21 thoughts on “The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

  1. Part Three: 3

    “‘… It’s simply chance, after all. You can’t foresee anything. Look, for instance, how I ran into you. In a book, that would sound quite improbable.’”

    …this is Brutt speaking to Anna, about his near miss encountering Robert Pidgeon….think about it, and you need to think a lot in this chapter, to gnaw through the words time and time again, till they cease gnawing at you… Brutt having recently just missed running into Pidgeon, just as Anna and Thomas once ran into Brutt, by similar coincidence, all those book-pages of plot ago…

    “‘And yet, do you know, though I cursed missing him, it seemed better than nothing. When he’s once turned up, he may turn up again.’
    ‘Yes, I do hope he’ll turn up – But not where I ever am.’
    Fatalistically, she faced having got this out at last.”

    Any such homing of that lost pigeon (!) would have gone amiss, I guess.

    “Why are you not Mrs Pidgeon? You are still you, and he still sounds like himself. You both being you was once all right with you both. You are still you – what has gone wrong since?”

    “I just thought I’d clear that up about Robert and me. No, if I do seem a little rattled today, it is from being rung up in the middle of lunch and told by a stray young man that Portia is not happy. What am I to do?”

    Eddie had earlier rung Anna to divulge that secret I would not earlier divulge about what St Q divulged about the secret he’d had from Anna… and so Ann’s says to him…
    “‘If you were me, then, you’d just tell Eddie to go to the devil?’” [How can a devil go to the same devil, I ask?] “‘Not right away, I do hope. I am so glad, at any rate, that you’re not going to Shropshire. Thomas and I were mad to consider that idea;…”

    And indeed we just had to sit through a whole scene with two minor characters from Shopshire that Anna had just tried to get Brutt a job with, to help his ‘irons in his fire’…

    “‘It’s fatal’, she concluded, holding her hand out, ‘to be such a good friend to a selfish woman like me.’ With her hand in his, being wrung, she went on smiling, then not only smiled but laughed, looking out of the window as though she saw something funny in the park.”

    See I keep gnawing off the words of this chapter and throwing to you their leftovers to see what you can with them by means of a sort of veiled literary cannibalism, I guess. Minor characters need to be chewed well just as much as main ones, though. Even Mr and Mrs Peppingham from Shropshire.

    *

    “Coming out from lessons, the girls [Portia and Lilian] stepped into an impermeable stone world that the melting season could not penetrate –“

    Two or three elbows, now, to get down to the bones or Bowens of, now, in the next section, not so much a diselbowing as one friend disemboweling another friend with words and innuendos, however simple minded these two young friends are? —

    “When they came to the crossing, Lilian gripped Portia’s bare arm in a gloved hand: through the kid glove a sedative animal feeling went up to Portia’s elbow and made the joint untense. She pulled back to notice a wedding carpet up the steps of All Souls’, Langham Place – like a girl who has finished the convulsions of drowning she floated, dead, to the sunny surface again. She bobbed in Lilian’s wake between the buses with the gaseous lightness of a little corpse.
    ‘Though you are able to eat,’ said Lilian, propping her elbows on the marble-topped table and pulling off her gloves by the finger-tips (Lilian never uncovered any part of her person without a degree of consciousness: there was a little drama when she untied a scarf or took off her hat),…”

    “…you told me there was a plot. […] Of course I call that a plot. […] I don’t mean a plot like that.”

    And I challenge anyone to disembowel the whole impenetrable but probably marvellous pair of paragraphs quoted in full below (marvellous, should one finally manage to parse and construe, if not disembowel, the semantic words and their syntax) from the end of the chapter, about Lillian as confidante to Portia’s foolhardy appointment at Convent Garden (with Eddie presumably to chew the fat over secrets divulged and varying umbrages taken) —

