Tuesday, August 18, 2020

so shall ye reap

In Octavia Butler's The Parable of the Sower, the protagonist is an eighteen year-old girl who leads a group of mixed-race survivors along California highways in search of a safe haven as the world collapses, avoiding gangs of thieves, pyromaniacs, and cannibals.When Cormac McCarthy wrote a version of this book, he made the protagonist a middle-aged white man, a widower leading his son to Florida. McCarthy's terse and sentimental novella won a Pulitzer Prize, and McCarthy was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. Huh.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Was this the war's doing?

It was to be seen how, each time he came back like this, he was at the beginning physically at a loss; until, by an imitation of her attitudes he supplied himself with some way to behave, look, stand--even, you might say, be. His body could at least copy, if not at once regain, unsoldierly looseness and spontaneity. And he traced his way back by these attitudes, one by one, as though each could act as a clue or signpost to the Roderick his mother remembered, the Roderick he could feel her hoping to see.
London, September 1942, during the blackout, during the bombing. A soldier comes home on leave to visit his mother. Real life has estranged them, as it has estranged everyone during the war, not only from each other but from themselves. Everyone in London, even as they pack into bomb shelters or into basement cafes after dark or into dark bedrooms hidden behind blackout curtains, is alone. Even reunions are strange, because the world has become an alien place.
It is the music of the familiar that is awaited, on such an occasion, with most hope; love dreads being isolated, being left to speak in a void--at the beginning it would often rather listen than speak. Even lovers can feel this--how many passions have not been daunted by the hotel room? [...]both, in their different ways, felt this evening to be beyond the powers of living they now had. [...] Wariness had driven away poetry: from hesitating to feel came the moment when you no longer could. Was this the war's doing? By every day, every night, existence was being further drained--you, yourself, made conscious of what was happening only by some moment, some meeting such as tonight's.
Everyone in Bowen's wartime London is confounded by life, lacking the power to really live it. Characters drift, make vague plans, do not seem to come fully awake, but is this the war's doing? Is the war simply revealing a hidden truth? An exhausted, pessimistic book, this. Not quite a tragedy, at least not of Shakespearean proportions, though like Shakespeare, Bowen gives us comic characters. Louie, the principle comic foil, is a young wife whose husband has been called up. She is from the country and finds herself in London, at sea, seeking solace from whoever comes along. One day she discovers the media.
With the news itself she was at some disadvantage owing to having begun in the middle; she never quite had the courage to ask anyone how it had all begun--evidently one thing must have led to another, as in life; and whose the mistake had been in the first place, or how long ago, you would not care to say. Left to herself she had considered that anything so dreadful as this last year could only in some way have been her own fault--Singapore falling the week Tony went away; the Australians right off even where they were getting that bad fright from the Japs; us getting pushed right on top of the Egyptians in spite of everything; the Russians keeping nagging at us to do something; the Duke of Kent killed who had been so happy; even those harmless ancient cathedrals not to speak of Canterbury getting bombed also; and us running right out of soap and sweets till they had to go on coupons--one more headache...But once you looked in the papers you saw where it said, nothing was so bad as it might look. What a mistake, to have gone by the look of things! The papers knew Britain had something up her sleeve--Britain could always, in default of anything else, face facts. And for the newspaper's sake, Louie brought herself to put up with any amount of news--the headlines got that over for you in half a second, deciding for you every event's importance by the size of the print.
Louie and her growing relationship with newspapers gave me a good laugh. There's a good deal more of it in the novel, and it's all delightful. But Louie is not just comic relief; she provides one of the most poignant moments late in the novel, complaining that it is impossible to express herself, aware that she is full of feelings she can't let out, because, she has never had need to articulate what she feels, and has never developed any such language.
"It isn't you only. It's the taking and taking up of me on the part of everyone when I have no words. Often you say the advantage I should be at if I could speak grammar; but it's not only that. Look the trouble there is when I have to only say what I can say, and so cannot ever say what is is really. Inside me it's like being crowded to death--more and more of it all getting into me. I could more bear it if I could only say....At home where I used always to be there never used to be any necessity to say; neither was there with Tom, as long as they let him stop here. But now look--whatever am I to do, now there's the necessity? From on and on like this not being able to say, I seem to get to be nothing, now there's no one. I would more understand if I was able to make myself understood...
Elizabeth Bowen began writing The Heat of the Day in 1944, while the bombs were once again falling on London. Many of the streets her fictional characters walk had already been reduced to real-world rubble by then. Bowen's novel, gestating in this dark city under siege, has a strong current of pessimism running through it, doubts about not only identity, but about loyalty in all its forms, and the obligations of families, lovers, citizens.

I'm not giving you any sense of the story of the novel, about the families, the secret agent trying to sexually blackmail a woman whose lover may be a Nazi sympathizer, the widow who chooses to be mad enough to stay in a posh madhouse. Nor does this post contain much in the way of analysis. The Heat of the Day is a fine novel. I wish I had the wherewithal to do it justice in this wee blog.