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«  Reed Reviews Elizabeth Bowen  »

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

22.10.2021


Reed Reviews Elizabeth Bowen

This review comes from the New Statesman and Nation for November 3, 1945 (p. 302-303). Reed devotes most of his time and effort to reviewing Bowen's The Demon Lover and Other Stories, which apparently he thoroughly enjoyed. Reed was friends with Bowen, and would later spend two weeks holiday with her at her ancestral home in Ireland in April, 1946 (map).

The Demon Lover and Other Stories, by Elizabeth Bowen

New Fiction
The Demon Lover. By Elizabeth Bowen Cape. 7s 6d
To the Boating. By Inez Holden Bodley Head. 7s 6d
First Impressions. By Isobel Strachey Cape. 7s 6d

It is not an accident that in her little book on the English novelists [English Novelists. London: William Collins, 1942] Miss Elizabeth Bowen should have written so well of Thomas Hardy and Henry James. Hardy, it will be remembered, thought poorly of The Reverberator, James not altogether well of Tess of the d'Urbervilles; and the two giants had little in common except their occasional dependence on a hard centre of melodrama—cruder, surprisingly enough, in James than in Hardy. Miss Bowen has something in common with both of them, though she manages to avoid their improbabilities, and she has enough of the true radiance of art to justify one's mentioning them. She shares Hardy's love of architectonics and of atmosphere: what Hardy will make of a woodland, heath, or starve-acre farm, she will make of a house or a summer night; and so far as persons go, I think the creator of Tess and Eustacia would have admired the drawing of Portia and Anna in Miss Bowen's The Death of the Heart. And she shares with Henry James a love of seeing how a story can be persuaded to present problems of artistry in the presentation of the "point of view"; and a curiosity (it is not the same as belief) about the supernatural and about the ambiguous territory between the supernatural and the natural. She has not James's sense of "the black and merciless things that are behind great possessions." Evil itself does not intrude on her world. It is not evil, but experience (they are not dissimilar, perhaps, but they are not the same) that corrodes the innocent people at the core of her books.

In her new collection of stories it is frequently obvious that she shares James's preoccupation with style; she has that kind of exact awareness of all she wishes to say, which makes her know precisely where a sentence needs to be a little distorted, or where an unusual word needs to be used. She has as well that gift which prose can share with poetry: the ability to concentrate the emotions of a scene, or a sequence of thoughts, or even a moral, into an unforgettable sentence or phrase with a beauty of expression extra to the sense:
The newly-arrived clock, chopping off each second to fall and perish, recalled how many seconds had gone to make up her years, how many of these had been either null or bitter, how many had been void before the void claimed them.
Or again, about the present day:
He thought, with nothing left but our brute courage, we shall be nothing but brutes.
Her short stories possess the qualities of her novels, but inevitably the atmosphere in her short stories is richer and more concentrated. The more elaborate of them suggest the climaxes of the elements of novels, but in a necessarily muted or diminished form; it is their atmosphere which moulds them, and which at times perhaps even brings them into existence. A perfect example of this is the first story in the book, "In the Square." Little happens in it, but enough strands are gathered together to give a sense of tension, climax and relief. And the relief is achieved mainly by atmospheric means. The story is about a few people living on in a partially bombed house in a ravaged London square. The principal feeling one has about them is their terrible independence of each other; all of them have mysterious, irregular relationships, unhappy and furtive. One has a feeling that what remains in the house, that reluctant proximity of the unconnected, is not what a house is meant to enclose. This is what war has done: to houses, to people. It is a true enough observation; but what startles one is the fact that one suddenly becomes aware that the early evening is spectacularly merging into late; the time of day is changing and a shift inthe emotions of all the characters is coinciding with this. A mere observation has become a story quivering with subtle, dramatic life.

The war, and the subtly degrading effect of the war, hold these stories together as a collection. They have a great variety and many attractions. One thinks particularly of their comedy and their dialogue; the story called "Careless Talk" is a brilliantly literal interpretation of that official phrase; "Mysterious Kôr" has a wonderful conversation draped round evocations from a poem by—Rider Haggard; the woman in "Ivy Gripped the Steps" is a strong enough figure for a novel. But it is probably those stories which involve the supernatural that are most striking. "The Demon Lover" itself, a ghost story of the traditional kind, is horrible enough, though not of Miss Bowen's best. In some of the others—"Pink May" and "The Inherited Clock," for example—the ghostliness is blown into existence by, or from, something real; and always, even when the boundary into the abnormal is passed, the normal still accompanies us.