    “There is no doubt that sorrow brings one down in the world. The aristocratic privilege of silence belongs, you soon find out, to only the happy state – or, at least, to the state when pain keeps within bounds. With its accession to full power, feeling becomes subversive and violent: the proud part of the nature is battered down. Then, those people who flock to the scenes of accidents, who love most of all to dwell on deaths or childbirths or on the sick-bed from which restraint has gone smell what is in the air and are on the spot at once, pressing close with a sort of charnel good will. You may first learn you are doomed by seeing those vultures in the sky. Yet perhaps they are not vultures; they are Elijah’s ravens. They bring with them the sense that the most individual sorrow has a stupefying universality. In them, human nature makes felt its clumsy wisdom, its efficacy, its infallible ready reckoning, its low level from which there is no further drop. Accidents become human property: only a muffish dread of living, a dread of the universal in our natures, makes us make these claims for ‘the privacy of grief’. In naïver, humbler, nobler societies, the sufferer becomes public property; the scene of any disaster soon loses its isolated flush. The proper comment on grief, the comment that returns it to poetry, comes not in the right word, the faultless perceptive silence, but from the chorus of vulgar unsought friends – friends who are strangers to the taste and the mind.
    In fact, there is no consoler, no confidant that half the instinct does not want to reject. The spilling over, the burst of tears and words, the ejaculation of the private personal grief accomplishes itself, like a convulsion, in circumstances that one would never choose. Confidants in extremis – with their genius for being present, their power to bring the clearing convulsions on – are, exceedingly often if not always, idle, morbid, trivial, or adolescent people, or people who feel a vacuum they are eager to fill. Not to these would one show, in happier moments, some secret spring of one’s nature, the pride of love, the ambition, the sustaining hope: one could share with them no delicate pleasure in living: they are people who make discussion impossible. Their brutalities, their intrusions, and ineptitudes are, at the same time, possible when one could not endure the tender touch. The finer the nature, and the higher the level at which it seeks to live, the lower, in grief, it not only sinks but dives: it goes to weep with beggars and mountebanks, for these make the shame of being unhappy less. So that, that unendurable Monday afternoon (two days after Portia had seen Eddie with Anna, nearly a week after St Quentin’s revelation – long enough for the sense of two allied betrayals to push up to full growth, like a double tree) nobody could have come in better than Lilian. The telephone crisis, before lunch at Miss Paullie’s, had been the moment for Lilian to weigh in. To be discovered by Lilian weeping in the cloakroom had at once brought Portia inside that subtropical zone of feeling: nobody can be kinder than the narcissist while you react to life in his own terms. To be consoled, to be understood by Lilian was like extending to weep in a ferny grot, whose muggy air and clammy frond-touches relax, demoralize, and pervade you. The size of everything alters: when you look up with wet eyes trees look no more threatened than the ferns. Factitious feeling and true feeling come to about the same thing, when it comes to pain. Lilian’s arabesques of the heart, the unkindness of the actor, made her eye Portia with doomful benevolence – and though she at this moment withdrew the cake plate, she started to count her money and reckon up the cost of the taxi fare.”

    I have now masticated all that time and time again, and I still cannot digest the meaning. Literary critique as failed flaying and flensing. But Portia’s ‘gaseous lightness of a little corpse’ is too rarefied to get a grip on, while Lilian has meat on her bones, though!

    To repeat: “‘Though you are able to eat,’ said Lilian, propping her elbows on the marble-topped table and pulling off her gloves by the finger-tips…”

  2. “I couldn’t help laughing; it just shows how true novels really are.” – Elizabeth Bowen (from the short story, ‘Making Arrangements.’)

    Part Three: 4

    “You must have been reading novels.”

    I couldn’t help laughing along with my previous hypotheses that Eddie is a template for a figure in our times, not to be blamed on Bowen as the prophetic cause of an effect, but more a fateful synchronicity that may create a healing catharsis or destructive fatalities?…
    When Eddie and Portia have it out in his flat after they left Convent Garden..

    “Across the façades, like a theatre set shabby in daylight, and across the barren glaring spaces, films of shade were steadily coldly drawn, as though there were some nervous tide in the sky.”

    …this being the “hellish pavements’ of Convent Garden – more now, than it was then?
    “London is full of such deserts, of such moments, at which the mirage of one’s own keyed-up existence suddenly fails.”

    The Kôr within the ‘moving dangerously’ towards not a magnetic but a ‘macabre north’ in a different novel. Before Eddie vanishes, with mock shyness, into the figurative fridge?

    “… ‘Now for God’s sake, darling – you really must not cry here.’
    ‘I only am because my feet do hurt.’
    ‘Didn’t I say they would? Round and round this hellish pavement. Look, shut up – you really can’t, you know.’ […]
    Portia knocked her crushed hat into shape on her knee. […]
    Knotting her hands in their prim, short gloves together she screwed her head away…”

    Eddie: “How can we grow up when there’s nothing left to inherit, when what we must feed on is so stale and corrupt? No, don’t look up: just stay buried in me.”

    Echoing those predictive ‘convulsions’ quoted in my previous entry above…

    “The tears shed in that series of small convulsions – felt by him but quite silent – had done no more than mat her lashes together.”

    “In the state he was in, his enemies seemed to have supernatural powers: they could filter through keyholes, stream through hard wood doors.”

    The elbowy Portia … first in his flat, later as she leaves… with the ‘speed’ that often changes back and forth to slowth in this novel…

    “With the crane-like steps of an overwrought person, […] Her childish long-legged running, at once awkward (because this was in a street) and wild, took her away at a speed which made him at once appalled and glad.”

    “Whatever manias might possess him in solitude, making some haunted landscape in which cupboards and tables looked like cliffs or opaque bottomless pools,…”

    “His animal suspiciousness, his bleakness, the underlying morality of his class, his expectation of some appalling contretemps which should make him have to decamp from everything suddenly were not catered for in his few expensive dreams – for there is a narrowness about fantasy: it figures only the voulu part of the self.”

