan, O’Farrell, Mandel

Feb-Mar reading

Another busy month, so here’s a brief look at what I’ve read.

Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now Penguin Classics, 1994. First serialised 1874-75; first book form 1875

I can’t do justice to AT’s longest novel in a brief note, but let’s give a go. The last few years of politics here in the UK, let alone in the USA and beyond, have been pretty unedifying; post-truth, fake news, sleaze. But AT had it all taped in the high Victorian age. Dodgy businessmen speculating and spinning non-existent railways in order to profit on the share flotation – not even having to pretend to build anything. Antics in Parliament. He nails it all brilliantly. The usual Trollopian love interest storylines weave in and out of all these shenanigans: as always, they tend to involve young people looking to marry money and avoid having to actually work. There’s one of the most caddish of his villains, the odious Sir Felix – a morally incontinent philanderer, drone, nightmare son and scary marriage prospect. The political and commercial part is the most satisfying, but AT is a master at manipulating a complex, multi-character plot.

PS Shortly after I finished this novel, the news broke of the appointment, at the recommendation of ex-PM Johnson, of a new chair of the BBC – R. Sharp (apt name). No coincidence that he’d been involved in securing a loan for Johnson. No scandal or sleaze, they insisted. A satirical piece in the Guardian by John Crace has this: [Sharp had been challenged about how corrupt this all looked] ‘Sharp shook his head furiously. The whole point of the establishment was that it covered things up. Look, he said. This is The Way We Live Now. [He and BJ deserved what they got: all on merit.] Society – his society – would demand no less.’

Ariane Lessard, School for Girls QC Fiction, 2022. Translated from the French by Frances Pope. This short novella can be enjoyed in one sustained read. It’s divided into four sections, one for each season, and each short sub-section is named after (and narrated from the pov of) one of the girls at a Canadian convent boarding school that’s nothing like the Chalet School novels.

We hear in free indirect form the experiences of about a dozen of these girls. They’ve developed factions, but the alliances shift, often causing deep cuts (sometimes literally). Adolescence kicks in and their sexuality stirs. Prose is often unpunctuated, febrile and associative, poetic – rather like Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, but spikier. The novella put me in mind of the film Picnic at Hanging Rock: the same sense of impending disaster, the hallucinatory, hormonally charged atmosphere. The nuns are as unhinged as their pupils. The wild forest beyond the school walls is always looming, encroaching – bears, moose. It’s a heady, intoxicating mix.

Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These Faber, 2022; 20211. Another short novella, but intense and powerfully moving. It’s so widely praised I don’t need to say much about it. Bill, an Irish fuel supply man in a small town near Waterford, Ireland, does business with a convent that supposedly cares for illegitimate girls. He’s perturbed to come across a young girl who seems to have been cruelly punished. What should he do? These are tough times (it’s the lean 1980s): local employers are laying workers off, there’s desperate poverty everywhere. Should he speak up, intervene, report abuse? An illegitimate child himself, he feels compelled not to turn a blind eye.

Stories about the  sinister Magdalene laundries, the hypocrisy of the nuns who ran them (and the communities in which they flourished, largely unchallenged), are well known, but Claire Keegan manages to tell her shocking story in a way that makes it disturbingly new. Despite the grim theme, it’s a profoundly humane novella that reminds us that even when society seems irredeemably corrupt (shades of Trollope again), some people refuse to look the other way, whatever the cost.

Maggie O’Farrell, The Marriage Portrait Tinder Press, 2022. Another shocking story about abusive treatment of very young women. In this case she’s the famous ‘last duchess’ of Browning’s poem. O’Farrell’s imagining of this murky story of a 17C tyrannical aristocrat’s abusive, potentially murderous behaviour towards a new young wife who’s too spirited for his liking is lively and entertaining, but I found it over-long. The structure, with its multiple flashbacks and jumps forward in time, is fussy and breaks the narrative flow. But as historical fiction goes, it’s not bad.

Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven Picador, 2014. This would make an exciting action movie. As a novel it didn’t quite work for me. Surprising, because its story is timely and quite well handled: a post-pandemic dystopian world where order has broken down and life for the feral survivors is dangerous and precarious. But as with The Marriage Portrait, the fractured structure and leaps back and forth in time fatigued me. It should have been compelling, but for me it lacked originality and many of the characters were flat. Unlike Claire Keegan, this Canadian novelist doesn’t succeed in making a well-worn theme come to life.

