Bowen: master of mood, craft; The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, introduction by Angus Wilson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf $17.95.
The ephermeral quality of much recent fiction and the skyrocketing prices of hardcover books have taught many readers patience -- patience to wait for the paperback edition or the library copy. Here is a book that in its original hard-cover form is a blue-chip investment, rather than an extravagance. This collection of stories by the lately rediscovered British writer is so rich in imagination, pschological insight, entertainment, craft, and sheer volume -- 79 stories are included -- as to be a bargain at the price.
Bowen, born in Ireland to a genteel family on the decline, went early to England, where she wrote the eight novels currently in print, a family memoir, several other volumes of nonfiction, and, arguably her finest work, these stories. Taking as her themes romantic love, decay and decline, unequal relationships and the loss of the past, and applying them to both individuals and societies, she focused on a particular class -- the British upper -- in a particular period -- the Edwardian Age through World War II -- of cataclysmic change, including the decline of class, the decay of empire, shifting supremacies, and the annihilation of entire blocks, literal and figurative, of personal and national history. Many of Bowen's heroines, particularly in the novels, have, as a result of their experiences, a vaguely disoriented, self-destructive air about them; the stories, being more constricted and immediate, are for the most part populated by more precisely focuse and motivated characters, to the reader's greater delight, I think.
The stories fall into all the varieties of the genre. There are monologues slice-of-life sketches, ghost stories, drawing room dramas, character studies, and novellas.With only one or two exceptions, they are consistently entertaining and fascinating for their skillful delineated of the contracdictory impulses, desires, and social strictures that cause people to do the things they do
I found the slice-of-life pieces the most compelling and memorable selections of the collection. Bowen was not a natural dramatist, and her more deliberatedly plotted stories, like her novels, too often disappoint with stagy exaggeration and all too obviously creaking deus ex machina.m Bowen was, however, an absolute master of mood and atmosphere; the subtle gesture, the change in the weather, the conversation of two women over tea could in her hands be isolated and framed to convey the essence of those little moments that, at one and the same time, constitute the here-and-now and are expanding the catalog of history.
With her naturally romantic and Gothic tendencies, this latter day Bronte of the Belgravia drawing room, the Irish country house, and the London Blitz was most effectively enthralling when she refrained from passing judgments or drawing conclusions, but limited herself to observing, selecting, and offering the details and nuances of decor, gesture, and dialogue without comment. Such pieces as "Sunday Afternoon," "Careless Talk," "The Parrot," have a quiet power and leave a permanent impress which the more ambitious works -- "The Disinherited," "Summer Evening," "Ivy Gripped the Steps" -- miss, in their diffuse concerns and their striving to achieve an effect, to impose an order.
Both "The Disinherited" and "Summer Evening" call our attention to the interlacing overlapping, but essentially separate worlds that form the individual human consciousness and, together, compose society. The Rashomon technique which Bowen employs, of showing the same evening from various characters' points of views, only serves to dilute our sympathy for each and to distance us, rather than involve us with the stories.
Happily, the effect she strove deliverately to create but missed there is achieved in these stories naturally. Reading through the book is like passing from room to room, garden to lobby to dining room, of as many coexisting, gently bumping, and completely enthralling other worlds. Good for the bedside, the hearthside, the train or plane, these intelligent, supremely evocative stories together result in that rare book, a treasury to return to again and again.