Elizabeth Bowen & What to Read

Here’s a young Sylvia Plath interviewing Elizabeth Bowen for Mademoiselle magazine in 1953 (Plath used this time as inspiration for The Bell Jar), in May Sarton’s home incidentally! May Sarton and Elizabeth Bowen had some kind of relationship/affair also (here’s a Paris Review interview with May Sarton where she talks about Bowen, writing about her and her house in Ireland, Bowen’s Court). Such interesting literary links as I’ve been looking for Elizabeth Bowen photos and articles the past few days.

I’m thinking an Elizabeth Bowen read-along may work better than a reading week, since there seems to be enough excitement for her (and reading weeks are honestly exhausting to host!). When would work for those interested, the beginning of March or April or later? I will be going on holidays to Florida in two days (!! I’m not ready yet) for two weeks and will be trying to take a blogging break then, but let’s plan for something further down the road. The other question is, what do we read? I thought perhaps it could be fun to pick a date and then each post about whichever book of hers we chose, so there’s some variety, but if everyone wants to read the same book together, then we could discuss it more closely. Let me know what you think, Bowen fans, and if there is a book of hers you recommend reading or really want to read.

She’s also written a lot of short stories, as well as 11 novels (here’s the wikipedia page), so if you wanted to join in you could post about a story or two. (I read one yesterday that was rather terrifying, The Cat Jumps. Now I am a bit scared of her!) From what I can tell, her masterpiece may be The Death of the Heart (1938; “a story of adolescent love and the betrayal of innocence” the back of my book says, certainly it’s the book that made me like her so much), but you may have a different opinion! Her other most famous novels are:

  • The Last September (1929), about precarious position of the Anglo-Irish on the eve of the Irish War of Independence and the decisions a girl on the verge of womanhood has to make. (My review here.)
  • To the North (1932), which Darlene has just reviewed, saying “I was blown away by her writing and examination of the human psyche” and comparing the ending to Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski.
  • The House in Paris (1935), about two young children waiting for a day in a house in Paris, it also examines what has happened in the past, how the past of the parents affects the children (and is introduced by A.S. Byatt in my edition).
  • The Heat of the Day (1949) is set during World War Two and examines a love triangle, with a woman trying to protect the man she cares for by becoming involved with a spy.
  • A World of Love (1955) may not be one of her most famous novels, but it is mentioned in Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War by Virginia Nicholson, because the plot revolves around finding a packet of love letters from a soldier who died in WW1.

So there’s a few to choose from, plus she has earlier and later novels that may grab your interest. Right now I’ve got to choose some books to take with me to Florida — last time I actually brought two full bags of books on the plane with me! Perhaps only one bag this time. I actually began book blogging last year while I was in Florida (my in-laws live there, hence the annual pilgrimage), but this year I’m going to try to just have a holiday and enjoy the sun and the beach (and maybe a bookstore too) and stay away from the computer for two weeks! I’ll also be thinking about how I blog and maybe making some changes when I get back. I would like to start writing more regularly again and I don’t think I can do that and blog so often either, so I may have to cut back to a simpler approach here.

I haven’t managed to finish most of the books I’ve picked up this past week, I’ve been rather restless and depressed lately. I know reading is important to me, as I wrote in my last post (partly for my sanity and independence), but now the topic of what do I read presents itself. The classics everyone agrees upon? The books my friends like? I want to find my books, the ones that matter deeply to me, that speak to my heart, if you will. I know other people read for different reasons, to broaden themselves as people, for comfort, entertainment, escape, knowledge, but somehow I need to find the authors that don’t stifle and overwhelm me, I need to find echoing encouragement. Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Bowen, Marcel Proust, these are some of the writers who make me feel I am not alone.