    “Because I don’t know, do you know? I may be some kind of monster; I’ve really got no idea …”

    “That’s what’s the devil; that’s just what I mean. You don’t know what to expect.”

    Who said that last bit above?

    “All the other women I’ve ever known but you, Portia, seem to know what to expect, and that gives me something to go on.”

    “You’ve got a completely lunatic set of values, and a sort of unfailing lunatic instinct that makes you pick on another lunatic – another person who doesn’t know where he is. You know I’m not a cad, and I know you’re not batty. But, my God, we’ve got to live in the world.”

    And with a novelistic device worthy of Zeno, this chapter ends with Eddie reading a letter from Anna about telephone calls (as immediate as today’s whatsapps), a letter ironically sent round to him by special messenger for speed’s sake instead of relying on the post, the same letter that I had already read much earlier!

  3. Part Three: 5

    “Their builders must have built to enclose fog, which having seeped in never quite goes away.”

    …being the sort of downside hotels that are not like those in Poliakoff film dramas but such dramas somehow have an essence of an older London and of Bowen in them. This one the Karachi Hotel, as a wonder-desiccated version of what I envisage Kôr Hotel to be, I guess?..

    “…the place is a warren. The thinness of these bedroom partitions makes love or talk indiscreet.”
    With the previous ‘convulsions’….
    “The floors creak, the beds creak; drawers only pull out of chests with violent convulsions;… […] Most privacy, though least air, is to be had in the attics, which were too small to be divided up. One of these attics Major Brutt occupied.”

    The scene I remember most from my previous reading of this book, and you will not need me to tall you why this is the case… the measurement of a sleepwalker as Major Brutt is sought by Portia as her naively idealised and older version or Platonic Form of Eddie who had let her down as a conspirator with all the others (except perhaps Matchett), a desperate port in a storm of disillusionment… a Bursley hopefully without the Bursitis for her bodily parts, elbows and knuckles and knees as representative of her spiritual parts? Brutt — in spite of such inner Proustian selves and his selfishness about Windsor Terrace as a haven or heaven for himself — is, in fact, her disarmingly would-be saviour but in ways he or she could never have predicted.
    Only in the truth of novels and their arrangements…

    “: he felt Portia measuring his coming nearer with the deliberation of a desperate thing – then, like a bird at still another window, she flung herself at him. Her hands pressed, flattened, on the fronts of his coat; he felt her fingers digging into the stuff. She said something inaudible. Grasping her cold elbows he gently, strongly held her a little back.”

    “Having let go of her elbows he reached, when he had sat down, across the arm of his chair, caught her wrist and pulled her round to stand like a pupil by him.”

    “They sat almost knee to knee, at right angles to each other, their two armchairs touching.”

    Yet…

    “Having things out would never stop, I mean.”

    “But she interposed: ‘Oh, quickly! I’m starting to cry.’ She was: her dilated dark eyes began dissolving; with her knuckles she pressed her chin up to keep her mouth steady; her other fist was pressed into her stomach, as though here were the seat of uncontrollable pain. She moved her knuckles, to mumble:…”

    The scratchy unMatchetty Karachi Hotel as a gestalt house… Waikiki and Windsor Terrace and all the hotels she stayed with her mother….

    “This house seemed to have no top – till she came to the attic floor. At Windsor Terrace, that floor close to the skylight was mysterious with the servants’ bodily life; it was the scene of Matchett’s unmentioned sleep.”

    “After that second, she was looking doubtfully over a lumpy olive sateen eiderdown at a dolls’ house window dark from a parapet.”

    “Unhappy on his bed, in this temporary little stale room, Portia seemed to belong nowhere, not even here.”

    “He tried: ‘Or look at it this way –’ then spoilt this by a pause. He saw what a fiction was common sense.”

    “She had turned to grasp his bed-end, to bend her forehead down on her tight knuckles. Her body tensely twisted in this position; her legs, like disjointed legs, hung down: her thin lines, her concavities, her unconsciousness made her a picture of premature grief. Happy that few of us are aware of the world until we are already in league with it.”

    This novel’s title transcended? —

    “…he felt her knocking through him like another heart outside his own ribs.”

    “With a quite new, matter-of-fact air of possessing his room, she made small arrangements for comfort – peeled off his eiderdown, kicked her shoes off, lay down with her head into his pillow and pulled the eiderdown snugly up to her chin.”