Colm Toíbín, The Magician

Colm Tóibín, The Magician. Viking, 2021.

In Patrick Gale’s novel Mother’s Boy, which I posted about recently, the subject was the real-life Cornish poet Charles Causley, and his growth as an artist and as a gay man at a time of intolerant and legally punitive attitudes to homosexuality. In The Magician Colm Tóibín also takes as his central character a writer: the German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955).

Mann The Magician cover Born in the mercantile Hanseatic city of Lübeck to a prosperous business family, young Thomas, like Causley, realises he’s attracted more to men than to women. He too tries to persuade himself that these dalliances aren’t serious, and when he meets the glamorous Katia he quickly decides to marry her. She’s a headstrong, bohemian woman, also from a bourgeois family; her twin brother bewitches Thomas as much as Katia does. Although the couple went on to produce six children, Thomas continued to have his head turned, most famously in Venice by the beautiful Polish boy who became the key figure in Death in Venice.

The novel deals with much of Mann’s adult life, and traces the development of all his major fiction through the experiences that inspired them, such as the sanatorium that formed the basis of The Magic Mountain. The rise of the Nazis forced him to flee Germany in 1933 – Katia was from a Jewish family. After exile in various places he ended up in America, first in Princeton, then finally in California.

This part of the novel shows how Thomas was reluctant to become an openly hostile critic of Hitler’s regime, unlike his much more radical brother Heinrich, who disapproved of his lack of commitment to the campaign. After the war, with a Nobel prize awarded to him, he settled into the comfort of life in the sunshine as a revered man of letters. When he returned to Germany he was disappointed to find that the lessons of the terrible period under Hitler hadn’t been learned.

This is a serious account that takes its time to convey a compelling portrait of a complex, brilliant man. The most interesting parts are those that deal with the novels. Thomas comes across as a not very attractive figure: buttoned up, undemonstrative, lacking spontaneity, and his inner central duplicity makes him seem shifty. He’s less in denial about his sexuality than Tóibín suggests Henry James was in his novel The Master, which resembles this novel in approaching the inner/outer lives of a great writer.

As always with this author the writing is beautifully crafted. It seems to take on some of the sonority of Mann himself, his seriousness and complexity. It’s not exactly a pastiche, but takes on some of Mann’s literary tone. The title derives from the not entirely complimentary nickname his children give him: he loves entertaining them when they are little with tricks and games. It also suggests, of course, his shape-shifting personality, his emotional sleight of hand.

 

 

Bernard MacLaverty, Midwinter Break

Bernard MacLavery, Midwinter Break. Jonathan Cape, London, hardback. 2017

Another novel read in a day while I convalesced after recent medical treatment. It takes some getting into, with a rather bleak pair of central characters. The married couple, retired architect Gerald and teacher, Stella, are in the midwinter of their relationship. Will it survive their cathartic post-Christmas short break in Amsterdam, where the cracks in their marriage, and in their individual lives, widen, and the painful secrets in their past threaten to explode their outward calm?

MacLaverty W Break coverGerald is a drinker; Stella is searching for solace after an earlier terrible trauma. He’s either unaware of her pain, or has drunk himself into numbness to avoid confronting and dealing with it – and his own. She sees this in him, and is tired of watching him drink. She wonders if she still loves or needs him.

That’s about it as far as plot goes. It’s a slowly accreting, sympathetically and delicately observed portrait of two people clinging on to the wreckage of their relationship, damaged by the Troubles in N. Ireland from the 70s onward, where their Catholic faith marked them obtrusively in the conflict they deplored. Events in this violent past nearly destroyed them.

In deceptively plain prose, MacLaverty pieces together an impression of a marriage full of unspoken grief and deeply felt, barely suppressed emotion. It’s one of the most haunting accounts I’ve read of the ways people strive to communicate but often fail to connect – even when they’re desperate to do so.

He’s particularly adept at selecting and delineating the minutiae of their daily lives as they age and try to face their new, retired life without the stimuli of work or bringing up family – their only son has grown up and moved abroad with their much missed grandson (it’s fairly clear why).

