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Listening In

Broadcasts, Speeches, and Interviews by Elizabeth Bowen


Edited with an Introduction by Allan Hepburn


Edinburgh: University Press, 2010. 381 pages. £24.99 (Paper)

ISBN 978 0 7 486 4042 3


Reviewed by Christine Reynier

Université Paul-Valéry-Montpellier III



Between 1941 and 1973, Elizabeth Bowen was a regular contributor on the BBC. She had been attuned to the role of radio during the blitz as a means of informing people and bringing them together and was a great radio listener. Speaking over the radio was a challenge for her since she had a bad stammer but she came out as a wonderful talker, a compelling conversationalist. And in her own words, “Writing for the air frenzies me: it is such a new and different technique – all the same, its problems are fascinating”. Having a broad range of interests, she wrote plays for radio, broadcasts and speeches, radio essays and reviews, and gave interviews. Allan Hepburn offers here a rich selection, mostly published versions of essays and corrected typescripts which are more reliable as base texts than mere transcriptions of broadcasts – material accumulated while he was editing People, Places, Things: Essays by Elizabeth Bowen (2008). (1)

Among the plays Bowen wrote for the air, the most striking are New Judgement and A Year I Remember. The first is a play on Jane Austen. Starting from the assumption that Jane Austen’s female characters are developments of her own self, Bowen imagines a dialogue between the author, her sister, her favourite niece, a narrator and her various characters – Elizabeth and Emma mainly. She thus maps out Jane Austen’s loves, retrieving what her lost love-letters would have revealed, and gives a reading of the famous couples in her novels – Elizabeth and Darcy, Emma and Mr Knightly – as embodying the author’s own aborted love affairs. Most of all, while showing how Jane Austen haunted the memory of her sister and niece, this short play is a witness to the spectral power of Jane Austen’s writings and their ability to go on haunting readers and writers. The second play is about 1918, the reality and unreality of the war or more exactly, what those who lived through it remember from it: futile events, daily events as well as dire ones; moments of joy as well as fear; the reality of war and its absence or intangible nature. It shows what stuff history is made of, what crucial events that can change the face of the world may mean for ordinary human beings, how awareness of the importance of war cannot prevent human beings from living and being sensitive to frivolous details in daily life and how each individual experiences the war differently. A Year I Remember conveys the complexity of what war may mean as well as the difficulty of capturing it, which is here done through a polyphonic text.

Then come the broadcasts, which include reviews of now forgotten books and recognised by Bowen as not being first rate yet commended for their experimental qualities. There are short pieces about writing, like “The Next Book” in which Bowen goes to the heart of the matter in a few words: “Books which I have written and published seem to have gone onto the blue, like balloons with the cables cut: they have very little further to do with me. […] To have finished a book, any book, is a triumph, in one way. But in another way, there is also an element of defeat”. She then explores the impossible autonomy of literature: “It would be impossible for a novelist in these days to write a story purely of private life. […] I think that the value of every novelist will be established by the truthfulness by which he or she pictures the impact of the outside world on the individual”. She voices the novelist’s ceaseless quest for meaning and the expression of it, hence stating the necessity of going on writing, of “the next book”. “The Mechanics of Writing” is particularly interesting since it gives details about Bowen’s work and the way she organises her working day, details one usually finds in a writer’s diary and that show how demanding writing is and how important it is. Similarly, “Books that Grow up with One” offers reflections on reading and the haunting power of books; echoing post-structuralist critics, Bowen explains how re-reading always differs from the first reading.  In “The Cult of Nostalgia”, she turns to what writing should be about, the present moment rather than the past, and she defines the present as “the unfamiliar, the unforeseen relation between things, the break-through of an unexpected light”. Rather than indulging in nostalgia, the writer should capture, according to a very Woolfian Bowen, “ ‘now’, the moment – so disconcerting, so fleeting, so fascinating in its quivering inability to be pinned down”. This selected series of broadcasts illustrates the eclecticism of Bowen, who can write about very diverse topics: the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and the hopes and expectations she embodies; about what it meant to be a child in Edwardian times; about Rome. She draws a portrait of Ireland and the Irish, their melancholy and their contradictions; she captures in a few pages the tragic history of Ireland, a tragedy which, according to her, will last as long as Partition does. She discusses the pros and cons of emigration and how, by going abroad, “you make money there, but you may lose your soul”; she discusses the Catholic Church, how it rules Ireland but has also kept it European rather than insular. She hovers between a sociological analysis and a subjective, insider’s vision of the country. We feel we know it better when we come to the end of the essay.

