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Review: Elizabeth Bowen, Allan Hepburn (ed.), 'The Weight of a World of Feeling: Reviews and Essays'

Elizabeth Bowen
November 19, 2016

The first pleasure of Elizabeth Bowen's collected reviews and literary essays is that the late Irish novelist never wastes our time with a childhood memory or the events of a recent vacation recounted with affected casualness. It shows both a lack of curiosity and taste for critics—particularly in reviews—to write about books primarily as it relates to their own lives. Because we live in a particularly incurious and crass age, it's no surprise that so many reviews and literary essays today open with a personal anecdote or, worse, confession.

Not so with Bowen. While her difficult childhood and novelistic accomplishment would have made for particularly interesting personal asides, she refuses to indulge herself. What matters are words and ideas—other people's words and ideas—and she gets right to them. So, The Crying of the Wind by Ithell Colquhoun, she tells us in the first sentence of one review, "is a travel book—subject, Ireland." "Elizabeth Taylor, whose ever-unfolding powers are to be watched with joy," she starts another, "gives us her fourth novel A Wreath of Roses. This has been awaited with confidence by those who remember At Mrs. Lippincote's, Palladian, and A View of the Harbour—and few who read those three can have forgotten them."

The other pleasures of this collection are Bowen's encyclopedic knowledge of the modern novel, her wit, openness, and insight. This won't come as a surprise for readers familiar with Bowen's fiction. In books like A House in Paris (1935), The Death of the Heart (1938), and The Heat of the Day (1949), as well as in nearly 100 short stories written over four decades (Bowen died in 1973), economy of expression and patient characterization are punctuated by remarks on the human psyche that still ring with clarity, truth, and humor. In A House in Paris, the young Henrietta, who has lost her mother, builds her character "by herself" and "for herself." She had come, Bowen writes, "to associate prejudice with identity. You could not be someone without disliking things." In The Death of the Heart, one character is described as belonging "to a junior branch of emotional society, in which there is always a crisis due."

This gift for quickening a passage in her fiction with a statement that is both à propos to the situation and that transcends it can be found in her criticism as well. She filed a weekly column for the The Tatler and Bystander, a magazine for "the horse-and-hounds set," as Allan Hepburn puts it, between 1941 and 1950, and again between 1954 and 1958. She also wrote regularly for The New Statesman, The Spectator, and The Observer. In reviews on Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, T. S. Eliot, Jean-Paul Sartre, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, and many more, her judgments on individual writers and works have, for the most part, stood the test of time. Often they double as direct commentary on the art of the novel or the function of criticism, as the case may be.

In a review of Virginia Woolf's The Death of the Moth, for example, she writes that "the great attraction of novels is that while they make life seem more interesting, they do also appear to simplify it. We expect the novelist to put this and that in its place. Virginia Woolf, who was above all a truthful writer, could not perform this trick of making life seem simple, because it never seemed simple to her." In another, she writes that Eudora Welty’s "vulgarity is surgical. Like all Southern writers, most notably William Faulkner (whom she resembles in no other way), Miss Welty is a great painter of decay." One of the great poets of the First World War, Siegfried Sassoon, manages to excel at autobiography where others fail. "Both shyness and pride must be overcome," Bowen writes. "Also—the first rule for all writers—'one must interest,'" can only be achieved by "great selective skill"—it is this skill that often fails writers when it comes to writing about themselves.

While always fair—she more often damns writers with faint praise than condemns them outright—, Bowen is not afraid to drag the occasional soul over hell's coals when needed. In a review of Upton Sinclair's Between Two Worlds, her opening remark that Sinclair is "a prolific writer, and obviously a very impassioned one" is not intended as a compliment. Sinclair once bragged about his writing that "all I have to do is turn the spigot and the water flows," to which Bowen responds: "It certainly does … Mr. Sinclair has no time for style: his narrative method reminds one of an incoherent person talking in a train. But one must honor his important intention—which is to save the world."

All aspiring novelists should read her short "The Technique of the Novel." In it, Bowen suggests that character and plot are inseparable, and that the primary danger for the novelist is to develop "one at the expense of the other." Dialogue is "action," she writes. It is "the nearest thing to drama and the emergence of passion and feeling which we have." Style is "a way of seeing things," and the form of a novel is "implicit in the conception of the story."

Master novelist, queenly reviewer—Bowen is a pleasure to read and an example to follow.

Published under: Book reviews