The way the novel opens is typical of this narrative technique: Stella and Gerald are in their home in Scotland (they’d long since left Ireland), preparing for bed. He’s finished in the bathroom and leaves the shaving mirror at the magnifying face. Why are we given that detail? Was he being considerate, knowing she’d need the magnified side of the mirror to carry out her facial restoration regime? Or was he simply examining his own face, heedless of her own? MacLaverty leaves the options open.

This passage continues:

She licked the tip of her index finger and smoothed both of them [her eyebrows]. Then turned to her eyelids. She was sick of it all – the circles of cotton wool, the boiled and sterilised water in the saucer, the ointments, the waste bin full of cotton buds.

At first sight this is just a list of banal details – but MacLaverty is sharp-eyed enough to notice how Stella feels the need to try to hold back the ageing process, with particular emphasis on the eyes – the windows of the soul. More importantly, that final sentence reveals her simmering impatience. The symbolic waste-bin represents perhaps her life, and her life with Gerald. Yet the point isn’t laboured; on the contrary, it’s unobtrusive – just there, like Stella and her pain. And what exactly is the ‘all’ that she’s sick of: the attempts to hold back the effects on her face of ageing, or Gerald and her life with him – or life in general? MacLaverty delicately refrains from telling us, leaving us to figure out for ourselves what’s wrong here, what’s going on in these troubled lives.

Her bedtime routine is completed when she gets into her pyjamas quickly, because the room is cold: ‘She saw no point in paying good money to heat a room all day for a minute’s comfort last thing at night.’ This penny-pinching at the expense of her own comfort indicates her self-castigating, frugal nature, her inability to expand, indulge. The slow drip of such details through the narrative gradually, like an accumulating stalagmite, shows why she’s like that, so pinched, self-denying.

As she basks in bed, warmed by her only, limited indulgences – hot water bottle and electric blanket — we are privy to her thoughts: she loves this ritual hour of ‘separation at the end of every day’. Gerry (as she would call her husband; these are clearly her thoughts, relayed through free indirect discourse) ‘out of action, in another room…Having a nightcap, no doubt. Or two or three.’

Even in this rare moment of sensual abandonment in her solitary bed, she can’t help this frisson of judgemental scorn and bitterness. What’s so poignant is that the behaviour of each of them precipitates such reactions in the other; the ways they deal with their own personal demons drives the other one away, at the very points when they need each other most, like magnets of the same polarity.

It’s easy to dislike Stella and Gerald, but gradually he’s seen to be guided by his wife’s star; redemption flickers and fades before them. I found myself hoping they’d not let it extinguish.

Trelissick and Carrick Roads

View over Carrick Roads from Trelissick gardens

Mrs TD read this after me, and struggled with the first third or so of the novel, but told me she was glad she persevered to the end – it picked up considerably.

Just to finish, a picture taken yesterday during our first walk at this local National Trust property in six months. One of our favourite views. Had to book a slot and maintain hygiene/social distancing measures, but worth it. And the sun shone.

Kathleen MacMahon, Nothing But Blue Sky

Kathleen MacMahon, Nothing But Blue Sky, Sandycove/Penguin Books, 2020

This was another recommendation of Mrs TD’s. I was sceptical during the first thirty or so pages, as a novel written from the point of view of a recently widowed middle-aged man, grieving for his wife of nearly twenty years, didn’t seem a particularly alluring topic.

MacMahon Blue Sky coverOnce the narrative hit its stride, however, the Irish author’s ability to create well-rounded central characters (many of the minor ones are more shadowy) won me over. I found myself warming to this emotionally bruised narrator, David. His childhood in Dublin had been hard: his father was what would now be called a coercive controller, who bullied and humiliated his children and forced his wife into submissive complicity.

The cold atmosphere of his house contrasted completely with the love and happiness he found in his friend Deborah’s, and later in that of his late wife, Mary Rose. He’d never heard members of his own family tell each other they loved anyone.

David and Mary Rose spent two weeks every summer in the Catalan seaside resort of Aiguaclara. They loved frequenting the same few bars and restaurants, where they were treated like locals. They enjoyed making up stories about the people on the beach.

