Getting her due.
IN THE SPRING 2003 ISSUE of American Literary History, Catherine Gunther Kodat recounts an "arresting moment." At a recent meeting of the American Literature Association, one critic stunned his audience by "straightforwardly and unapologetically" identifying William Faulkner as "'the most significant novelist of the century.'" Kodat writes, "He paused, giving the phrase time to resonate in the hot, tiny, and overcrowded Cambridge hotel conference room. Then, looking up at his audience, he added with a smile, 'it's wonderful finally to be able to say this.'" Like those in the audience that day, we might find ourselves "distinctly alarmed" by such critically retro sanctifications. Arguments about writers "significance" sound too suspiciously like claims of greatness--claims one encounters most readily in single-author scholarship, a critical mode often approached warily (if approached at all) because, according to Kodat, "such work is often susceptible to hagiographic impulses that don't rhyme well with more critical modes of inquiry." But Kodat uses the occasion of her review of two single-author studies of Faulkner to argue that currently in-vogue modes of literary criticism--interdisciplinary, multicultural, and theoretical--"thoroughly depend upon--rather than, as is generally assumed, depart from--the work of single author scholarship."
Using questions raised by a review of new Faulkner scholarship as a critical springboard for a review of Maud Ellmann's single-author study of Elizabeth Bowen, The Shadow Across the Page, might seem to force a false parallel. The audience members catapulted into a state of critical "alarm" by one Faulkner scholar's hagiographic impulse might have quite an opposite reaction to a similar claim made about a female modernist writer whose work has not been similarly lionized by generations of readers and critics. Certainly the practice of hagiography is evaluated differently depending upon who is being canonized; book-length studies of largely "forgotten" female authors, for instance, are less likely to be accused of enshrining conventional definitions of literary greatness--even when such accusations might not be completely off the mark. As Ellmann points out in her introduction, the recent critical expansion Elizabeth Bowen's novels have enjoyed is due, in large part, to a shift away from "the dominance of Joycean modernism in critical accounts of twentieth-century fiction" and towards "a larger reconsideration of women writers in the map of modern literature" (x). In short, the same critical trends have made Faulkner scholarship less and Bowen scholarship more marketable. And yet, by substituting "Bowen" for "Faulkner" in the category of "most significant twentieth-century novelist," one sees dramatically illustrated the very point Kodat asks us to consider: Although current critical trends praise interdisciplinarity and decry hagiography, for better or worse readers and critics still think in terms of significance and greatness, and the single-author study remains the critical foundation upon which a writer's critical reputation is built.
Bowen scholars have consistently banked upon this notion, seeing the single-author study as the most promising and convincing vehicle through which Bowen might finally be recognized as a giant of modernism in her own right. Of course, Elizabeth Bowen is today far from "forgotten," but in the not-too-distant past her novels gathered dust on the shelves. Those of us who write about her fiction therefore feel compelled to bear witness to her greatness; we consistently make statements that sound a great deal like the one below, which appears in the preface to Ellmann's study:
Much has recently been gained from reevaluating Bowen as a woman writer, an Anglo-Irish writer, and a war writer. But her novels and short stories tar exceed these classifications. As an anatomist of consciousness she rivals Henry James; as an observer of social mores she rivals E.M. Forster; as a journalist of the sensations she rivals Joyce; as a lyricist of obsession she rivals Patrick Hamilton. Her narratives are as compelling as Graham Greene's her satires as sharp as Evelyn Waugh's, her sentences as multivalent as Virginia Woolf's. Yet Bowen is stranger than her rivals; ethically, psychologically, stylistically, her fiction constantly takes our categories by surprise. (xi)
In The Shadow Across the Page, Ellmann offers innovative, theoretically-deft readings of Bowen's major novels that together, through three of accumulation, forward the implicit hagiographic argument central to Bowen scholarship since the early 1980s: Elizabeth Bowen is a significant, even great modernist artist whose body of work demands and rewards the broad scope of a definitive single-author study.
Specifically, Ellmann's authoritative and intriguing study seeks to "teas[e] out Bowen's strangeness," her "narrative addictions," using a daunting combination of theoretical approaches which, she argues, Bowen's textual complexities demand. Psychoanalytic and deconstructive readings of the major novels share time with masterful detours into literary biography. We find illuminated the "interplay between life and writing" in Bowen's work through carefully balanced readings attuned at once to the writer's "negotiations with contemporary history" and her almost obsessive re-working of personal life events through fiction. The Shadow Across the Page pays close attention to Bowen's "peculiar" (and at times maddeningly contradictory) representations of gender and sexuality, representations that often coalesce around and find form through what Ellmann terms Bowen's "hallucinatory treatment of objects." Ellmann also extends the larger critical project of establishing Bowen's place in the modernist canon by revealing "unexpected affinities with Joyce and Beckett, as well as intertextual skirmishes with Woolf, James, Forster, Flaubert, and Woolf." Above all, Ellmann argues, her study "strives to do justice to a remarkable body of fiction." In this, it emphatically succeeds.
