This was not what I had expected.
I had been expecting a spy thriller. That is not to say I wasn’t expecting seriousness of purpose, but, as various authors have demonstrated, spy thrillers need not eschew seriousness. I have, indeed, heard of this book specifically referred to as a spy thriller. The way the plot is set up leads one to expect a work of narrative tension: during the Blitz, a man claiming to be a government agent tells a woman that she will have to sleep with him if she wants to protect her lover, who is known to be supplying secrets to the enemy. Not, perhaps, the most original of set-ups: it is reminiscent of, amongst other things, the plotline of Puccini’s Tosca. But it’s certainly a most promising start to a thriller. And given such a set-up, I was expecting, as they say, a rollicking good read, full of tension and generating a narrative momentum.
In the event, I got neither. It didn’t really take too long to figure out that Elizabeth Bowen, a consummate writer of short stories, is more interested in situation rather than in plot. She can communicate atmosphere, describe the inner workings of the mind, depict characters interacting with each other; but what she isn’t interested in doing is moving the plot forward, create tension, or even generate some kind of narrative momentum. It can, of course, be argued that momentum isn’t merely pace: it is a product of velocity and mass, and what the narrative lacks in the former it can compensate with the latter. For Bowen’s prose certainly has great “mass” to it: it is intricately wrought, subtly nuanced, and laden with imagery; but it is so lacking in pace that, even with its mass, the momentum generated is negligible.
After a few chapters, I had to re-adjust my expectations. There is, after all, no point criticising a novel for not being something it never set out to be in the first place. But even with my expectations re-adjusted, I must confess I came across grave difficulties.
My main difficulty concerned the shaping of the novel. In the first chapter, Louie, a young working class girl whose husband is serving in the army, tries to flirt with a man at an open air concert in Regent’s Park, and is rebuffed. The impression is given in this chapter that it is Louie who is the novel’s principal character, but after this chapter, she disappears from the novel entirely until she appears in another chapter about half way through.
Neither is the man with whom she tries to flirt the novel’s central character. This central character, introduced in the second chapter, is the person whom the man at the open-air concert visits after having rebuffed Louie. And it is here, I suppose, the “plot”, such as it is, gets going. The man gives his name as Harrison, and he tells Stella, the woman he is visiting, of her lover’s treasonous activities; and makes to her his indecent proposal on how she could save him. Even at this stage, I thought this would be a spy thriller, and that the earlier focus on Louie had simply been to wrong-foot the reader – as a good spy thriller should. But it wasn’t. After this chapter, instead of moving the plot forward, we are taken backwards rather than forwards: we have a long flashback, in the course of which any narrative tension generated is allowed to dissipate. Then we have a long chapter describing a visit to the family home of Stella’s lover, and by this stage, the spy-thriller element that had been introduced earlier seems entirely forgotten. And so on.
I got the picture: this was not a plot-led novel. Fine, I could take that – but it did leave me rather puzzled as to why the spy-thriller element had been introduced in the first place. It also left me puzzled about Louie: why give her so central a role in the first chapter and then allow her to disappear from the novel till we’re some half-way through it? And when she does appear half way through, we see her inhabiting a world quite disconnected with that inhabited by the other characters. I appreciate that the plot is not the point here, but I couldn’t really see any thematic connection either; and I couldn’t help wondering what purpose she served in the novel.
Louie appears again towards the end of the novel, and this time, she meets with Stella, but it’s a rather inconsequential meeting: nothing much leads up to it, and nothing much comes out of it either. Of course, it is entirely valid for a novel to have more than a single centre of gravity, but such novels are big, multi-stranded novels – Bleak House, War and Peace, and the like; in a novel of a mere three hundred or so pages, as this one is, structural unity tends to demand that there is one single centre of gravity, with, perhaps, a few orbiting satellites – subsidiary strands related to, but less important than, the principal one. In this novel, Stella clearly forms the novel’s centre of gravity, but the various satellites that orbit around her seem so tenuously related, that one wonders why they have all been forced together in the same work.
For instance, we are taken to Stella’s lover’s family home, and introduced to his authoritarian mother and to his rather bumptious sister, but once again, I couldn’t figure out what part they play in the novel: they certainly don’t advance the plot (Bowen seems to have lost interest in the plot almost as soon as she has introduced it), and neither do they advance the work thematically, or even, I think, in terms of character. We are taken to Ireland, where Stella’s son has inherited some property, and are introduced to a new set of characters: once again, they seem unrelated either to the central plot or to the novel’s principal themes. Elizabeth Bowen is fine in depicting atmosphere and describing situations, but a novel needs to be more than what seems to me a series of more or less random collection of situations: these situations never seem to cohere into a satisfying unity.
There were also certain sudden shifts of narrative perspective that I found jarring. Most of the novel has Stella at its centre, and it is Stella’s mind that we principally occupy. Yet, in one chapter very conspicuously isolated from the rest, we have Stella’s son, Roderick – who is mostly a character on the periphery of the novel’s action – meeting with a cousin who had not appeared earlier in the novel, and who is forgotten about immediately afterwards. And the entire purpose of this curious chapter is to impart to the reader a detail of the plot. Admittedly, this plot detail does give us an insight into Stella’s character, but setting the whole thing up in so elaborate (and disruptive) a manner simply to give us a plot detail – and this in a novel in which the plot is relatively unimportant – seems to me clumsy in the extreme.
And what of Stella herself? We are given the impression that she is an intelligent and thoughtful person, and are taken quite deeply into her mind. And yet, she appears never to think about her work: she works in some government department, but she never thinks about it, and we, the reader, never get to find out what exactly her work is. Neither does she think about the war. When her lover, towards the end of the novel, spouts his fascist ideology, she appears to have no response, either spoken, or in her thoughts. Had she opposed fascist ideology, she would have been repulsed; had she supported fascism, she would have been in agreement; had she been ambivalent about fascism, she would have had some shade of reaction in between; but not to have any response at all seems to indicate that she has never even thought about fascism. And it is simply not credible for an intelligent person living during the Blitz, with Nazis just across the channel threatening to invade, never even to have thought about the nature of fascism. It is all very well praising Bowen for entering so well into the mind of Stella, and delving so deeply into her consciousness, but if, after all that delving, all one finds are the trivial thoughts of a trivial person, the one can’t help wondering what the point is.
Of course, yes, the book is not devoid of merits. The atmosphere of the Blitz is very strikingly conveyed; there are many subtle parallels drawn between various characters; there is a sense also of time itself distended: there are references throughout to time, to watches and clocks, and to photographs that freeze moments in time, and so on – all those things that book groups take delight in spotting and which earn bonus marks when laid out in school essay assignments. But what purpose all this serves, I do not know.
I normally do not write about books I do not like, as, quite apart from anything else, I don’t want to rain, as the bowdlerised saying goes, on anyone’s parade. And one tends not be too perceptive about things one doesn’t like: I am sure I have missed a lot here. I am sure that were I to look at this novel from a different perspective, I would find many riches. I know this because this novel has many admirers, and, presumably, they admire it because they find things in it that I couldn’t. I’d be very happy to hear from such admirers: it’s not that I will necessarily change my mind about this novel, but I would genuinely like to know why this novel is so admired. I myself have often admired many of Bowen’ short stories, but I’m afraid I could find little here other than a misshapen and unfocussed narrative.