First off, I feel like this is in order, because this book was a chore to get through, and as such delayed my reading project even worse than Skyrim did:
“She had watched life, since she came to London, with a sort of despair – motivated and busy always, always progressing: even people pausing on bridges seemed to pause with a purpose; no bird seemed to pursue a quite aimless flight. The spring of the works seemed unfound only by her: she could not doubt people knew what they were doing – everywhere she met alert cognisant eyes. She could not believe there was not a plan of the whole set-up in every head but her own” (p.72)
The Resolution Project Season Two: For my New Year’s resolution last year (2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I got almost halfway through. I’ve decided to bull-headedly push on through and try and finish the challenge, with a caveat: I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so left to read. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that. It’s not really worth getting that angry about though.
The Elevator Pitch: Portia Quayne is an orphan. After flitting about in hotels and shabby flats on the Continent with her mother before her death, Portia has come to London to live with her brother Thomas and his wife Anne. No one really knows what to make of the quiet young girl, whose gormlessness and eager-to-please nature seem to lay bare the veneer of civilization in the 1930s. Portia falls in love with an old friend of Anna’s, Eddie, who works at Thomas’ advertising concern. This adolescent crush sets in motion a series of events that makes everyone feel really bad.
What I knew about this book and its author going in: Absolutely fuck-all. It is apparently a defect in my character and education that not once in working towards my degree in English Literature that the name Elizabeth Bowen and this, her supposed masterpiece ever came up. Now that I’ve rectified the situation, I cannot say that I feel like I was missing out in the slightest.
As I noted above, this book was an absolute beast to work through, and this is solely due to the style it was written in. The back cover calls this a “psychological novel”, which I take to mean it purports to explore the psychological makeup of characters as they move through the world of the book. Which it does. To a fault, I’d say.
Bowen proves herself capable of really beautiful turns of phrase, and really good at examining how people tick, especially when it comes to the female characters in the book, Portia, Anna and Matchett the housekeeper. What I found, in my opinion anyway, fault in, was that the book was narratively not as strong. It shares this distinction with the last book I read on the Time 100 list, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which I also had a hell of a time pushing through.
Where Bowen shines is in depicting thumbnail sketches of characters right at the exact moment she turns her eyes towards them. One in particular I found well done was the character of Major Brutt, a military man who vaguely knew Anna before mustering into the service. He’s sort of a boring guy to encounter, as he’s been out of circulation for so long that he has forgotten how to get along in London society, assuming of course he ever really fit in to begin with. One sequence I enjoyed was when Brutt, who has sort of accidentally ingratiated himself into life at 2 Windsor Terrace, mistakenly drops in at the wrong time and has a drink with Thomas instead of Anna. Thomas, who’s not exactly a social butterfly himself, feels like Brutt wants something from him, something like a job or a connection, rather than the basic human company he actually craves. It leads to this excellent summation of men of Brutt’s type:
“All he seemed to have put on the market was (query) experience, that stolid alertness, that pebble-grey direct look that Thomas was finding morally hypnotic. There was, of course, his courage – something now with no context, no function, no outlet, fumbled over, rejected, likely to fetch nothing. Makes of men date, like makes of cars; Major Brutt was a 1914-1918 model: there was now no market for that make. In fact, only his steadfast persistence in living made it a pity he could not be scrapped.” (p.113)
This makes concrete a really unfortunate facet of the world of the 1930s, as well as the world of today. It is especially poignant considering the death of the last known participant in the Great War, Briton Claude Choules, died last year, while the last serviceperson, Florence Green, died only a few days ago (source). Some people unfortunately find their purpose in a specific time and place, and cannot cope with the world after that time and place are no more.
Portia’s kind of in the same boat. While living with her mother, she was itinerant, moving around Europe in a sort of fairy tale of funny people met in hotels and different vistas seen out of the window, a counterpoint to, again, the homeless girls in Housekeeping. When this state of affairs is no longer applicable, she cannot fit in with the upper-middle class London society that Thomas and Anna aspire to. She gets along better with the staff of the house, taking tea with Matchett everyday. So, like Brutt, Portia has a tendency to put people on edge; where he makes younger folks feel a little ashamed at their lack of service, or forces them to imagine the hell he’s been put through in their defence, Portia reminds them of their own innocence long forgotten, and makes them feel ashamed of what they’ve become.
When she meets Eddie, it seems good on paper (joke). Eddie’s a misfit too, he didn’t set the world on fire with his writing (unlike fellow houseguest St. Quentin, who appears to do all right for himself, and is also the catalyst for the climax of the book), nor does he do a great job in advertising. It doesn’t work out between them though. Eddie’s a bit of a man-whore, catting about with Anna at the same time as his so-called romance with her half-sister in law Portia, and holding hands with women he meets in Seale, which I gather is the 1930s equivalent to a dirty bathroom hookup? Anyway, he’s a mess, and he takes Portia’s 16-year old heart and fucks it up, seemingly irrevocably.
So while I can appreciate the amount of detail Bowen is able to put into character study, in my mind anyway, a little of that goes a long way. When that’s the main “driving” force of your novel, though, it starts to wear on me. Narrative-wise, there’s maybe 5 or 6 actual events that happen throughout the year or so the novel takes place in. I can only imagine how long this book would have been in the hands of another writer. Raymond Chandler probably could have told this story in a page or two, and would have had enough room for shots to ring out and a couple of one liners. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that The Death of the Heart, while probably a great novel based on sheer technical brilliance alone, was not for me, in the exact opposite way the something like Blood Meridian wasn’t for me. Give it a try, though, if the subject matter and time period sound interesting to you. Personally, it reaffirmed my enjoyment of historical novels written long after the period has come and gone. I like the insight into London at this time that Bowen brings to the table, but I’d rather it was filtered through the little bit of artifice that “historical” writing brings.
“We all create situations each other can’t live up to, then break our hearts at them because they don’t. One doesn’t have to be in love to be silly, because then one makes a thing about everything.” (p. 315)
Similar books on the Time 100 list: American Pastoral and Are You There God?It’s Me Margaret also examine the state of mind of a preteen/teenage girl, but in radically different ways. If you’re interested in the time period, the Dance to the Music of Time cycle is a look at London right around then. Appointment in Samarra, while it takes place in America, examines the same sort of set I believe that Anna and Thomas would feel a part of, at around the same period in time as well. Finally, I feel like The French Lieutenant’s Woman also explores the psyche of Victorians in the same way this looks at that of the Interwar Period, but in a way I found much more enjoyable to read. It’s something about the distance between author and subject that I enjoy.
Total pages read since January 1st 2011: 14877 pp. (418 this year)
Total books on the Time 100 list read: 52/113, or 46% complete.
Next up on the Resolution Project: I, Claudius, by Robert Graves (1934)