After Mary Rose’s untimely death in a plane crash, David resolves to continue their tradition of these summer holidays. That is how a kind of healing process begins to take place.

What I found well done in this novel was the author’s ability to make David a quite unlikeable character. He’s cynical and buttoned-up, has a bit of a cruel streak, and can be enormously selfish. Mary Rose is the opposite: spontaneous, optimistic, extravert. David is so self-absorbed he fails to see how deeply upset she is at their inability to have children.

As he reflects on their marriage, the layers of insulation with which he had shielded himself from abrasive contact with emotional reality with Mary Rose and others are stripped away, and he’s able to discover the depths of humanity and love that he’d largely suppressed or rationed out during the marriage.

What prevents him from being unsympathetic is our being made privy to the stultifying upbringing inflicted on him by his callous, narrow-minded father. David’s emotional development was etiolated; this novel is about the ways in which it begins to flourish under the influence first of his late wife, and then by others who come into his life.

There isn’t much else in the way of plot – instead there are set pieces full of telling details. Like his old friend Deborah’s household when they were teenagers. Deborah had several sisters, and they all treated him like another girl: wrapping their damp towels round their drying hair after a shower and wandering in and out of siblings’ rooms to paint their toenails (using what David thought peculiar devices to separate the toes), paying no heed to his presence. In this way he learnt how to be around women. Also how to live as a social human being.

It’s an accomplished, slow-burning novel, told in an unadorned style (and with necessary touches of humour) that suits the subject. Mrs TD finished it, appropriately enough, as we sat on a beach in south Devon, watching our grandchildren romp in the sea, and surrounded by family. This novel is about the importance those kinds of experience represent, even when times like these are so hard, and what’s happened in our past has perhaps bent us a little out of shape.

Elizabeth Bowen, Eva Trout

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973, Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes. Vintage, 1999. First published 1968

I thought Irish-born Elizabeth Bowen’s final novel Eva Trout would be amusing/light relief after slogging through the hefty Trollope novel Phineas Finn. I was wrong.

Bowen, Eva Trout cover

The handsome 1950s Jaguar on the cover is similar to one Eva drives in the novel.

The writing style I found excessively mannered and florid. Characters are theatrical or caricatures (like the clergyman with dodgy sinuses). The syntax is often tortuous: there are oddly placed adverbs and clashing tones and registers. Purple descriptive passages intrude and interrupt the flow; random examples:

[Eva is in Paris] Viridian shadow clothed such trees as were not in the sun’s path.

Fresh-cut grass is said to have had its roots ‘exacerbated’ – a strangely fastidious usage; portraits of grand figures in an art gallery look out ‘lordlily’ – what a silly and awkward choice.

I’d concede that there are plenty of Bowen’s more familiar deft touches – there are also signs of her wittiness and humour, as when a bisexual game of cricket is proposed by Eva’s camp love interest Henry to his tomboy motor-cycle riding young sister, Catrina:

‘”Mixed,”‘ she corrected, ‘sex does not enter into cricket.’ ‘That is painfully evident.’ ‘If you’re so cross, why don’t you go to Italy?’

Too often the humour misfires.

The narrative takes us through the eponymous Eva’s life, from lonely, disrupted childhood to her sexually fluid thirties. She was orphaned at a young age when both parents died violently (partly as a consequence of their sexual incompatibility and dalliances). Her louche guardian Constantine shows little empathy towards his ward; she’s moved from country to country, school to school, and never learns to make friends or achieve emotional closeness with others. When she inherits her late father’s immense wealth at the age of 25 she becomes even more vulnerable and adrift, and more able to indulge her whims, secrets and fantasies.

This emotional immaturity and deficiency and sexual fuzziness is the cause of most of what subsequently happens to her – yet she’s also strangely innocent. She becomes fiercely attracted to several female figures, while most of the males who influence her are sexually ambiguous. She indulges in fantasies and deception to try to construct some kind of relationship out of these deceptive fragments. She’s unable to distinguish surface appearance from depth of character or authenticity of feeling. All this confusion gives rise to more disruption and pain for her and those near to her.

The most egregious of Eva’s deceptions involves the baby boy she claims to have given birth to illegitimately. The consequences of this are catastrophic for all she’s involved with.

