Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Appreciation: My New Favorite London Novel

For a long time I've said my favorite London novel was Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent.   I have a new favorite: Elizabeth Bowen's Death of the Heart.  We did it as a readaloud before, during and after a trip to London and it is really hard to think of any other novel so vivid in its sense of place.

Others may cavil.  They may say even if we limit ourselves to Bowen, still  The Heat of the Day is better on London atmospherics.  Heat of the Day surely is superb in capturing the particular atmosphere of wartime London, but it's not as good a novel overall and so doesn't deserve the very top rank.  Others will say that Bowen is better at houses than at cities.  There is a good deal of truth to that: Bowen is superb on houses. But it is really not just houses: it is the artifacts in general of civilization, of which houses are only one variety,  "[T]he destruction of buildings and furniture is more palpably dreadful than the spirit than the destruction of human life."  (207)  A strong statement and in the end, I am  not sure she justifies it.  But she comes close; and it certainly is the thinginess of houses and other things--including the city--that define her world.

Death of the Heart is a coming-of-age novel, in that it is a novel about young Portia and how she first learns of betrayal.  It becomes a city novel because we come of age in a time and place, and London is her time and place.  As  a coming-of-age novel, it is done with almost unmatched delicacy.  But it is a coming-of-age novel only, not a full-fledged bildungsroman.  So while we see a moment with great clarity, we are left wondering what will happen to Portia as she moves on.  Indeed, that led to a provocative exchange here at Chez Buce.  Without wishing to give away anything about the plot--we differ about the possibilities here.  Will she be able to scratch her way out and get a life?  Or is she stuck, like so many around her seem to be stuck?  It's a topic for a sequel which, sadly, never got written.

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