A Master of Hidden Things

Elizabeth Bowen
Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
Elizabeth Bowen, New York City, 1955

In her biography of Elizabeth Bowen, published in 1977, Victoria Glendinning judged that it was “too soon to assess precisely [Bowen’s] place among twentieth-century novelists.” Such caution was understandable at the time, just four years after the writer’s death, but even then there could have been no question as to Bowen’s greatness in the short-story form. In her finest novels, such as The Last September—the one she prized most highly—The House in Paris, and The Death of the Heart, she was as good as, if not better than, the best of her English contemporaries; but as a practitioner of the shorter form she was the supreme genius of her time.

Randall Jarrell famously, and wittily, defined the novel as an extended work of prose fiction that has something wrong with it. Most novels are loose, baggy monsters, and even the gilded artifacts Henry James produced over his long lifetime inevitably display a hairline crack, as the Master himself was ruefully aware. It is the curse of the novel, and its glory, to be contaminated by life’s incorrigible disorderliness. However, though perfection, as we know, is not of this world, and literary perfection not of any imaginable world, there are certain short works of fiction in which the sublimest sunlit uplands of achieved artistic form are to be at least glimpsed. Joyce’s “The Dead,” Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and William H. Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” are simply beyond criticism in their rightness—and they are but a handful of jewels lifted from an overflowing trove of treasures.

Revisiting Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories, one realizes that there are certain literary works that, once read, make one burn with envy of those readers who have still to come to them for the first time.* There is not a story in this substantial volume, from the first to the last, that is not brought off beautifully. While it is no doubt foolhardy and certainly vulgar to choose favorites, one must mention instances in which Bowen outdid herself. These include the elusive but vividly immediate “Summer Night”; the haunting “Mysterious Kôr” and the haunted “The Demon Lover”; the trance-like wartime set pieces “Ivy Gripped the Steps” and “The Happy Autumn Fields”; the forlorn “Joining Charles”; and the merely—merely!—marvelous early tales “Daffodils” and “The Parrot.” In these and many other of the stories, Bowen reached, as Glendinning puts it, “a perfection and a unity that the sustained narrative and shifting emphases of a novel do not attempt.”

At this point it is prudent to make a brief pause. In praising her mastery of the short story, it would be a grave error, and a graver injustice, to imply that Bowen was not a novelist of the subtlest talent and highest accomplishment. It…

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