Sunday, November 29, 2015

I've begun rereading Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day, one of my favorite novels of all time and also one that I feature in my forthcoming reader's memoir, The Vagabond's Bookshelf. Bowen's novel never stops being strange: no matter how often I reread it, I'm startled by its syntactical contortions--its painful replication, via word order, of the characters' inner and outer troubles in blitz-era London. To sit here on Sunday morning, beside a warm stove in the cold northcountry, revisiting this odd book, is itself a dissociative experience.
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from "Words and Dust," forthcoming in The Vagabond's Bookshelf
Perhaps the act of rereading is itself the only true explication of the power of literature; for after all this chatter and speculation about The Heat of the Day, I still cannot exactly explain why I return to it, why I cling to it. I never feel better when I finish the novel, never feel that I have clarified anything new about myself or the world. I have never once found myself imitating Bowen’s style. All I can pinpoint is the seriousness of her language, and serious is not really what I mean. Rather, her words are formal and somber, like an arcane dance. They bow and turn, step forward and back. They exist, like the portrait of an age exists—remote and harsh, elegant and harrowing.
 “What a terrific dust they can still raise in a mind,” in mine, at least, as they do also in the mind of poor ignorant Louie Lewis, that stray soul wandering through Bowen’s novel, bumping up against the world. “Often you say the advantage I should be at if I could speak grammar,” she laments; “but it’s not only that. Look the trouble there is when I have to only say what I can say, and so cannot ever say what it is really. Inside me it’s like being crowded to death—more and more of it all getting into me. I could more bear it if I could only say.” 

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