Words, Words

A smooth and graceful novelist, Elizabeth Bowen has always been fond of an opposite awkwardness. Perhaps her first subject, in this new Eva Trout, even as in The Death of the Heart thirty years ago, is girlhood — the open and ignorant mind, the gullible heart. Miss Bowen’s hope, or argument, has not altered in time: that within this blurting, elbowy organism, there occurs an extraordinary conjunction of generosity and need, an apogee of innocence. This innocence collides with knowledge, vulnerability with hardness, impulse with caution.
Inevitably, innocence is wiped out; but unexpectedly, so is knowledge. The muted violence of the subject lies in the cruel as well as pathetic effect of the young person. Self-destructive, she is also destructive.
Interest in this familiar thesis is renewed in Eva Trout by grotesquerie. Eva is the oddest and funniest of Miss Bowen’s girls. She is slow to develop, in any way. “Trout, are you a hermaphrodite?” her schoolmates inquire. And she is still gauche and untried at thirty-three, an age at which heroines normally expect to be retired rather than deflowered. (In effect, Eva is both.) Her first mistake was to be brought up by her widowed father and his ovoid lover named Constantine. One might suppose that this domestic arrangement would distort Eva’s sexual mores. Instead, it impaired her speech. Absorbed in making money and scenes with Constantine, Trout père relegated Eva to governesses, most of them displaced persons — who left their mark, deliberate, short, and stilted, upon the girl’s vocabulary and sentence structure. For “Aren’t you feeling well?” Eva says, “Are you deteriorating?” She makes one realize that idioms are merciful. She is almost incapable of lying, but also oblivious to nuance, metaphor, or any indirection; in fact, if she were not outlandish, she would be dense.
Her lover finds her, at first, mooselike, either galumphing off in a panic or mashing in oppressively, all saliva and devotion. At the same time, of course, Eva is a Trout, dumb, gasping and flopping on (social) land, and yet, at her proper depth, exquisitely clean and definite. She collides in the established pattern with soiled, initiated types: with a “cerebral” older woman, Iseult Arble; with Iseult’s husband, Eric, who is merely virile and coarse (he calls Iseult Izzy and “smarms” his hair flat with spit); with Constantine, who is merely effete and fastidious.
The Danceys, a clerical couple, also appear. Ridden with hay fever, fecundity, and Christian forbearance, they most closely approximate Eva’s own incompetent charm. But it is difficult for Eva to advance, even among Danceys, from ingenuous to disingenuous connections since she has never been connected at all. Not certain she is there (or all there), she fixes on things like seashells and mounted eagle’s claws and ocelot gauntlets for reassurance. It strikes her, in this possessive trauma, as wholly improper that someone should ring her doorbell.
Well, naturally, this kook is metamorphosed in time into an adult human being. We are accustomed to urge the transition and to endorse even its sometimes dismal results. Eva Trout respects both conventions. Finally, the place is in a shambles, but Eva is lying in the middle of it, mature.
If this accomplishment were all of the novel, people probably could not pay it much mind. Innocence, preserved or lost, is a sentiment — an affective condition observed from a distance. But Americans, at any rate, are all now for passion — for the writer’s seeming himself immersed (drowning!) in whatever condition he simultaneously observes. Moreover, Miss Bowen discovers her present sentiment, as she has her past, in private or individual pain, whereas we are scarcely any longer free in fiction to overlook social pain. Eva Trout is pitiably rich at a time when we are preoccupied by poverty. And however disjunctive the poor dear is, she goes to pieces in a stable and coherent society. The character Eric Arble, for example, is little more than non-U, and glad of it. And when Eva and her lover walk outdoors, they upset only each other. Rabid Eva, it is true, jumps into some rosebushes and scratches her legs. But even our imagination of shrubbery has become social, far more social than botanical. Involuntarily, we expect characters to be mugged, not scratched, in the park.
Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen (Knopf, $5.95)
Elizabeth Bowen’s attention is wedged between some inner surge or flexing of the emotions and those outer fixities, like manners, by which the emotional person is mocked or misjudged or denied. Our own fiction now envisages dual crises, individual and mass, feeling and formal, which are concurrent. Single faces protrude from, but deliberately recede into, ranks of faces — Thomas Rogers and Youth, Eldridge Cleaver and the Blacks. We attribute human sentience to large abstractions — the face of war, the city in a bind. Miss Bowen attributes sentience to palpable forms — flowers, the roots of grass, even a transistor radio (jealous of a tape recorder) — which are rendered trivial for us by more exigent concerns. In this novel, swans still float in one place, driftwood accumulates in another, and these variations in scene — Eva Trout or Changing Scenes — retain considerable autonomy. They are described virtually for themselves (the “Bleak House,” for example, in which Dickens did not write Bleak House), defying our own present rule that if the novel is not inventive, it must at least be immediate, humanitarian, and purposeful.
On the contrary, there is a chilly and quite exhilarating supremacy of words to people in Eva Trout. As the scenes of action dominate the action itself, varying modes of speech are more noticeable than the common humanity of those who speak. Eva Trout’s isolation from others is demonstrated by her monstrous English. Her unlikely therapy is eight years of loving a deaf and mute child, and her cure is signaled by her beginning to enjoy conversations. (Too conveniently, the child Jeremy also begins then to exercise his lips.) But all about this restricted center, the issue of muteness, the novel is given over, abandoned, to eloquence. The overriding interest in the arrangement of words is more poetic than novelistic. But while we are presently all Whitman or nothing, Elizabeth Bowen is Crashaw or Herbert. Her presumably simple points are made, like theirs, in clever, even mischievously clever, language. One moves through elaborate syntactical mazes, to arrive repeatedly at the solid, blatant, ludicrous bulk of Eva. Such incongruities pervade the book. Levels of affectation remark on other levels of affectation, and Eva’s brevity controls the expansion of her betters. When Iseult Arble comments on Dickens’ house, “So gimcrack, so ghastlily cheerful, so hand-to-mouth, so desperately inordinate, so unscrupulous, so tawdry — so formidable,” and Eva answers, “What a lot you have thought,” we have all disposed of Iseult.
Admittedly, Miss Bowen is not always so well detached from Iseult. The two share not only intelligence but a soft taste for adverbs (see above, ghastlily) and for ness-nouns like streamingness and nerve-rackingness. Also, too many little questions flutter (like eyelashes?) over the text. At moments, the intussusception of multiple phrases and clauses has an almost pathological effect. One loses hope of the sentence’s recovery — how can it ever possibly, in this condition, deliver its content to a period? But why not be highly mannered? Perhaps one should think of Eva Trout as a linguistic “folly,” a structure as entertaining as it is inutile. It helps too, in reading the book, to have been previously persuaded that English verbs are eccentric, as eccentric as Eva Trout. The book Trout is especially keen on auxiliary verbs — a feminine taste?, as in Women’s Auxiliary? It shows a disembodied, astral passion for the capacities of may, might, have, had. “I change,” says Eva. “May I not? May I not?” The true verbs {run, jump, shoot, scream), like the events of the novel, are somehow relieved and refined, lightened, by the hovering attentions of all these little assistants. Say a character dares to yawn, three small hands {could, would, should) are certain to cover his mouth.
This is not to say that Miss Bowen is too nice or pretentious or effortful. The novel never suggests armed conflict with a thesaurus to liberate the necessary words. It is no more mannered than it is fluent. Nor is there any sense, for the reader, of being locked in combat — on the edge of a cliff, like Holmes and Moriarty — with Miss Bowen. The book is amiable. This is writing prose, like Auden’s writing poetry, to play an intricate word game. Played as well as Elizabeth Bowen plays it, the game is amusing to watch. Eva Trout does not represent or diagnose or solve anything so much as the conundrum of English. And after a long career in fiction, a lifetime of talent, Elizabeth Bowen has a particular right to propose now, if she likes, that the novel is all words — not portentous at all, but finely frivolous.