Wednesday 5 August 2009

Bowen Out

Have you ever settled down to a new author, really confident that you'll enjoy the book in front of you. You've heard great things about the author from those whose opinions you respect. You like all the authors to whom this author is compared. It's the right period, right genre, right topic. And yet... somehow it doesn't work at all.
That was my experience with Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September.

I've read Bowen's name so often in books about the period, heard it in conversation, always put her down as someone I'll really enjoy, one day, and then... no. It's not that I thought the book was *bad* - I could see that the writing was very good - but somehow it was a struggle. Despite being quite a short book, I lost track of who was who (or whom was who, or something) and what was going on. The novel, by the way, is 'a comedy of manners set in the time of the Irish Troubles.' It's set in a big family house, where tennis-parties remain the focus, against the strife and riots. (By the way, the book cover shown isn't the one I read, but it interested me because it's the same cover image that Persephone used for their Persephone Classics version of Cheerful Weather For The Wedding by Julia Strachey, blogged about here, not Mariana by Monica Dickens as I wrote before...)

Sometimes I thought I was getting the hang of it. This paragraph is, I think, a great example of Bowen's writing:

He listened, took off his trench-coat, stepped to the drawing-room door. The five tall windows stood open on rain and the sound of leaves, rain stuttered along the sills, the grey of the mirrors shivered. Polished tables were cold little lakes of light. The smell of sandalwood boxes, a kind of glaze on the air from all the chintzes numbed his earthy vitality, he became all ribs and uniform.

And so it goes on. These moments, I could see that the writing is beautiful... but then I'd get lost and listless again. Perhaps it's because Bowen's writing is so often visually descriptive? I can't 'see' things when I read - visual description rarely works for me, unless I concentrate fiercely on it. Hmm.

I was talking to someone at lunch the other day who told me that The Heat of the Day is much better, and that I shouldn't give up on Elizabeth Bowen yet... can anyone else convince me to persevere? Explain perhaps why I struggled? Or give examples of their own stumbling blocks in books or authors that they fully anticipated loving?


  1. I really think that you just need to read more slowly in order to visualise what you're reading.
    Think how long it takes me to visualise the cup of tea.
    I definitely find that the slower I read, the more time there is for the fictional room to appear around me, and the more beautiful this kind of writing becomes.
    I discovered this by having to slow right down to read Gormenghast, which totally transforms that book from baffling/weird, to a work of art and a place you can't ever forget visiting.
    Maybe there's more to it than that, but try it anyway... x

    1. When I stumbled across this website (have just discovered Dodie Smith) I knew immediately that I would find Elizabeth Bowen somewhere around, and I agree with previous reader, have just read The House In Paris another short but exquisite novel by Elizabeth Bowen. The style is slightly " staccato " particularly the dialogue, but this makes it all the more direct and somehow honest, and throws the delicate and painfully exact descriptive passages into focus. She is one of my favourite writers. I was brought up in an edwardian house during the 1950's-so much of it chimes with my own experience. Trust me-keep trying!

  2. How funny, I fully expected this review to be about Cheerful Weather at the Wedding but then I remembered you had already reviewed it! The Persephone classic cover for Mariana coincidentally is the same cover as a Penguin edition of Ripening Seed by Colette.

    I too have read and enjoyed (well, studied) Heat of the Day. I think Bowen's strength lies in her evocation of WW2. Give it a try and if you still don't like her then give it up as a lost cause; life is too short and there are too many books to enjoy without bothering with the ones that you don't!

    I really struggled with The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West and gave up after 60 pages. I have not yet been convinced to read her other work.

  3. I really enjoyed Heat of the Day so maybe that is worth a go once you are 'over' The Last September.
    It is difficult not to let the lack of enjoyment of a well recommended and critically praised book to feel like some kind of personal failure.
    But I often think it depends on timing as well - sometimes you are not reading the book at the right time in your life or in the right mood.
    I could not finish The Night Watch by Sarah Water but Paperback Reader is right - life is too short!

  4. I haven't read that one, but I LOVED The death of the heart. I enjoyed the heat of the day, and have Eva Trout waiting for me (but I've had it out from the library for a while, and keep renewing it...)

  5. I understand your thoughts on Elizabeth Bowen, and had virtually the same experience with The Hotel, her first novel. It was hard going, and I LIKE slow, serious and introspective domestic English novels. You aren't alone!

