Here are some words to take into the weekend. I have been reading a lot of Elizabeth Bowen lately, prompted first by the gorgeous paperbacks recently reissued by the University of Chicago Press. She needs no praise from me; at her best, Bowen is as unsparing and quietly devastating a writer as exists in English, and any time spent with her novels is time well spent.
She is not definitely cozy—despite her elegiac descriptions of homes, and her memorable child characters—and the worlds she paints are often disturbing beneath their calm facades. You need to be in the right mood for Bowen, and you need to do both her and yourself the favor of investing enough time to fall deeply into the prose, and the landscape. But if you do, you will be richly rewarded.
Bowen is also someone whose work stands up to repeated reading. But due to a certain embarrassing tendency to faint, I’ve been persistently unable to reread The House in Paris since I first tackled it (and duly fainted) as a teenager. And as such, I must thank Suzanne Fischer’s terrific Public Historian blog for reintroducing me to what is probably my favorite Bowen quote. It is as good an introduction to her work as I can think of, and stands on its own. (Although I imagine it’s even better in context. I will never know.)
But for lovers or friends with no past in common the historic past unrolls like a park, like a ridgy landscape full of buildings and people. To talk of books is, for oppressed shut-in lovers, no way out of themselves; what was written is either dull or too near the heart. But to walk into history is to be free at once, to be at large among people. Art does its work even here in clarifying their faces, but they are dead, immune, their schemes and passions are legacies … Outside, the street, empty, reeled in the midday sun; the glare was reflected in on the gold-and-brown restaurant wall opposite; side by side in the empty restaurant, they surrounded themselves with wars, treaties, persecutions, strategic marriages, campaigns, reforms, successions and violent deaths. History is unpainful, memory does not cloud it; you join the emphatic lives of the long dead. May we give the future something to talk about.