“Panorama of the Novel” was first published in a French journal in 1944, in a French translation by Pier Ponti; since the original version seems to have been lost, the essay is presented here in the editor’s translation into English. It is a wonderfully perceptive survey of English literature between the wars. Bowen argues that after 1918, “the novelist in England […] found himself face to face with the great void of peace”; 1918 brought about “a halt in sensibility”, a “blank page”. Then the sense of responsibility towards the dead and towards the artists who had been denied the possibility of completing their work, set a whole generation writing. But Bowen makes a distinction between three types of writers: professional ones, like Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells or Somerset Maugham, who went on writing about peace as they had done about the war, with the same technique and objectivity; the fiercely individualistic ones, like D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson or Virginia Woolf who chose to “emphasise interior being rather than the exterior forces that motivate feeling and knowledge”; and the younger ones who, because they were too young or were women, had not been able to take part in the war, resorted to satire and caricature to denounce the masculine values that were at the roots of warfare. Aldous Huxley, Rose Macaulay, Katherine Mansfield and Rosamond Lehmann feature high among these novelists. With the 1930s a change occurred: religion and politics were again among the main concerns of novelists and poets like Christopher Isherwood, Auden and Stephen Spender. In a few pages, Bowen draws a very thorough panorama of English history, at times reminiscent of Woolf’s “Leaning Tower”, and if her judgments, especially on the aestheticism of the second category of writers, seem questionable today, they are nevertheless valuable and give us food for thought.

Under the heading “Speeches on Fiction”, “The Poetic Element in Fiction” features high as an attempt at defining contemporary fiction. It starts with a history of the novel from the 18th century till now. We are told that the novel imitated life closely, recorded facts and the minutiae of existence and thus strayed from poetry until novelists like the French or the Russians recognised that “there are irrational and unregimentable elements in mankind and humanity which no hard set form […] can hope to contain”. This is what Flaubert called “the psychological overflow”. In England, Emily Brontë and Thomas Hardy were the first to see that “the rational and circumstantial telling of the story by the deliberately prosaic means of the novel was not enough”; fiction had to “recognize the poetic necessity”. This occurred with Henry James or James Joyce and came through the short story, a “much greater imaginative test”. Nowadays, the novel is in a way learning from the short story and the frontier line between prose and poetry is beginning to fade.

After a eulogy of pleasure in which she endeavours to make her listeners who may have lost the temptation of pleasure or the desire of it conquer the present-day fear of pleasure and recover their capacity for true pleasure, Bowen makes us enter the creative process and its mystery in “A Novelist and his Characters” where she tries to explain how a novelist fashions his characters. The answer is tentative and plural since characters, while always fictitious, may be traceable back to members of the author’s family or to friends but are always re-created. For Bowen, they come out of a “dark mist” and rather than being invented, they come into existence when they are first perceived by the author. And characters are the result both of emotional and intellectual reflections; that is why they affect the reader.

In a speech on “The Idea of Home”, Bowen addresses a very different topic and shows how important home is, how “identity would be nothing without its frame” and how “there is involved, when one speaks of home, at least some notion of the ethics and aesthetics of living”. She then proceeds to see if this is true of all countries, especially of a new dynamic country like “America”. She points out that in the Old world, “the past has force because of its length” whereas in America, “it has force because of it nearness and its intensity” and while “the Englishman’s home is his castle”, the American “conceives of the home as the seat of virtue, the symbol of independence, the source of strength”. But, she wonders, isn’t the idea of home too traditional and somewhat anachronistic in a modern mid-twentieth-century country like America? And how is the self to be retained in such circumstances? Her answer is that the idea of home has given place to a constructive idea for the home, the wish to bring together different generations and characters, to blend ideas and personalities. The new “home” in the end extends outwards and becomes indistinguishable from society, a society where cross-fertilisation is the rule. A very modern, thought-provoking reassessment of the traditional idea of home and roots.

