Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Elizabeth Bowen's Friends and Relations

Bowen, Elizabeth. Friends and Relations. New York: Avon, 1980.

(The original copyright is 1931.)

Huh? Really. That’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of this book. The whole time I was reading it I felt the way I used to feel as a child sitting amongst the grownups on my parents’ front porch after dinner parties, listening to them talk. I’d have moments of understanding, pieces of conversation I could actually follow. Then the conversation would leap off the path into the thicket, and I’d disappear into my own little dream world until I caught a glimpse of it coming back into view again, just up ahead, and I’d run to catch up with it.

I’m not opposed to sparse writing, you know. I’m in love with Alan Garner, and not too long ago, I was raving about Joan Didion. However, when I start feeling that the writing is so sparse, surely words meant to be there have somehow faded off the page, that reading this book is like trying to talk to someone on a cell phone with bad reception, well, then, I’m not quite so keen on “sparse.” Likewise, enigmatic. I’m as game for a good enigma as anyone, always ready to exercise my problem-solving skills, such as they are, hoping I can surprise others by coming up with the answer. However, the fun of a good riddle is knowing that the answer is right there in front of you, hidden amongst the clues. A really good puzzle might distract the problem solver with irrelevant information, but it doesn’t present a wolf, a sheep, and a chicken only to tell you that the answer is a crocodile. Then again, maybe the problem is that I’m just too stupid to have seen that crocodile so obviously hovering right above everyone.

The back cover copy on the book notes that “the story reveals, by the most delicate means, the secret loves of Janet and Edward.” Okay, so I knew what was going to happen, didn’t I? I was aware and watching it from the get-go. Now, I know I tend to be about as delicate as a hippopotamus most of the time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a cat who can walk along a shelf of priceless crystal and leap off it with nary a sound of tinkling glass. I couldn’t find the cat here, though. He must have been black. It must have been midnight. Then suddenly, the hippopotamus rose up onto the shelf, the sound of shattering glass ringing in my ear. For a brief moment, I understood.

Janet was in London. Edward was missing. But then, huh? What the hell happened?

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t exactly hate the book. I just didn’t understand it. All the characters seemed as though they’d be extraordinarily interesting if only I knew more about them. Bowen, described (again, in the back cover copy. I wish I had this copywriter to put a spin on my blog) as a “novelist acutely aware of every nuance of feeling,” must have shown off this awareness in other books, because I didn’t notice any passages (maybe they were just so delicate they expired when I breathed on the pages of the book?) that allowed me to get much past the faces and into the heads of the characters.

I can’t help feeling cheated. I’ve been presented with a roomful of fascinating people, but I’m not allowed to talk to them, to ask them questions, to get to know them in any real way. When they leave the room, someone will say to me, “Hope you enjoyed meeting them, because they’re all off to Alaska now and won’t be coming back.”

Perhaps the problem is that while reading this book I also happened to be reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book that is lush with descriptions of characters’ feelings, a book that’s so much heart it beats in your hands as you turn the pages. Perhaps I’m more in the mood for that sort of book now. Maybe I’ll be better off with Bowen during the heat of the summer when I’m in need of stripping off layers of description and needless words, getting down to bare skin while sipping cold lemonade instead of hot lemon ginger tea. After all, I recently vowed to give every author I choose to read at least two chances before deciding I don’t like him or her. If someone would like to recommend a Bowen novel (Litlove, I think you might be able to do so?) suitable for this July, I will give her one more try before throwing in the towel.

Cross-posted at Outmoded Authors .

(And now I'm off for a few days on business and visiting the folks. Will be back here next week. To keep you intrigued while I'm away, you can expect posts on the following when I return: the writing meme, G.K. Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown, and What's My IQ? Meanwhile, go visit all those lovely people I recently told you about on my blog roll.)


Stefanie said...

Emily, I think that must have been the best post on not liking a book that I have ever read! If I ever write a book and it stinks badly, could I convince you to review it? :)

Rebecca H. said...