I am a picky reader for these reasons, I don’t find it easy to get into many books. I also stop reading many books if it feels boring or just not something that resonates with me. I don’t know if this is a problem, if I need to force myself to keep going (I was only 100 pages from the end of The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai when I put it down for good, unable to stand such unrelenting misery, even if it did win the Booker) — somehow I can’t force myself (unless it was for a university class, which always enriches the experience anyways), my reading has to be for me. It’s not about how many classics can I stuff down my throat to look more impressive. I am all for reading the classics for enlightenment, but lately I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice available to me as a reader and also the pressure in such a highly literate community of book blogging that I read ever more more more, more quickly. I’m just not a fast reader it seems or else perhaps I’m too easily distracted or I like to do other things, like thinking and journaling and talking with my husband… I don’t know how it is exactly, but some of you manage to read stacks in a normal full month, whereas I read 6 books in January while living out in the country with no job and plenty of time! I’m often torn between wanting to read more and write more and don’t do either as much as I’d like. (What am I doing, I’m online. Hence questioning continuing with book blogging the way I have been, but I do love the community here. It also shows me that I am not alone. I don’t know if full on artistic solitude is what I need either. Or is it, I’m scared to try.)

I did go into Edmonton, the nearest city, on Sunday and bought Orhan Pamuk’s The Naive and Sentimental Novelist, based on lectures he did at Harvard. It starts, “Novels are second lives.” I also got a purple library card (! something I didn’t even know existed so that I could wish for it!) — the Edmonton library seems quite good at branding itself, but there were fewer books on the shelves in prettier displays than the over-stuffed stacks in Calgary. I was able to find a few books I wanted (one Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor each, a few Muriel Sparks), but not nearly the stack I’d find in Calgary, where they still carry many of the old green Virago Modern Classics, even if they are becoming quite battered. Did Edmonton used to have a better selection and just get rid of them in their drive to turn the library into a bookstore or do I have some librarian somewhere in the past to thank for taking the time to order in rare British books for the Calgary library?

One good book I have picked up lately is The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford, which was sent to me last year by the NYRB Classics people for participating in the Spotlight Series Tour for them. I didn’t think I was interested in reading it then as the book was sent unsolicited, but suddenly pulled it off the shelf and it’s this fresh American coming of age story set in the ’20s that I know nothing about, but somehow the landscape and characters feel more familiar than those in British books and it’s a breath of fresh air in my reading. There’s a longing for adventure in the characters, they are not chained to small British towns and duties. So I will definitely be keeping my eye out for more NYRB Classics, they seem to have found books that have great writing but like the ones republished by Virago and Persephone, somehow fell through the cracks. The joy in discovering them is that here is a book that is completely new and unspoilt, you know nothing of it culturally and yet it is a gem, not the brightest and the blandest of the bestseller and prize winning lists. Hopefully I’ll be able to find a few more of them in Florida, and may read another American book while I’m there, perhaps East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Any holiday book recommendations? I’ve found reading a book in the country where I’m visiting works well (Dickens in London, Proust in Paris were my honeymoon reads), but despite going to Florida I don’t like ‘beach books’, something that is thoughtful but not too dense tends to work well, ie, Mrs. Dalloway is better reading at the beach than Middlemarch, in my experience! I was also sent a copy of The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton, so may bring that too. Maybe I could try some May Sarton for the Elizabeth Bowen connection.

This may be my last post for a while, who knows. I’ll see you tomorrow or in two weeks!

30 thoughts on “Elizabeth Bowen & What to Read

  1. Karenlibrarian says:

    As a former Floridian, I recommend some local writers: Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God is amazing, and not too long or too difficult); Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings — Cross Creek is really good and it’s not exactly a narrative story, so you can kind of pick it up here and there. If you’re looking for something light and more contemporary, I recommend Carl Hiaasen who’s pretty hilarious. I really liked Stormy Weather but most of his stuff is pretty outrageously funny.

    Where are you going in Florida? I’d be jealous if I hadn’t just been there visiting MY in-laws at Thanksgiving!

