Friday, August 19, 2016

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

She had watched life, since she came to London, with a sort of despair--motivated and busy always, always progressing: even people pausing on bridges seem to pause with a purpose; no bird seemed to pursue a quite aimless flight.  The spring of the works seemed unfound only by her: she could not doubt people knew what they were doing--everywhere she met alert cognisant eyes.  She could not believe there was not a plan of the whole set-up in every head but her own.  Accordingly, so anxious was her research that every look, every movement, every object had a quite political seriousness for her: nothing was not weighed down by significance.

Portia, sixteen, comes from quite a checkered history: Her father impregnated her mother, with whom he was having an affair, and was summarily exiled from what he had considered a happy marriage.  In fact, he always taught Portia that the home which he had to leave was a kind of cozy family paradise.  After her father's death, Portia and her mother live in a series of French hotels for years, until her mother dies, and Portia finds herself returned to that mythic, paradisaical home, to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna.

This situation, of course, is a recipe for disappointment.  The title says as much: The Death of the Heart is a novel about the disillusionment of young idealism.  Portia takes up with Eddie, a young "bounder" (as the kids say, in 1938) who is tempestuous, selfish, and unreliable.  The adults in Portia's life know that Eddie is no good, but Bowen asks us to find something valuable in Portia's unwavering love for Eddie, which is strong and noble compared to the dissipated, conflicted love that Thomas and Anna have for each other, or their parents did.  The Death of the Heart is a novel about what the reality of the world does to young people; it starts, like an episode of Gossip Girl, when Anna illicitly reads Portia's diary.

A scrap of praise on the back of my copy insists that Bowen is "the link that connects Virginia Woolf with Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark."  To my disappointment, there's very little of any of those three authors in The Death of the Heart.  It's much closer to those writers who came before Woolf and Modernism, like Henry James and Edith Wharton, whose subject was the human psyche as it appears when filtered through the strictures of social mores.  When Bowen has something profound or incisive to say, she launches into a kind of authorial lecturing:  "We really have no absent friends," she says.  "The friend becomes a traitor by breaking, however unwillingly or sadly, out of our own zone: a hard judgement is passed on him, for all the pleas of the heart."  An insightful thought, but sort of Victorian in its style and certitude.

The Death of the Heart appears on Time's 100 Books of the 20th Century List, which has been a great source of discoveries for me in the past.  Though I enjoyed it, I'm not sure this one quite deserved the honor.

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