I know what you mean about Bowen, although I didn't find The Death of the Heart quite as impenetrable. But the conversation did go on in ways that didn't make sense to me, and I wondered if there are people out there who really talk that way. I was willing to image their might be, but I haven't met them yet!

Anonymous said...

I also read an Elizabeth Bowen for Outmoded Authors, and I had a similar reaction. I could follow what was going on, at least superficially, but the book was unpleasant and seemed stilted, more like a play than a novel.

Teresa L. said...

Hi there,

Thank you! You've vindicated my own confusion and frustration over another Elizabeth Bowen title, "The Death of the Heart." I kept waiting for it to be the masterful book I was expecting, but all I came away with was a vague feeling of dissatisfaction...


Anonymous said...

Hello Emily!

I'm an occasional lurker and I enjoy your posts very much. I was very relieved to read this one! I read Bowen's 'The Little Girls' and felt exactly the same about it - rather as if everyone was speaking a different language and I couldn't fathom the real meaning of what they were saying.

But I have loved many of her other books. If you do try again with her, I'd recommend Death of the Heart. There are others which are very good - To the North, The House in Paris and Eva Trout - but I think DotH is the best place to start.

Thank you for your lovely posts!

litlove said...

I have seen several people attempt Bowen lately without much joy (and the comments suggest as much). I do know I've enjoyed some of hers much more than others and I'm wracking my brains to remember the good ones (she's an author whose works tend to merge). I think I really liked The Death of the Heart and The House in Paris. I have Friends and Relations to read and must do so, as bloggers comments have aroused my curiosity!

Emily Barton said...

Thank you, all, for making me feel I'm not the only one missing the crocodile hovering above it all.

Stef, well, yes, of course. I thought for a while about doing a blog called "Don't Bother," posting on books not worth reading, so people could read it without increasing the sizes of TRB lists and piles, but others made me think better of it.

Dorr, maybe people in certain classes spoke that way in early 20th-century England, but I find it hard to believe myself. If so, I'm glad I wasn't part of it, as I would have been considered very rude, I'm sure, wandering around, the word "What?" being the first thing out of my mouth everywhere I went. When you posted on DEATH OF THE HEART, though, you made it sound a bit more appealing than this one was.

MFS, yes, that's it: it was like reading a (confusing) play without the benefit of cool scenery and brilliant acting.

Teresa, were you also waiting for it to be funny? I'd read Bowen was humorous. That was lost on me.

Lurking Reader, oh what fun to have a "lurking reader," kind of like having a secret admirer. I've discovered I have a copy of DEATH OF THE HEART, so I will give Bowen a second try with that come this summer. Maybe I'll end up loving it, since my expectations won't be too high. I'll let everyone know.

Litlove, I have to admit that one of my thoughts while reading this books was, "Well, Litlove likes her, so there's GOT to be something good here." As mentioned above, I will try DEATH OF THE HEART (although it isn't exactly getting rave reviews here), and see what I think. Could it be we might actually have discovered someone you like that I don't? Shocking!

Teresa L. said...

Hi Emily,

I think I was expecting to fall in love with Elizabeth Bowen the way I did with Edith Wharton. Reading Death of the Heart was sort of like going on a first date having planned the names of all our future children, the location of our house with the white picket fence, etc. Thinking back I realize how unfair I was being. Death of the Heart has some wonderful passages of insight and sensitivity. I just wish more of the book had charmed me. I wanted to love it, really I did... :)


Anonymous said...

I agree with A Lurking Reader that the language, particularly of The Little Girls, but also others, is often impenetrable. But the delicacy of her word painting is really sublime and often transcendent. I just can't get past feeling like she is from another planet that I have been privileged to be visiting. Some of the descriptive passages are among the most splendid I have ever read.

Emily Barton said...

Teresa, Death of a Heart will be what I try next. I really like your first date analogy. I think I did that a bit, too, which is very unfair.

Sniggie, you're right about the "other planet." I will be giving her another go soon, because I just finished reading a great biography about Ross Macdonald, and she was apparently a big fan of his. Any big fan of his has just GOT to be good.