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75 at 75: Hermione Lee on Elizabeth Bowen – 1954

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A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary and beyond, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to recordings from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Hermione Lee writes about two lectures by Elizabeth Bowen. They were recorded live at 92Y on November 11, 1950, and February 21, 1954.

Posted on Nov 13, 2014

Elizabeth Bowen was often in America, teaching and lecturing, in the 1950s and 1960s, and was a regular at the 92nd Street Y, where she was treated like the undoubted star she was then, a major writer on a level (as her introducer says in one of these recordings) with George Eliot, Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. These two talks by Bowen, “The Poetic Element in Fiction” (1950) and “The Problems of Contemporary Literature” (1954) come between The Heat of the Day (1949) and The World of Love (1955). For readers familiar with the edgy, dark, intense modernity of those novels, Bowen’s voice in these recordings will come as a shock. She sounds old-school posh, in the Anglo-Irish tradition, with grandly archaic upper-crust intonations. The effect is compounded by a stately rate of speech, evidently a technique for controlling her pronounced stammer while lecturing. But quite often the stammer intrudes, catching her on a wildly rolling “r” or a sibilant “s.” Stylish, measured composure is drastically subverted from within, which is also what is going on in her novels, and relates to what she is saying about fiction in these talks.

The 1950 lecture tracks a (debatable) history of the novel from bardic, “primitive” story-telling and poetic language; to the Age of Reason, when it became “more firmly rooted to earth” and committed to facts and social realities; to the period of “psychological overflow” (for instance the Russian novelists), when it opened up to “the irrational and unregimentable elements in humanity.” Admirer though she is of James and Proust, Bowen says the novel, by their time, was dragging along too much “heaviness.” The modern short story had a good influence and brought back poetry and simplicity into fiction. Now her anxiety is about the pressure of “mass production” and “mass opinion”—the domination of “the generalized experience.” It is hard for the individual writer not to succumb without “withdrawing” entirely to the treatment of “internal scenery.”

In the 1954 talk, she pursues the pressures on the contemporary writer, of whom it’s demanded that “he” (as she mostly says) must be “of his time.” But the essential condition for creating fiction is that one should be unconscious and intuitive, like a child playing. The current demand that writers should “express” the state of the world they live in—be a “mouthpiece for their generation”—forces them to be “self-conscious.” Shakespeare, she maintains, stood in a “totally unconscious” relation to his age. Now there are thousands of people in a state of disturbed, “semi-confused” consciousness—especially in big cities like New York—not knowing how to deal with the “stupefying” advance “of technical things, of scientific things,” feeling “obliterated” as individuals. They look to the writer to express their incoherent state of mind. But the writer must be able to be free from that sense of obligation, to be “primarily original, unaccommodating,” an “advance-guard” for the unknown future.

These talks reflect Bowen’s preoccupations, repeatedly aired elsewhere in essays, reviews and broadcasts (collected in my edition of her writings, The Mulberry Tree). Like other intellectuals and writers at the time of the debate over the “two cultures,” she felt threatened by the advance of science and technology. And like other writers born before the first World War, she saw herself living in a fragmented society in which “mass” consciousness threatened to obliterate individualism. Orwell’s 1984, written a few years before these lectures, comes to mind. Her horror of—and fascination with—big city life, which she says is now best represented not by the novel but on the screen, points ahead to the dislocated, alarming world of Eva Trout, her last novel, in which all fictional traditions seem to be inadequate for capturing modern times. Eva and her adopted, speechless son wander from city to city, lost in America, in an illusory, visual, cinematic world, with nothing to distinguish “what went on inside and what went on outside the diurnal movies.”

Like Orwell and other of her contemporaries (Graham Greene, V. S. Pritchett, Henry Green), Bowen thought writing fiction should be a form of resistance and that the novelist should not be asked to join up or represent the views of the state or the majority. It is necessary to be disloyal. In an essay called “Disloyalties,” of 1952, she writes: “The novelist’s subject is not society, not the individual as a social unit, but the individual as he himself is, behind the social mask. As such, his peculiarities are infinite.” The novelist is not entirely socialized: he retains a childlike, untamed quality, and his profoundest sources are simple and intuitive. These ideas return all through her writings. Bowen often sheers between reason and imagination. She abhors the tyranny of emotional self-consciousness, but she also feels the novel should be allowed to be irrational and individualistic.

Away from generalizations, these talks reveal some interesting specific enthusiasms for Emily Bronte, Flaubert, Dorothy Richardson and Somerset Maugham. Occasionally, she talks about her own work, and she fascinatingly says that she would sacrifice any of her novels on a desert island for her short stories. She is at her most eloquent when she talks about Virginia Woolf, whom she knew well from the early 1930s onwards. A Writer’s Diary had just come out in New York when Bowen gave her 1954 lecture at the Y, and she talks about how, in the Diary as in conversations Bowen had had with Woolf, one can see the struggle and the sense of obligation she was under when she was writing The Years. According to Bowen, Woolf thought, in the 1930s, that she had an “ethical responsibility” to write a novel which “expressed” her time. Bowen describes talking to Woolf in her house in Bloomsbury, while in the room above them Leonard was talking to politically-minded young men about the war in Spain. Woolf said to her: “I sometimes feel my own work is too much as a tangent—that it lacks a contact to the time.” So she wrote The Years, with “infinite trouble” and, ironically, in Bowen’s view, because it deliberately set aside imaginative vision and poetic writing, “it failed.” (Sixty years on, there is much interest in The Years, and many would disagree with her). Between the Acts, though, Bowen thought, was a return to Woolf’s best style, a “clarification” after the heavy middle period. It might have been “the beginning of another phase.” It is moving to hear Elizabeth Bowen talk in this way of her late friend.

Hermione Lee has written biographies of Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton. Her new book, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, has just been published.