Although Eva’s damaged personality has some psychological interest, I found her ultimately tiresome. The characters she’s drawn to are largely fey, affected, selfish and pompous.

It’s quite a while since I read her 1929 novel The Last September, set in the Irish war of independence, but I remember it being powerful and moving. The Heat of the Day I recall had a vivid evocation of wartime London. Last year I posted briefly on her novel Friends and Relations, and disliked it.  Eva Trout also left me unmoved and disappointed. It was shortlisted for the Booker in 1970 and won the James Tait Black memorial prize in 1969.

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. Viking, 2018

Mrs TD bought me this stimulating collection of four essays (she also got me a lovely Japanese Namiki fountain pen – maybe more on that another time). In an interview with Colm Tóibín by Mariella Frostrup on the BBC Radio 4 programme Open Book in August (it begins around 8 mins 20 secs, link HERE) the author explains its origins and his intentions. I draw upon that interview in my general comments here.

Toibin Mad Bad coverInvited to deliver a series of lectures at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Richard Ellmann, who’d written biographies of Wilde and Joyce and ‘a very good book on Yeats’, Colm Tóibín concluded that there was no point in expounding directly on these Irish authors, because Ellman had done that. The mothers, he goes on, were ‘a problem’ in two of the instances, because they ‘left no record’. But the fathers, in all three cases, were ‘very lively, interesting characters’ who’d left a legacy, in letters or other forms, and in the various other influences they’d had on the writings of their famous sons.

While I was reading this book during my Norway trip a couple of weeks ago I was troubled by the scarcity of reference to the three mothers. The author explains in this interview that not only, as stated above, was there a paucity of documentation about them, but also he’d already written a book (published in 2006) on Mothers and Sons; the explanation seems a little flimsy, but I suppose it’ll do.

It’s a lively and entertaining book, as you would expect from such a fine writer. The opening chapter is an impressionistic essay in which Tóibín recreates a walk through the familiar streets of Dublin, some of which are filled with a ‘peculiar intensity’ of ‘memories and associations’. He reflects on the buildings and places, including the General Post Office, HQ for the 1916 rebellion, Finn’s Hotel, or St Stephen’s Green, ‘the heart of the city’, full of ‘a secret energy’, and ‘Yeats territory’ – though it features importantly of course in Joyce’s work; Stephen Dedalus refers to it as ‘my Green’. His walk takes him past sites redolent of Dublin’s and Ireland’s turbulent history and rich culture, and their key personalities, from Cuchulain to Hopkins and Newman, to these three writers. He’s drawn particularly to those buildings that housed the families of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. It’s the close proximity of all these places that’s so apparent in this essay: Dublin is in that sense a small city. Tóibín’s narrator is haunted by these presences.

All three ‘prodigal fathers’ were deeply flawed. Sir William Wilde was a polymath: travel writer, historian, biographer, antiquarian and statistician with an expert knowledge of the history and language of Ireland. He was also an internationally renowned eye and ear doctor. The most interesting aspect of the essay about him and his son is the way that Tóibín brings out the strange congruence between the notorious libel case about a sex scandal Sir William was involved in (he had an inappropriate relationship with a vulnerable young woman he’d treated: Mary Travers) and the libel trial which was the ruin of his son decades later involving the Marquess of Queensbury.

Despite his caveat mentioned above, I’d have liked to hear Tóibín’s views on Wilde’s extraordinary, dramatic mother, ‘Speranza’. He quotes Yeats as saying that any understanding of who Oscar Wilde became had to take into account

the mixture of formidable intelligence and unmoored strangeness exuded by his parents.

Unlike poor Oscar, who was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, which ruined his health, shortened his life and destroyed his reputation, Sir William wasn’t ostracised from society and the scandal didn’t have too detrimental an effect on his family’s life. On the contrary, Tóibín speculates that the glittering soirées in the Wilde’s house in Merrion Square where he was raised exposed him to the brilliant conversation and unconventional morality that flourished there. This may well have ‘nourished’ his later dramatical work —

but it did not help him once he had to stand in an English witness box when he, unlike his parents, was facing an actual prison sentence.

