Thursday, September 23, 2010

Marmalade as Signifier

I still can't think of a better novel/companion for a visit to England than Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart, our current readaloud.  That first chapter in Regents Park, where the swans have to cope with the ice--it's a set-piece fit to match the famous Virginia Woolf  "London Morning" at the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway.  But Woolf--dare one say it? --has always disappointed me as a novelist.  She's a writer of brilliant sentences but disappointing books;  in the end her self-absorption defeats her: you get the sense that she really doesn't understand any character except herself.  Bowen, by contrast, by fate and temperament an outsider, can be a model of sympathetic and astringent detachment.  She does it in elaborate set-pieces but also in deft asides, of a sort that you miss unless you have your eyes open.  Here, for example, we are at breakfast with Mrs, Heccomb at shambling purpose-built  beachfront house on the South Coast.  The topic is marmalade:
...highly jellied, sweet, and brilliantly orange.
Let's review bidding:
  1. Highly jellied.  She can't afford the kind with lots of orange peel.
  2. Sweet.  She's got vulgar taste.
  3. Brilliantly orange.  She's being fobbed off with food coloring.
Mrs. Heccomb lives here with her family except in summer when she moves everybody out so she can take in vacationers.  Did I mention that the name of the house is "The Waikiki"?

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