If you’re a reader of my blog, you’ll probably know that I have mixed feelings about the biographies of writers. I wonder if knowing about their lives, rather than helping us to understand their work, distances us from it. It might help to explain where any particular piece of work, or element within it comes from. It might reveal just what it means to the writer, but does it help at all with what the work might mean to us? And is it about understanding, this reading business? Is it about understanding what has been written, or is it about experiencing our own responses to the writing?
The issue raised its head for me again recently, when I set off into The Collected Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen. Organised into several blocs, the seventy nine stories in the collection are distributed chronologically: First Stories/The Twenties/The Thirties/The War Years/Post-War Stories. Of course, it cannot be assumed that the stories within those blocs are set out in the order they were written, nor even in that in which they were published, and in itself the ordering does not imply more than the vaguest of biographies. The Twenties, were the twenties though, the War Years, the war years, and the first stories, are the first stories of a writer that will go on to write later stories.
Even after reading the first the first couple of dozen, which takes the reader ten stories into ‘The Twenties,’ a sense of trajectory is apparent. This is in both form and content, the former implying something of a developing skill, the latter a developing awareness of the world, and of the concerns of the people within it, which is, to some extent, a reflection of biography. Even a story like Charity, though ostensibly about children, has a much more adult eye than the second story in the collection, Daffodils, in which a party of schoolgirls visits a teacher.
Writer Tom Wolfe, in one his searching introductions, speculates upon the difficulties faced by mature authors, who are desperate to find content, in comparison with younger writers, who are driven by a sort of intoxication with their evolution in forms. Bowen certainly, over the span of her trajectory that I have encountered, has developed a close scrutiny of adult themes, and the stories have become longer, and perhaps more reflective. It was in Human Habitation, fifth in the second bloc of stories, that I first noticed a long paragraph of internal philosophising going on. There’s a note too, I made, by Sunday Evening, the penultimate of the First Stories, to the effect that I felt it had lost focus.
In fact, by the time I reached Human Habitation, I think I had come to expect an action driven story, rather than a thought driven one. Whether it was chasing the eponymous bird in The Parrot, or pursuing the likewise Contessina, it was what her characters did, and said, rather than what they, or their narrator thought, that was what I felt I was reading Bowen for. Yet the thought had always been there. Even in the very first story, Breakfast, it is what Rossiter thinks, rather than what he or anybody else in the story does, or says, that is the focus of our attention. Perhaps it’s a matter of shifting balances between common elements, rather than one of fundamental changes from one to the other.
Reading chronologically has other effects too. In the story The Shadowy Third, one of the First Stories, and arguably the best of them, a couple live under the shadow of the suppressed memory of a previous wife. A technique for telling us this is the use of a capital A in the word Anybody, even when it does not start a sentence: ‘or did Anybody help you?’ the new wife asks. A couple of stories later, in Coming Home, we see the same technique applied: ‘and it rather took the wind out of Somebody’s sails.’
I could imagine this sort of re-use upsetting some critics, but I rather like it. It fits in with my understanding of artistic skills of all types – one of there being tools, to borrow Stephen King’s analogy, in our writer’s toolbox. The odd phrase too, gets re-used. ‘three quarter faces’ from Breakfast, is picked up, and rather expanded on, in a later story, for example. Subtler, though more pervading similarities, remind me that, as David Lodge has pointed out, what we do often enough to get noticed might be a good definition of style. In Bowen’s case, what I’ve noticed is the amount of fabric that wafts around. People are swathed in it, and especially the women. Blouses and skirts, and what they are made of, and how they move and drape, clothe, and unclothe us, are everywhere, most powerfully in Making Arrangements, where Hewson, whose wife has left him, becomes implicitly orgiastic among her abandoned dresses. As I read this story, I began to recognise it from a radio broadcast of perhaps decades ago, after which it had hung in the wardrobe of my subconscious. The story, Sunday Evening, which I mentioned earlier has having lost focus, includes a conversation touching on clothes. Discussing Eve, and the fact that ‘They didn’t wear fig-leaves till after the Fall,’ Mrs Roche makes, and elaborates on the point that ‘one’s clothes are part of what one has got to say.’ Perhaps that is why in many, perhaps most of the stories, there is mention of what the women are wearing, what it looks like, and what it is made of. It’s worth remembering that when an author tells us of something, they want us to picture it in our mind’s eye. In The Jungle, picking up characters first aired in Charity, we see the girl’s bloomers and stockings, almost gratuitously – save for the hint of a sexual encounter at the end of the story. My essay title, by the way, comes from Making Arrangements, as Hewson contemplates his absent wife’s dresses ‘stretched out and provocative’ on the bed before him: ‘All her delightfulness to her friends had been in this expansion of herself into forms and colours.’
The development of how, and what a writer is doing throws up interesting reversals, where later stories seem not as ‘good’, whatever that means, as earlier ones. Does this underline the fact that all story writing is an experimental undertaking? As we develop our skills, our ambitions too develop. In trying to grasp more, we lose our grip for a story or two. So the trajectory does not arch smoothly, but progresses in a series of fits and starts. There is also the possibility that authors will sometimes go where we do not wish to follow, tempting us to mistake development for deterioration.
If writers do have a detectable, recognisable trajective shape to their writings as a whole, then I suppose, one must expect to be made more aware of it when reading a chronologically arranged collection from start to finish. Of course, as with the biography issue, it makes me wonder if that helps or hinders, or merely changes my experience of the stories. I’m still on the early stages of Bowen’s short story career, and still enjoying the ride.