The essay on John B. Yeats, the one who Tóibín says he probably admires most out of the three fathers, reveals a feckless man who showed scant interest in providing for his family materially, and spent many of his later years alone in New York. Tóibín makes a powerful case, however, for the profound influence he exerted on his children, especially the sons Jack, one of the most gifted Irish artists of his generation, and the Nobel Prize-winning poet William. Through his talk when he lived with them, and later when he wrote them scintillating letters, he instilled in them his views on the salience of the spiritual, non-material world, and of the perils of beliefs that are too dogmatically, inflexibly held. Interesting parallels are drawn in this essay with the relationship between Henry James and his brother William with their father.

The deficiencies of John Stanislaus Joyce are too well known to repeat here. Tóibín is most interested in the literary representations James made of him throughout his fiction. He traces with enthusiastic precision, especially in Ulysses, the generosity of forgiveness with which the son portrays his indigent, drunken, violent, volatile father. I’m not entirely convinced that his being a fine tenor and bar-room raconteur altogether redeems him (he was, after all, ‘a bully and a monster’), but that’s not the point. We learn a great deal about the making of James Joyce as an artist and how he used this unpromising upbringing to fertilise his prose fiction. Tóibín concludes, in characteristically elegant style:

Because Joyce found the space between what he knew about John Stanislaus and what he felt about him so haunting and captivating, he forged a style that was capable of evoking its shivering ambiguities, combining the need to be generous with the need to be true to what it had been like in all its variety and fullness, and indeed its pain and misery.

 

B.Moore, HH Richardson, E. Bowen, G. Gazdanov. Update pt 1

After an illness (still persisting) and short break visiting family near Barcelona, there’s been something of a hiatus on TD. Here’s a quick update (part 1) on reading since last time:

Brian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn coverBrian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn, Harper Perennial, 2007; first published 1955. This was Moore’s first novel published under his own name. Set in his birthplace, Belfast, it deals with what were to become some of his key topics: (loss of) RC faith, sex, solitude and the difficulties of connecting. It tells the sad story of a 40-ish spinster’s decline into serious problems as she struggles to deal with her isolation and inability to forge relationships. She’s lost and desperate. Moore shows impressive ability to inhabit the  troubled consciousness of this lonely woman. I was inspired to read the novel by JacquiWine’s post last year; she has an excellent, detailed post about it here

HH Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom coverHenry Handel Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom. VMC 1981; first published 1910. Born in Australia under the name Ethel Florence Lindesey Richardson, the author moved to Europe as a young woman and studied music in Leipzig. This semi-autobiographical novel relates the development of spirited, mercurial Laura Tweedle Rambotham from her move to boarding school in Melbourne at the age of twelve to her final days there aged sixteen. Unlike the other girls she comes from a poor background. Richardson subverts the usual girls’ school kind of narrative – this is no Chalet School. The teachers are bored, incompetent or vindictive, or all three. The other girls are much the same. Too impetuous to curb her spontaneity, Laura tries desperately to conform and be liked; she fails. She even stoops to aping the peevish snobbery and factional squabbling and bullying of her privileged peers, but acceptance and friendship elude her. As her sexuality awakens, she develops a passion for an attractive older girl – but as usual her judgement is faulty and she is destined for painful experiences. It’s a fascinating, lively account, partly marred by too much detail about Laura’s attempt to find some kind of solace in religious faith.

E. Bowen, Friends and Relations coverElizabeth Bowen, Friends and Relations. Penguin Modern Classics, 1984; first published 1931. I disliked this. Maybe it was the illness I was in the throes of. The basic premise is promising: two sisters marry, but one is in love with her sister’s husband. I simply had no interest in what would happen to these otiose, bloodless upper-class characters – they live in huge houses and have little to do but lust after each other. Elfrida is interestingly done: non-conformist, passionate. The prose is over-ornate, mannered and look-at-me ‘fine writing’. Disappointing; I’d read other Bowen novels long ago and enjoyed them.