"The apparent choices of art," Bowen wrote in 1946, "are nothing but addictions, pre-dispositions. The aesthetic is nothing but a return to images that will allow nothing to take their place; the aesthetic is nothing but an attempt to disguise and glorify the enforced return." This evocative pronouncement, one which also captured the critical imagination of Neil Corcoran in his own single-author Bowen study, The Enforced Return (2004), provides the impetus for the major critical conceit of Ellmann's study: the concept of "narrative addiction"--the notion that major "obsessions," "hallucinations," and "apparitions" can "shadow" a writer's fiction from its earliest articulations through to a last written project. Bowen's addictions are at once expected and exotic:
The car careering through deserted countryside; the stylish couple going nowhere in a hurry; the womb-like, tomblike house strangled in voracious vegetation; the absent father; the motionless enchantress; the demonic child; the irresistible attraction of the death drive--these are the familiar leitmotifs of Bowen's fiction. (3)
Taken individually, these recurring images could each be accused of showcasing cliche notions of modernity and its discontents. Taken together, however, they accumulate the strange, addictive, and almost unwilling force of narrative that, Ellmann argues, offers the strongest rebuttal to accusations of imaginative stagnation. Ellmann acknowledges existing critiques of Bowen's fiction that accuse the writer of committing the aesthetic crime of repetitiousness, but she counters such reductive assessments by consistently demonstrating, through meticulous close reading, that "what is remarkable is the infinite variety of stories that Bowen fashions out of the limited repertoire of her addictions, much as Beethoven elicits symphonies out of a single phrase, or the Freudian unconscious conjures up a world of dreams out of a few psychic scars" (9).
It is in this project of tracking and illuminating Bowen's endless reworking of a limited repertoire of imaginative addictions that Ellmann's study truly astonishes. She shows a keen attention to how a single image, returned to again and again, exhibits subtle shifts over time and texts--revealing the care with which Bowen obsessively reworked key psychological and historical concepts, as well as their haunting material manifestations in the world of objects, over the course of her creative life. Ellmann pays intricate attention to Bowen's narrative addictions, tracking repeating images, symbols and motifs, as well as repeating and evolving structural elements in Bowen's novels. One such structural repetition Ellmann calls the "shadowy third," after one of Bowen's short stories of the same title. Ellmann demonstrates that in her fiction Bowen obsessively returned to figurations of an "algebra of love"--in which desire between two is really desire amongst three, or tour, on down to an almost outlandish "shadowy seventh"--to suggest again and again that "there is no such thing as being alone together" (The Heat of the Day, 1949). Many critics have noted the sheer oddity of romantic entanglements one finds in Bowen's fiction; Ellmann is the first to adequately characterize and theorize this oddity.
One image Ellmann tracks exceptionally well through each of Bowen's novels is the figure she terms "the Chant." In both novels and short stories, Bowen returned again and again, and in shifting, sometimes contradictory ways, to the figure of the oversized, unglamorous, almost monstrous, often pre-adolescent girl. Ellmann introduces this figure first through this striking statement from Bowen's novel The Death of the Heart (1938): "I swear that each of us keeps, battened down inside himself, a sort of lunatic giant--impossible socially, but full-scale--and that it's the knockings and batterings we sometimes hear in each other that keeps our intercourse from utter banality." The critic then traces this "lunatic giant" through various narrative permutations--Josephine, the paralyzed temptress of "Look At All Those Roses," Marda, the disruptive female force at the literal center of The Last September (1929) ("It is not for nothing that her name is an anagram of 'drama,'" Ellmann observes), and the eccentric, clumsy Maud Danby in A World of Love are all finally connected by the "sublime folly" of Eva Trout, Bowen's last novel, out of which rises "the figure of the lunatic giant Eva Trout ... who stands for the unformed imagination in all its savage majesty" and who, retrospectively, "casts her shadow across every page of Bowen' s work" (26).
Ellmann's study--infinitely readable, consistently insightful, often sharply illuminating--more than accomplishes the modest goal set down in the Preface'. "to do justice to a remarkable body of work." Occasionally, one feels that the author might have doubted this accomplishment. Often, in the middle of an engrossing close reading, Ellmann stops to make a thematic or aesthetic connection between Bowen and, without fail, other more widely read authors, including, to name just a few, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, E.M. Forster, Gustav Falubert, Jonathan Swift, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolt, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde. Often, these intertextual diversions are entirely justified and enlightening, as in Ellmann's observation that Bowen's concept of the "shadowy third"--a third presence informing the connection between a primary two--operates "much as the memory of Michael Furey haunts the married couple in Joyce's "The Dead" (187), or in her characterization of To the North as pitting "its Gothic melodrama of destructive passion against a comedy of manners; in generic terms, Emily Bronte collides with Oscar Wilde" (101). Occasionally, though, the parallels and connections Ellmann draws between Bowen and other Irish and modernist writers feel forced, as if the critic felt compelled to over-testify to Bowen's centrality and significance. By belaboring this point, Ellmann risks suggesting its opposite.
Since the publication of Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow Across the Page, Bowen scholarship seems to have exploded. In 2004 Neil Corcoran added to the growing body of single-author studies of Bowen with his Elizabeth Bowen: The Enforced Return (Oxford University Press). Critic Susan Osborn has assembled recent essays on Bowen's fiction for a forthcoming edited collection of new approaches to Bowen scholarship; Osborn's project will be the first critical collection devoted solely to Bowen All of Bowen's novels have been reissued in paperback by Anchor press, a development that certainly has contributed to Bowen's reappearance on both Irish Studies and Modernism syllabi. Finally, I offer this observation. In 2005, only one paper on Bowen was delivered at the American Conference for Irish Studies annual meeting; this year, no fewer than 12 separate abstracts devoted to Bowen's fiction were submitted for consideration--more than for any other single author, including Joyce. Perhaps, then, Bowen is well on her way to "significant" status. If so, masterful single-author studies like Ellmann's are certainly the reason.
--Saint Louis University
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|Title Annotation:||Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow Across the Page|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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