    • Carolyn says:

      Thanks Karen. I’ve read Hemingway in previous years when we’ve gone to Key West, perfect. And I have been wanting to read Their Eyes Were Watching God (and once had an interest in Cross Creek too), thanks for reminding me.

      My in-laws live near Tampa Bay and we’ll be going to Orlando too… because of the Harry Potter theme park!

      • Karenlibrarian says:

        We lived in Brandon for three years — and we went to the HP park at Thanksgiving! It’s amazing, we did the virtual ride 3 times. And bought wands. The only thing we didn’t get to do was the wand selection at Ollivander’s, the lines were just unbelievable. We did get to eat at the 3 Broomsticks which was quite good. I recommend the Cornish pasties. Have fun and keep us posted!

  2. Elizabeth Roberts says:

    Have you tried The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa? Dr Zhivago?My Family & Other Animals? There was a lively discussion about Elizabeth Taylor’s Hide and Seek on BBC R4’s ‘A Good Read’ yesterday. One of my oldest friends is Rosy Thornton’s agent!! There is a new generation of chicklit writers in the UK: Alison Pearson, – they are making a movie out of her ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ – and a woman who does a column on work topics in the FT has written about guilty office romance. I also absolutely loved Behind the Scenes in the Museum (I can’t navigate away without losing the whole post – names later)

    • Carolyn says:

      My Family & Other Animals could be good, although I don’t know if I can find a copy at the moment. I don’t read a lot of chick lit or mysteries at the moment, although I’ve heard a lot of praise for Kate Atkinson’s books.

  3. Elizabeth Roberts says:

    Behind the Scenes at the Museum is by Kate Atkinson. Fascinating entry for Allison Pearson in Wikipedia – it may be her late-delivered second novel I Think I Love You that is being made into a movie

  4. litlove says:

    I sympathise completely with how you feel. I’m not a fast reader either, and have stacks of books here I’m longing to read but cannot get to (and all I have is a very small family and a part-time job!). I can’t help but read slowly and carefully and well, I get so much out of that and can’t do it any other way. I also hear you about wanting to find the special authors, the ones who really speak to you. They do come, and from often unexpected places! I have ordered and am expecting any day Djamila and Narziss and Goldmund because the latter I’ve been meaning to read for years and the former sounded so intriguing. I’ll let you know how I get on! But I digress – the blog world IS overwhelming, but finding little pockets with good friends who have similar tastes makes it fun and useful.

    I think you might really like May Sarton. We read her novel, The Small Room for the Slaves of Golconda reading group and it was wonderful. I’d love to read Journal of a Solitude.

    Oh and Bowen! I’m up for any and all of that. I’d like to read The House in Paris or A World of Love, but don’t mind what really. And April sounds great. I just adore that picture of her with Plath – wow!

    • Carolyn says:

      I’m glad not every blogger can read 500 books a year! 😛 I like to read carefully too and I suppose some books just overwhelm me. I leave a lot of things I start unfinished, so I guess I read more widely than appears in my finished list. I’d like to read Thomas Mann too (and Journal of a Solitude), but have never heard of Djamila and google yields no answers either, what is it?

      I’m thrilled to have you join in the Bowen read-along, April it will be. I think maybe I’ll leave it open for everyone to pick their own book of hers to read, since they are a bit hard to come by anyways. Yes, it is a stunning picture, there are a few more of them around as well. (Now I may try some Plath too, since I skipped that phase of depressed literary girlhood before!)

  5. litlove says:

    Ahh, the comment about Djamila will make NO sense to you, as I have suddenly realised that recommendation came from a different Carolyn… As you say, the blogworld is a big place! But still, it’s been doing things like Virago reading week, and learning about books from other bloggers that has really improved and broadened my reading.

  6. verity says:

    The heat of the day is a wonderful book. I must try to read some more Bowen as I said when I read Darlene’s review the other day, so I would love to join in a readalong. Hope you have a good holidays!

  7. Darlene says:

    Let me know what the sun feels like when you get back from Florida! It’s -25 with the windchill here today, brrr.