 

Gazdanov Spectre A Wolf coverGaito Gazdanov, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. Translated by Bryan Karetnyk. Pushkin Press, 2013. First published in Russian 1947-48. Another novel with semi-autobiographical tendencies. A sixteen year old lad fighting for the White Russians in the civil war following the Bolshevik Revolution thinks he’s murdered a man. Later he reads a story which seems to tell that story. Further coincidences and fusions of what he considers his reality and some other order of experience take place. It’s an intriguing blend of war narrative, bildungsroman, down and out in Paris account with murders, lowlifes and gangsters (there’s even a reference to ‘apaches’ in the slang French sense), blended with a Proustian memory theme and existential duplications. Reminded me (in a good way) of Blaise Cendrars’ Dan Yack novels – not just the content I just summarised, but the mix of gritty urban noir with surreal narrative shifts.

William Trevor, Felicia’s Journey

William Trevor (1928-2016), Felicia’s Journey. Viking, 1964

Last autumn I posted about William Trevor’s 1965 novel The Boarding House. Thirty years later Felicia’s Journey also takes as its central theme the preying upon lonely and desolate souls by sinister, duplicitous monsters with secrets in the murky basements of their souls. In the earlier novel, however, Trevor’s predators are motivated mostly by mediocre, secular avarice and envy; here he ramps up the psychomachy – mortal, not venial sinfulness.

William Trevor, Felicia's Journey: coverFelicia is an innocent (but not entirely naïve) young woman from a sheltered, conservative small town in Ireland, made pregnant by a predatory chancer named Johnny who abandons her with a transparently fictitious account of his leaving for a job in a factory in the industrial English midlands. She sets out on a hapless quest to find her errant lover – who she only half believes is a decent man. Her journey slowly reveals itself, largely without her fully realising it, to be a struggle for her very survival.

She falls into the path of Mr Hilditch, an obese catering manager at another anonymous midland factory. We know from his first offer to help this ingenuous waif, adrift in the heartless wastelands of post-Thatcher England, that he is not motivated by kindness.

The present-tense, third-person narrative draws us inexorably into the fiendishness of Hilditch’s plan: he cunningly restrains himself from showing his hand too soon, knowing when to back off and leave fragile, needy Felicia to flounder in a heedless world, and to turn in her desperation to his apparent beneficence.

What makes the novel almost unbearable to read is the tension and dread that build as Felicia falls more inescapably into his clutches as he circles round her faltering, impaired waif’s downward progress.

Signed title page of Felicia's Journey

I bought my hardback first edition in a craft sale in Penwith, Cornwall. It’s signed by the author – which clinched the sale for me!

Trevor is too subtle a writer and too astute and precise a psychologist to reveal too soon Hilditch’s capacity for duplicity and evil. One desperately wants to cry out a warning to Felicia as she reluctantly enters deeper into his lair and her danger becomes more apparent. The narrator gives us access, dimly but increasingly clearly delineated, to the cruelty that he’s been capable of the past, and is meticulously preparing for again. Felicia, whose name is so ironically inappropriate for her sad, unfortunate life, is suspicious but friendless, and desperately unprotected.

Trevor’s other player in this struggle for a floundering soul is the unlikely figure of Miss Calligary, a member of a bizarre Christian evangelical group who doorstep homeowners to try to ‘gather’ them to the Lord, promising a paradisal new life for ‘one who dies’. Hilditch writes them off as ‘nutters’. It’s a typical Trevor feat, to manage grim, sardonic humour in a plot that begins with such gothic premises. For these evangelists appear to long for death, albeit symbolically, in order to be reborn; Mr Hilditch offers the real thing, with no spiritual intent at all – his menacing mission arises out of his own damaged psychopathy. (The narrative gradually reveals, through flashbacks in his memory, the probable traumatic causes for his affectless depravity – even he has a certain redeeming pain).

With narrative deftness, Trevor causes Miss Calligary’s mission inadvertently to intrude upon Hilditch’s, with devastating consequences.

As in Trevor’s other fiction, his sympathy is with the lost and marginalised, those deemed by society – and maybe themselves – to be superfluous (homeless people feature with increasing significance in this novel), those who render themselves attractive to life’s predators by their human frailty and a profound but unfulfilled need for love that disables their defence mechanisms. Somehow they usually stumble into redemption, or their world reveals itself capable of a grim, oblique kind of grace.

A lesser writer would have failed to create such nuanced characters who could have been portrayed as simply monsters and victims. Trevor imbues them with complexities and unexpected depths of humanity that take this novel into heights (and depths) undreamt of by the anonymous authors of the medieval allegories.