Thursday 19 January 2017

His Mother's Type of Book

He paused only to collect [his mother's] library books, sober tales of love and loyalty that reflected the moods of women as he wished to consider them. He often read her books himself, was acquainted with her tastes, which, half-smiling, he acknowledged to be his own.
Lewis Percy, Ch. 3

He took out an Elizabeth Bowen and a Margaret Kennedy. He found himself drawn to the books his mother had loved, as if in reading them he could get in touch with her in a way of which she would have approved ... He whiled away several evenings with what he thought of as his mother's type of book, and for a time he was soothed and charmed, although the moment at which he was forced to emerge from these tender fictional worlds was always harsh and painful.
Ibid., Ch. 4

Lewis evidently sees Elizabeth Bowen as a safe, genteel 'lady novelist'. Bowen is unBrooknerian, for sure: her plots are wild and surprising; her language is unconventional and often quite odd, though her syntax is influenced by James.

Brookner has been bracketed with Bowen - for example by Blake Morrison in the 1994 interview. The tone is not a little patronising:
She would not pretend to be a writer on the scale of the writers she loves - Proust, James, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Stendhal - but it doesn't seem rash to include her alongside Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann, women novelists who, as time passes, look less like 'women novelists'.
Intriguingly, irritatingly, disingenuously, Brookner referred to herself as a novelist of that kind in the 2001 Observer interview:
Observer: Where do you see yourself in the tradition of English literature?
Brookner: I don't know anything like that. I'm a middle-class, middle-brow novelist. And that's it. It amuses me.
This is an affectation, a masquerade. There was nothing middling about Anita Brookner.

Nor about Elizabeth Bowen, for that matter. Lewis Percy's assessment of Bowen - Brookner's too, perhaps - is somewhat wide of the mark. Bowen, especially in her later novels is a profoundly difficult, complicated writer, even repellently so. Take her last book Eva Trout, which has been described as disastrous.

I cannot find any significant article by Brookner on Bowen, only this brief mention from one of the Spectator's 'Christmas Books' compilations in 2009:
I much enjoyed Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie’s Love’s Civil War: Letters and Diaries 1941-1973, edited by Victoria Glendinning with Judith Robertson ... The contrast between Bowen’s uninhibited outpourings and Ritchie’s extremely circumspect comments is painfully instructive.
(Notice how, in the last sentence, Brookner doesn't miss an opportunity for a personal aside.)

The print version of the piece was accompanied by this rather wonderful photograph of Bowen:

Elizabeth Bowen, Bowen's Court, County Cork, 1962

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