“Film and Radio” offers a review of Wells’s film, Things to Come, which highlights its poetic sense but condemns its moralist intention. Second comes a piece entitled “Why I go to the Cinema” (1938), in which Bowen explains that she does not go to the cinema as a writer but to slough off her preoccupations there and get some pleasure, “the tingling physical pleasure” that a house enthralled by a film communicates. This makes going to the cinema a human experience as much as an aesthetic one. It is also a treat, a way of enjoying oneself, of being comforted and finding comfort in … chain-smoking, something cinema-goers do not know anymore today. Finally, the cinema itself plays its part: the pleasure of seeing a good film is heightened when the house itself is attractive. Glamour is what one looks for in a film as well as the delights of intimacy with a star – without the onus – what she calls “inoperative love”. The world the film creates must be probable as is the case in most French films, which she relishes. On the whole, she wishes there were more great artists to fulfill the promise of this great art. “What might be a giant instrument is still a giant toy”, she writes. We are then given to read an essay on the “Third Programme” which, from 1946 to 1970, was devoted by BBC Radio to culture and the arts, a bracing creative programme that Bowen assesses after its first six months. She notes how it helps listeners to discover European art and the best of contemporary art in general. Finally comes a piece written in 1962 on Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s film shot in Seville, a place more Moorish than the modern Middle East. Bowen met Peter O’Toole on location and remarks that his glamour had to be sternly played down for the role. She attended some of the shooting and conveys its excitement, its intensity and its poetry, the promises of a very good film.

“Appreciations” centres mainly on the portraits of Alfred and Blanche Knopf. Alfred Knopf comes out as a great publisher who knows how to keep his authors alive – or, as Bowen puts it, “no Knopf author is not a living author” – and to give life to their books, as works of art to be devoured and as splendid objects to be handled with pleasure. As for Blanche, his wife and partner, she is said to love the artist in the writer and “under her touch, the publisher-author relationship blossoms out”. Together, Alfred and Blanche know how to spot writers and the boldness of their choices is one of their foremost qualities.

In the last section, “Interviews and Conversations”, Bowen discusses language and the use of words with V.S. Pritchett and Sykes-Davies. She mentions Vernon Lee’s use of adjectives which, “applied to a noun narrows down the significance of the noun to one exact thing”, or D.H. Lawrence or Thomas Hardy’s style, which are not particularly good but can affect the reader so much because of the sheer power behind their words. The three of them also discuss the relation of art to life and Pritchett comes to the following conclusion: “let’s define the novel then, as life after the accidental has been removed”. They then turn to what makes a book permanent and successful. A successful book, according to Bowen, is a “mad book”, that is a book which “gives a powerful distortion of life” and “puts things before us so intensely and powerfully that it gives one a shock – the sort of distortion you get from seeing things in a strong light”. She discusses her novel and short-story writing, her working habits, her revisions of her manuscripts which come down to reducing rather than adding and replacing “analysis by a pure image”. She explains how her short stories start from an impression and how she does not plan her novels ahead; and above all, how, after years of writing, she is still “in a fluid state” and not a set writer with an old bag of tricks. She confesses to the importance of place in her fiction and to her writing being first of all a way of imparting her own enjoyment.

These broadcasts are witness to Bowen’s curiosity for the arts as well as for society, history, politics and more homely topics. Her skill in addressing listeners, her liveliness during the interviews come out, so much so that the reader wishes she could listen to her voice, for instance, in a CD attached to the book – but the BBC archive probably did not allow the editor to go that far. In any case, we are grateful to Allan Hepburn for giving us to read such nice, rich and varied pieces, studded with such sentences as this one: “When I was young, I found it alarming to meet a writer; I now realise that it is alarming for a writer to be met. He may learn to adopt a manner, as time goes on, but behind that manner lingers a shy monster”.


(1) See review




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