  6. Sometimes what we have heard isn't what we conclude after reading a book...There are as many bad books as good ones out there...

  7. I had exactly the same experience with this book! I still have Heat of the Day on the shelf but always hesitate because I didn't like The Last September. Perhaps I'll give it a try after all. Unless you're planning to read it, in which case I'll wait to see how you like it. (grin)

  8. I haven't been able to make it into this book either, though I great enjoyed The Death of the Heart. The Heat of the Day was readable, but not as engaging for me. I think that when I first picked up The Last September I was looking for something that would engage me emotionally and Elizabeth Bowen's books are often "cold" at the start.

  9. I'm still hoping to have the flash of enlightenment with Proust! Next year I'm having another go at it. I found Gormenghast entrancing, bewitching, fabulous, disturbing from the very beginning and I agree completely with Mel that it isn't a place you will ever forget. If you have read it what did you think of the trilogy Simon?

  10. I started with Death of the Heart and found it hard to get through. To the North I liked better. But I found The House in Paris quite enjoyable. I think when it comes to Bowen, Mel's comment above may be right.

    I've had your Bowen problem with Penelope Fitzgerald. I feel like I should like her (and her short novels) more than I do.

  11. I think I would read anything with that cover image.

  12. I have enjoyed Elizabeth Bowen, but I am older and the pace does not get in my way. I am also very visually stimulated and always liked writers to set the stage for me. I agree with mel about slowing down and not trying to scan it in the brain. When I was younger and studying Henry James, I read it out loud to get past the forever sentences and the frugal punctuation.

  13. Thanks for all your fascinating comments - good to know I'm not alone, and also that I should give The Heat of the Day or The Death of the Heart a try.

    I haven't read Gormenghast trilogy, but I do have the first one... a birthday present from 2004, oops...

    Paperback Reader - I struggled with Harriet Hume, but I think The Return of the Soldier is brilliant. They're the only two Rebecca West novels I've read, but based on them, I find her work patchy.

    And Thomas - with Penelope Fitzgerald, I had the Bowen experience with Human Voices, got through it but felt lost, but then really like The Bookshop.

    So difficult when I judge an author by one book, given that so many have a wide variety of books.

  14. Glad to hear Thomas say that he liked To the North better, I have that one on my shelf waiting. Sometimes mood comes into it and if you try a second attempt at a later date you may have a different result.

  15. I found this book terribly hard to read and I am a fan of the genre. I'm not a very patient reader so that may have something to do with my struggle but I truely did want to like it.

  16. So funny! I just yesterday finished reading "Cheerful Weather at the Wedding" (Persephone edish, of course) and enjoyed it very much. I found her writing to be elegant and at a slight remove from the reader, with an opacity of style that nicely fit the theme at hand.

  17. I struggled through Death of the Heart. I still have it in my library waiting for another try. Like yourself, I've found that Bowen is a favourite among people who have similar tastes as mine (Persephones, Viragos). I do realise though that there's a certain time for certain books. You could pick it up again years from now and love it.

  18. 'The Heat of the Day' is my favourite one of Elizabeth Bowen's. I have a friend who just can't read her books; but I love her. Maybe a required taste.

  19. Pour yourself a glass of Pims and watch the movie.
    I loved it.

  20. Hello, I don't think anyone has mentioned The Little Girls which is the Bowen novel I enjoyed reading the most (I'm not sure I'd use 'enjoy' to describe my relationship with her other novels - although I do admire them).

  21. Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner made an interesting film of it, but definitely try 'The Heat of Day'. 'Eva Trout' is an odd one. My Piano teacher gave it to me as a birthday present and I wasn't all that enamoured so I stayed off Bowen for years. But thankfully I tried again and I've even re-read 'Eva Trout' and thoroughly enjoyed it.


    Writing is an inexact science.
    I read your excerpt from Bowen--and it seems that she gets enraptured with her writing, and is so captured with 'writing' and 'describing' that the result here is a mixed metaphor mess.

    Writing has to go somewhere. Perhaps her problem is that she writes and writes (as in the piece you sampled) and it gets nowhere. A few pages of that and you want to go somewhere, anywhere, but reading that book.

    My suggestion would be to move on to another writer and another book. Those who suggest trying another of her books are kind and helpful--but in this case perhaps move on to another genre, another writer, another country, another era. Jump ship, fast! cheers,


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