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The Death of the Heart Paperback – May 9, 2000
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Five words of advice on reading Elizabeth Bowen: Resist the urge to skim. In The Death of the Heart, Bowen's writing rolls ever onward, accruing the sensations and ironies of conscious living till the final effect is massive. This is not prose for people who like their fiction with a cool, Calvin Klein-like minimalism. Bowen's people are keenly aware, and she seems to catalogue every sweaty moment, every betraying glance. The reader must stay right there with her, because hidden among lengthy descriptions of sea air and drawing-room politics are pithy asides worthy of great humorists: "Absence blots people out. We really have no absent friends." Skimmers miss out.
The Death of the Heart is Bowen's most perfectly made book. Portia, an orphan, comes to live in London with her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna. A child of sin raised in a series of shabby French hotels, Portia is possessed of a kind of terrible innocence. Like Chance the Gardener in pigtails, she literally can't comprehend evil or unkind motives. Unfortunately for her, she falls in with Anna's friend Eddie, who seems to be made entirely of bad motives. Though the plot follows Portia's relationship with Eddie, the novel's real tension lies between Portia and Anna, as the girl comes to grief against the shoals of Anna's glittering, urbane cynicism. But the book transcends the theme of innocence corrupted. As in Graham Greene's The Quiet American, Bowen inverts the formula to show the destructive power of innocence itself:
Innocence so constantly finds itself in a false position that inwardly innocent people learn to be disingenuous.... Incurable strangers to the world, they never cease to exact a heroic happiness. Their singleness, their ruthlessness, their one continuous wish makes them bound to be cruel, and to suffer cruelty. The innocent are so few that two of them seldom meet--and when they do, their victims lie strewn all around.Bowen has a fine eye for such shadings of morality, but finer still is her understanding of the way humans bump up against the material world. Her writing on weather, both emotional and meteorological, compares with the best of Henry James: "One's first day by the sea, one's being feels salt, strong, resilient, and hollow--like a seaweed pod not giving under the heel."
Always a sensitive observer of the way we live, in her lesser books Bowen deals in mind games and then delivers trumped-up, bloody endings. In The Death of the Heart, she keeps all the action between her characters' ears, and comes up with one of the great midcentury psychological novels. --Claire Dederer --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"A witty, lucid, and beautiful psychological novel.. . . By far her best book." --The New Yorker
"Bowen is a major writer. . . . She is what happened after Bloomsbury . . . the link that connects Virginia Woolf with Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark." --Victoria Glendinning
"Bowen writes with both art and skillful artifice. . . . [The] quality of restraint, of the unsaid, gives her novel its curious tautness and intensity." --The New York Times
"[The Death of the Heart] manages to make a major statement about human character. . . . We finish the book with that sense fiction nowadays rarely communicates, of life's having been mysteriously enlarged." --The New Yorker
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Paradoxically, it is also very enjoyable to read and the plot moves forward very easily, especially for a character driven story. As a reader living in an environment of brusque and abbreviated language and expedient plots, this book was a pleasant challenge and an enjoyable reading experience.
Not for nothing does the book-jacket writer compare Elizabeth Bowen to Henry James. For this is a very Jamesian subject. The recently-orphaned 16-year-old Portia, Bowen's heroine, is significantly older than James' Maisie (WHAT MAISIE KNEW) and younger than his Isabel Archer (THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY), but like them she is thrust into sophisticated society as a naive observer, and the book is mainly taken up by the author's razor-sharp dissection of that society and sensitive exploration of the heroine's feelings.
What is surprising here, even in comparison to Henry James or to the other Elizabeth Bowen novels that I have read (THE LAST SEPTEMBER and THE HOUSE IN PARIS), is that so little actually happens. Everything seems to point to a premature sexual affair which will proves disastrous for Portia, especially once she falls for the charms of the caddish Eddie, whose previous dalliances we have already seen described. Portia herself is the offspring of her father's late-life affair, which has forced him to leave his life of English respectability and to live abroad; there is a sense of unreliability in the bloodline. Even the title of the book, THE DEATH OF THE HEART, and the subtitles of its three major parts -- "The World," "The Flesh," and "The Devil" -- all seem to be leading in this direction.
And yet, while sexuality is always present in the subtext (another Jamesian quality), it never tips over into action. This is a book in which so simple an event as Eddie's holding the wrong girl's hand at a movie can have traumatic significance; there is no need to go farther. I can only think that Bowen's misdirection is deliberate. In the course of waiting for something to happen, the reader finds that he has absorbed countless details and impressions of everyday life that, taken cumulatively, have an even more devastating effect. This book is like a timed-release drug capsule; you may feel comparatively little after you have finished reading it, but it continues to work in the mind long after you have put it down.
In her three-part structure, Bowen contrasts two different strata of English society. The outer sections are set in the upper-class world of Portia's half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, who live in an expensive house in one of the Nash Terraces fronting Regent's Park. Thomas is withdrawn and remote; Anna leads a busy social life with many male friends; they communicate only superficially with each other and hardly at all with Portia, who is forced to turn to the housekeeper, Matchett, as the nearest thing to a confidante. It is no wonder that she falls for Eddie, whom she sees as an outsider just like her. Meeting him at first assuages her loneliness, but his eventual small betrayals only serve to heighten it.
Contrasting with London society is a month that Portia spends with Anna's former governess Mrs. Heccomb, in an off-season seaside resort. Having been brought up in a similar resort town myself, I found Bowen's description of the wind-battered setting and the cheerfully rowdy life of the young people whom Portia meets there one of the most vivid sections of this excellently-observed book. While the apparently free-and-easy quality of this middle-class setting can be seen to have its own limitations and proprieties, it sends Portia back to town with an unbearable sense of the shallow frigidity of her life with Thomas and Anna. And the events of the weekend when Eddie comes down to join her, although slow to make their full effect, eventually alter their relationship (and Portia's view of herself) irretrievably.
One of the most poignant aspects of the book is its awareness of transience. Thomas and Anna are eminently settled in their house, their work, their society; even the constant motion of the Heccomb young people and their set is based on an underlying stability. But Portia's life has always been rootless, moving from one European hotel to another, staying out of season and in the cheapest rooms -- rootless with one vital exception: the security of her parents' love. Eddie's rootlessness is of a more dangerous variety, coming of having rejected the life of his still-living parents without creating anything significant of his own to replace it, but it takes Portia time to realize the essential difference between them. The theme is further reflected in one minor character who will become important at the end: the sad Major Brutt, who "had a good war" but has been rattling around since, growing rubber in Malaya, and now staying in a seedy London hotel waiting for something to turn up; it is a touching portrait, albeit a frightening one.
And what will happen to Portia? Will her heart remain dead? Is it indeed HER heart that dies? The book ends on a spiritual and psychological crisis, but it offers no resolution. Perhaps it is wishful thinking on my part, but I do not see her life ending in either tragedy or pathos, despite the book's title. Portia's first innocence has been dispelled, certainly, but there is an energy in her, a drive towards the good which I believe will enable her to learn from her experiences and ultimately rise above them. Not the least of the qualities of this admirable edition which I praised at the beginning is the cover painting, which goes far to contractict the implications of the title and declare that this wonderful novel is not, after all, depressing.
I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Bowen's The Last September which was made into a successful independent movie some years ago. Also, those readers who enjoy literary fiction would enjoy this read.