11 December 2006

A Sort of Secret Society About Nothing

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 4:22 pm


That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments.

– Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart, 1938

It’s the kind of book that belongs on those musty shelves: the generic blue cover distinguished only by a subtly embossed “EB,” the yellowed sticker carefully pasted on the front:

English-American Library
Founded in 1863
10,000 Volumes on Open Shelves
12, Rue de France, Nice

We’ve paid our deposit authorizing us to check out two books at a time – or four paperbacks, if we like. The Belgian lady behind the desk chatters amiably with another visitor as she pulls our card from the file, jots down the title and the date, and places it back in the box. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene, who sought refuge here from the English winter, once served as patrons of this library. Men speaking variously-inflected English discuss World War Two back by the newspapers as I head out the door and up the steps into the warmth of another perfect afternoon on the Mediterranean.

Around chapter three I began thinking that I’d read something like this before; later, that maybe I’d started it once but never finished. Only near the end, when a devastated Portia seeks refuge with Major Brutt in the attic bleakness of the Karachi Hotel (of a style at once portentous and brittle) did I realize that I’d actually read the entire book before, and not all that long ago.

In his elegiac review Jonathan Yardley remembers The Death of the Heart: “I first read it in the 1950s, when I was a teenager, far too young and callow to appreciate it, much less understand it.” Could that have been why the book hadn’t made much impression on me the first time? But I was fifty, not fifteen. Have I lost that much innocence in these past few years? Perhaps.

It’s an icy, brittle world that with a few deft taps Bowen reduces to jagged shards. She puts the jeweler’s hammer in the hand of St. Quentin, that prototypical upper-class “old family friend” of English novels who, as it happens, is himself a famous novelist. After administering, assassin-like, the petit coup that will shear these lives apart, St. Quentin cries loudly to the dazed Portia:

‘These lacunae in people!’

‘What did you say?’

‘You don’t ask what made me do that – you don’t even ask yourself.’

She said, ‘You are very kind.’

‘The most unlikely things one does, the most utterly out of character, arouse no curiosity, even in one’s friends. One can suffer a convulsion of one’s entire nature, and, unless it makes some noise, no one notices. It’s not just that we are incurious; we completely lack any sense of each other’s existences. Even you, with that loving nature you have – In a small way I have just ratted on Anna, I have done something she’d never forgive me for, and you, Portia, you don’t even ask me why. Consciously, and as far as I can see quite gratuitously, I have started what may make a frightful breach. In me, this is utterly out of character. I’m not a mischievous man; I haven’t got time; I’m not interested enough. You’re not even listening, are you?’

‘I’m sorry, I – ’

What a precise, sad, funny, devastating book this is – on second reading.



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