- An Aesthetics of Unintimacy:Narrative Complexity in Elizabeth Bowen’s Fictional Style
In an apparently ordinary passage of narration, part way through Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929), the narrator remarks of the protagonist, Lois, while behind the reins of the horse-driven trap with her deceased mother’s ex-lover, Hugo: “They might have said, she felt now, anything; but what had remained unsaid, never conceived in thought, would exercise now a stronger compulsion upon their attitude. She was to believe they had approached each other in the unintimacy of their silence” (87).1 The passage suggests at least one simple interpretation, offered as it is in a relatively conventional heterodiegetic narration: the silence between the two individuals is weighted by a tension resulting from that which is not or cannot be said. Such an interpretation, while satisfying enough for an understanding of the novel’s plot and the scene itself, fails, however, to account for its strangeness of style. The opening quotation, for example, is complicated not only by peculiar diction and multiple clauses but also by subtly shifting focalizations and verb tenses that, in their attempts to be precise, obscure rather than elucidate the plot-relevant content of the sentence, leaving the meaning ambiguous. The tense shifts—”might have said,” “would exercise,” “was to believe”—could be interpreted as class markers or indicators of a deferential and indirect politeness consistent [End Page 79] with a certain social milieu. Those shifts also, however, reflect a temporal dimension or collapse, moving between a present marked by “now” and the past habitual; such temporal shifting points to an indeterminate narrative position (spatial as well as temporal) that echoes an equally indeterminate narrative attitude, as the language juxtaposes that which is felt, conceived in thought, and believed. This kind of stylistic indeterminacy is representative of Bowen’s narrative style in general, which resists easy interpretation or simple characterization. I propose that Bowen’s stylistic strangeness can be organized into three types: one, at the sentence level, wherein the convoluted syntax forces the diligent reader to reread (of which the opening quotation is a good example); second, in dialogue, where the implicit communication between characters remains unexplained, even by a previously explicit narrator2; and third, at the level of narration, where the narrator’s knowledge and limitations are highly variable and reflect a complex use of narrative conventions. In the interest of brevity, this article will address all three types in Bowen’s two Irish novels, The Last September (1929) and A World of Love (1955),3 devoting the greatest attention to the third type, which constitutes a kind of metacommentary.
Narrative theorists have, at least for the past fifty or so years, suggested that consistent, singular narrative voices are rather rare, and therefore the fact of shifting focalization in Bowen’s work is not unusual in fiction generally.4 What is peculiarly noteworthy in Bowen’s style, however, is the subtlety with which the focalization shifts, transitioning in and out of the space of the story world without explicitly signaling the shifts or always clearly designating the boundaries of diegesis, disrupting what we might call normal indirect discourse. In the quotation with which the article opened, for instance, the passage begins by focalizing Lois, as indicated by “she felt now,” wherein her present feelings in and about the story world are expressed. The statement after the semi-colon, however, belongs not to Lois or to the story world; the assertion by the narrator that “what had remained unsaid, never conceived in thought” (and that it would “exercise … a compulsion upon their attitude”) constitutes an extradiegetic intrusion from a narrator who knows both what has not been said and what was never imagined in thought. Since, grammatically, sentences often end with a predicate that is consistent with the subject at the start, this mid-sentence [End Page 80] shift that takes place in the space of one clause exemplifies the understated way that Bowen’s style subverts such conventions.
Among her contemporaries—experimental as well as more conventional—Bowen’s style is anything but typical; the difficulty of characterizing it has contributed to critics’ frustrated efforts...