    “…picked up his two brushes, absently but competently started to brush his hair. So that Portia, watching him, had all in that moment a view of his untouched masculine privacy,…”

    No telephone in his room — an irony alongside Bowen’s previous business with telephones…
    cf YOUR TINY HAND IS FROZEN by Robert Aickman!…

    “Without any further comment, she turned over and put her hand under her cheek. Her detachment made her seem to abandon being a woman – she was like one of those children in an Elizabethan play who are led on, led off, hardly speak, and are known to be bound for some tragic fate which will be told in a line; they do not appear again; their existence, their point of view has had, throughout, an unreality. At the same time, her body looked like some drifting object that has been lodged for a moment, by some trick of the current, under a bank, but must be dislodged again and go on twirling down the implacable stream.”

    “…started down to go to the telephone – his somnambulist’s walk a little bit speeded up, as though by some bad dream from which he still must not wake.”

    “But as he went into the upright telephone coffin, he did not doubt for a moment that he was right to telephone, though they might laugh, they would certainly laugh, again.”

  4. Part Three: 6

    “Do we know what the right thing is?’
    ‘I suppose that’s what we’re deciding.’
    ‘We shall know if we don’t do it.’ […]
    ‘– you know, we are all in it. We know what we think we’ve done, but we still don’t know what we did.’”

    We as readers, too, as we shadowy readers meet this subtle Ivy Compton-Burnett conversation amid the St Q-A-T threesome, as they fathom the Portia situation, when receiving the call from Brutt. Subtleties of conversation as Pinteresque moments and pauses and shocks….

    “Shocks are inclined to be cumulative.”

    “What a help telephones are!”

    Telephones help create margins for the gaps and pauses, even a household telephone, here, as well as a public network, or simple Internet….

    “‘I’m afraid I should not be much help, even if I were not here … I’m so sorry I can’t think of anything to suggest.’
    ‘Well, do try. You’re a novelist, after all. What do people do?”

    A novelist within a novel we try to scry. We want to do the right thing, make the right analysis, to help fetch Portia back, even with a nursery rhyme as an incantation or refrain or spell to induce such fetching!

    “– she did not even see St Quentin’s fishy look; she had no idea he had anything on his mind.”

    Who told whom about a real-time review disguised as diary?

    “…’there are no half measures. We either have dinner or telephone the police …’”

    “Just after the duck came in, the dining-room telephone started ringing.”

    “And why Brutt? Where does he come in?’
    ‘He has sent her puzzles.’”

    “Why did you say he [Eddie] was bright if you say he is such a donkey, and if he’s such a donkey, why is he always here?”

    The place that would have been a different place without him, a different plot. I even imagined he may have become Matchett’s given taxi-driver at the end, to whom she spoke as part of a Joycean soliloquy, also a monologue as a conversation with an invisible Portia. With Matchett not even knowing the name of the hotel to which she had been sent, Matchett being without the omniscience of us readers…

    “From the outside we may seem worthless, but we are not worthless to ourselves. If one thought what everyone felt, one would go mad.”

    That mad gestalt we already ‘felt’, even if we never enter the Karachi at the end.

    *

    “… No, she is growing up in such a preposterous world that it’s quite natural that that little scab Eddie should seem as natural to her as anyone else. […] – the chap who breaks his own arm to avoid going back to school, then says some big bully has done it for him; […] It takes nerve to make a fuss in a big way, and our Eddie certainly has got nerve. But it takes guts not to, and guts he hasn’t got.”

    He might even make Prime Minister one day!

    “All the same, you are so brutal. Does one really get far with brutality?”

    My weak memory cannot now recall who asked that question, but Brutt was never brutal? It may not even have been a question about him.

    “If the world’s really a stage, there must be some big parts. All she asks is to walk on at the same time.”

    “Their being so knit up. They sometimes look like each other.” – Matchett and Portia, their bones matched. An arch of bones in a previous chapter. Elbows woven with elbows. Connected as a caryatid with caryatid.

    “You know quite well Matchett stays with the furniture. No, you inherited the whole bag of tricks.”

    “Matchett – is that the woman with the big stony apron, who backs to the wall when I pass like a caryatid? She’s generally on the stairs.”

    “An empty room gets this look towards the end of an evening – as though the day had died alone in here.”

    Matchett’s monologue…

    “When at moments she thought, she thought in words.”

    “Oh, he might say to me, and as saucy as anything, but you’ve come to the wrong place. Let alone they ought to have said, I should have had it in writing.”

    “Then I said to myself, well, we’re off to – and I stopped.”

    “To start with, you never said you would not be back for your tea. I’d got a nice tea for you, I was keeping it.”

    “I couldn’t believe the clock.”

    “In the Karachi Hotel drawing-room, someone played the piano uncertainly.”

    Then the reader becomes novelist. Clincher in the reader’s real-time of the book’s end gestalt. Portia’s (as also perhaps with Bowen’s Pauline elsewhere in my concurrent real-time review) at a doll’s house window…

    *

    “one elbow each side”

    end

  5. Pingback: Hawl the Slowth | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

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