At the age of twelve Elizabeth Bowen read H. Rider Haggard’s adventure novel She and felt, according to her own report, “the first totally violent impact I ever received from print.” She was overwhelmed by the power of writing, and eight years later she began writing seriously herself, began a career that spanned half a century and produced ten novels, seven books of stories, and numerous other volumes of criticism and history and autobiography. Although her reputation has wavered at times, submerged in the critical outpouring of the Virginia Woolf machine or attacked by C. P. Snow as that of a decadent and unrealistic artist (an attack that she quietly rejected as dreadfully middle class), her work remains secure in its craft and artistry, its imaginative sensitivity and the honed perfection of its language.
Although the latest Bowen revival has tended to favor her novels—especially The Death of the Heart (1938) and The Heat of the Day (1949)—this new collection of her stories, all seventy-nine of them arranged in the order in which they appeared in the earlier collections, may well draw an appropriate attention to her work in the short-story form and establish her deservedly as one of the modern masters of the form. Page by page they produce their effects unfailingly, perhaps sounding too much like Henry James here or depending too heavily on the irony of a last sentence there, but as a whole fully original and as soundly crafted as any similar body of work of this century.
The short story, according to Frank O’Connor, the great modern Irish short-story writer and theorist, is “an art . . . fundamentally drawn to startling dramatic insights and the inner riot that may possess the lonely man or woman at some unwary moment in the hours of the day.” Elizabeth Bowen’s stories are so drawn, exploring story after story, those rare and inexplicable moments when lives reach such a pitch of intensity that genuine choice is possible, that startling change may occur or be rejected. Closer to poems than novels, her stories, for all their richness of specific detail, are not works of descriptive realism concerned with social behavior or social values. As she put it herself in the preface to an American paperback selection of her stories in 1959: “The short story, as I see it to be, allows for what is crazy about humanity: obstinacies, inordinate heroisms, ’immortal longings.’” The irrational impinges on the ordinary revealing it not to be so ordinary after all; the supernatural seems the truest way of understanding the psychologically natural; what one feels to be true is often far more valuable and meaningful than what one simply knows.
In almost every one of Bowen’s stories, the veil of the immediate is stripped away, sometimes only fleetingly, sometimes permanently; sometimes with disastrous effect, sometimes with great good effect. In “Ann Lee’s,” two remarkably superficial women visit Ann Lee’s elegant hat shop, finding hats they cannot afford but must have, but also finding a terrible and inexplicable passion, a humiliation and degradation that neither of them can hope to fathom. The desperate man whose relationship with the aloof Ann Lee they have accidentally touched upon passes them in the fog at the end of the story, his breath sobbing and panting, blindly stabbing his way into a fog that is as much of the soul as of the London night. The reader knows no more of what happened than the two women do, but a powerful knowledge lies in that fog, a knowledge of longings and refusals, of desires and shames that echo in the mind like his lunging footsteps in the heavy swirling fog. The story, with its unexplained mysteries and almost tangible emotional texture, is typical of Bowen’s work—an oblique approach to the directly unapproachable, a discovery beyond direct statement.
The stories are not, then, primarily plots; they are, rather, dramatic moments. There is no room in them for full-scale characterization or even character analysis. They depend much more heavily upon an almost cinematic mise en scène: each carefully described detail of decor or scenery is fully freighted with narrative meaning and value. The rush of the wind, the rumble and punch of the thunder, the fountains in the Italian garden in the livid storm light, the whole presence of the scene carry as much or more memorable weight in “The Storm” as do the events of the plot. The relationship of a husband and wife is changed utterly by the storm, and its fierce presence is the emotional and aesthetic center of the story. The story has much the same effect as a scene from a film by a Nicolas Roeg or a Michelangelo Antonioni, the texture of color and movement and changing light actually telling the tale in the fullest sense. It is no accident that the metaphors used by Elizabeth Bowen most often when she was explaining her ideas about short stories were cinematic—angles and lenses and cutting. In “Human Habitation,” the look and feel of the two men trudging along in the rain and gray light by the half-visible canal lingers in the memory long after the particulars of the plot have disappeared; in the stories about London in the blitz, the empty streets and blasted buildings, whether seen by sunlight shining through shattered walls or by mysterious moonlight, have in silence the imaginative...