    Perhaps I should clarify my meaning about the ending of To the North just in case anyone is expecting a similiar wrap-up. For me it was the experience of holding your breath, desperate for what would come next and then the feeling of being utterly turned inside out when it came. The endings are very different but that feeling of something immense and the exhale was sublime in both cases.

    And a Bowen read-along? Yes please! I have The Heat of the Day and The Death of the Heart on my shelf and I would not hesitate to reread To the North.

    • Carolyn says:

      I’ll be sure to take lots of pictures, so you can imagine yourself there. Yes, I thought that was what you meant about the ending, reading The Death of the Heart was a similar experience, I actually thought my library copy might have been missing a final page it was so sudden!

      Hooray! We’ll go for April and let everyone pick their own titles and share some Bowen love.

  8. motheretc says:

    I don’t know much about Bowen but would definitely be interested in a read-along. I would lean towards To the North though purely because of Darlene’s recent review.

    When no fiction really seems to be working for me I will pick up a memoir or something else non-fiction. Sometimes reading about somebody’s true life experiences is just what I need to jolt me out of my slump. If you haven’t read it already, I would suggest Julia Child’s My Life in France. It’s a perfectly wonderful and inspirational read.

    • Carolyn says:

      I would be glad to have you join us and yes, Darlene’s review makes me want to finish it too.

      I love reading non-fiction books about books, bookish memoirs, etc. Howards End is on the Landing is one of my favourites of those, hopefully I can find more of them.

  9. Ruthiella says:

    I sort of like the idea of everyone reading a different Bowen title, as is their inclination or availability. My library has almost all the titles mentioned so far.

    I hear you on “The Inheritance of Loss”. I finished it, because I have a tic about not finishing books. I thought there were some beautiful passages, but the story was depressing for the most part.

    • Carolyn says:

      Yes, I do too. I think it would be more interesting, to read a variety of reviews of different books (or short stories), than only one book being discussed. I’m sure there will be some overlap with who picks what, but that will be good too.

      I was trying to read some books set in India, but didn’t even get anywhere with The God of Small Things or A Suitable Boy! Perhaps starting smaller would have been better.

  10. Margaret Powling says:

    I have just found a link to your blog, and have been browsing through your TBR list … I would recommend that you read South Riding. This is shortly going to be featured here in the UK as a 3-part TV drama and I daresay that will find it’s way to Canada and USA in due course, so best to read the book first. It is up for discussion soon on Cornflower’s book blog and I have recently read it and thoroughly enjoyed it (although the writing is very much of its time – 1930s – the themes are those perennial ones, of small town politicking, the haves and have nots, the rich and poor, etc.) An excellent, if long, read.
    Margaret P

    • Carolyn says:

      Hello Margaret, yes I am hoping to read South Riding soon and am quite excited about the miniseries being made out of it (it’s coming to PBS in May I’ve heard), I’m hoping it will get more people reading early 20th century books, especially by Virago and Persephone!

  11. BuriedInPrint says:

    The expressions in the photo you’ve posted are just fascinating. I didn’t realize there were so many literary connections around Elizabeth Bowen.

    Hope you’re enjoying your holiday immensely!

  12. Nicola says:

    I’ll definitely read along with Bowen. I’ve read The Death of the Heart and I have a copy of To the North waiting.

    I used to feel guilty about abandoning ‘good books’ because I was bored but I now don’t think twice about it. In fact, as I get older I read less widely and just stick to the few novels and writers I know I like. I think it’s also OK to sometimes be sick of reading and cast your book aside and do something else!!

  13. Mel u says:

    I was really happy to learn about your interest in Bowen-in the last 30 days I have read and posted on The House In Paris, Last September and The Heat of the Day-I also read and loved the Collected Short Stories-I am read her last novel now Eva Trout (which is the last of her books I have on hand-I also read and really liked Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Bowen-I will look into see if I can participate in some way in Bowen month on your blog

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