The finest story in the book, and the most ambitious, is called "The Happy Autumn Fields." It begins in the past—perhaps seventy or eighty years ago. Various members of a large family are taking a late afternoon walk across the fields of their estate; at a moment of particularly painful emotion for one of the characters, Sarah, the story breaks off, and we are switched to the present: to a partly bombed house where a woman called Mary is waking from the scene we have just read about; it is not the first dream about the epoch she has had, though her real link with it is tenuous; nevertheless her dream has become obsessive, stronger and more attractive than her own life. The scene changes to the old family again, and we find that that afternoon in the fields Sarah had a black-out which has projected her for a moment into a world nameless and horrible—our own, we gather. The final scene is back in the bombed house, with Mary sorrowing over the irrecoverable day from the past which has blown into and out of her life:
I am left with a fragment torn out of a day, a day I don't even know where or when; and now how am I to help laying that like a pattern against the poor stuff of everything else?—Alternatively, I am a person drained by a dream. I cannot forget the climate of those hours. Or life at that pitch, eventful—not happy, no, but strung like a harp....'
It is, like "The Turn of the Screw," a story which provokes interpretation and commentary; but since it is, in a serious sense, a discovery, there remains about it something of its own, at once inexplicable and profoundly satisfying. No living writer has, I think, produced a finer collection of stories than this.

Miss Inez Holden is well known for her skilful reporting of factory life. To the Boating is offered as a collection of short stories. But in most of them the bridge between reporting and art has not been crossed. in the first story, "Musical Chairman," there is an excellent account of a series of pathetic and amusing interviews between the Chairman of a Local Appeal Board and various people who are rebelling against the Essential Work Orders. But the fancy bits of stroy-telling in which Miss Holden has arbitrarily framed these scenes are so artificially stuck on that they have not been blown away in the proof-reading. It is a drab collection of oddments that Miss Holden has put together. And she shows, furthermore, a taste for drabness for its own sake. The book concludes with three fanciful little satires: presumably in order to deaden any excitement which these might arouse in the reader, Miss Holden has chosen to swathe them in the grey, vague mists of Basic English.

The habit, common enough in contemporary poets, of publishing work of an elementary or even infantile nature, is spreading to writers of fiction. Shown to one in manuscript, Miss Holden's stories and Mrs. Strachey's novel, First Impressions, might reveal promise; one would note passages of humour or observation. Why, then, does one pass over these when the books appear in print? Doubtless because the books challenge comparison with the early work of writers who seem to have tested themselves more rigorously and more critically before emerging into print. Amateurish is the deplorable word that one cannot avoid in mentioning Mrs. Strachey's novel. It is supposedly a satire on the leisured life of the Twenties. Possibly Mrs. Strachey has seen that life, but there is nothing in this rambling, unformed little book that could not have been got from many other social satire. Bad syntax and petty indecency are no substitute for the slickness of wit which some satirists achieve in their first books, and which it is hard for a satirist to do without. And the title of Mrs. Strachey's book goes no way to excuse its muddle.
Henry Reed

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1532. Vallette, Jacques. "Grand-Bretagne," Mercure de France, no. 1001 (1 January 1947): 157-158.
A contemporary French language review of Reed's A Map of Verona.



1st lesson:

Reed, Henry (1914-1986). Born: Birmingham, England, 22 February 1914; died: London, 8 December 1986.

Education: MA, University of Birmingham, 1936. Served: RAOC, 1941-42; Foreign Office, Bletchley Park, 1942-1945. Freelance writer: BBC Features Department, 1945-1980.

Author of: A Map of Verona: Poems (1946)
The Novel Since 1939 (1946)
Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel (1947)
Lessons of the War (1970)
Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio (1971)
The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio (1971)
Collected Poems (1991, 2007)
The Auction Sale (2006)


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