Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Elizabeth Bowens Negative Epics: Landscape and Realism in the Last September and A World of Love

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Elizabeth Bowens Negative Epics: Landscape and Realism in the Last September and A World of Love

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Bowen once described herself as "manifestly a writer for whom places loom large" (1975, 34). Not surprisingly, much Bowen scholarship has been devoted to the role of place in her work. The "big house" setting of her novels has received particular attention as a site that marks the waning of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, whose position derived, in Bowen's words, from a "situation that shows an inherent wrong," a "painful" historical reality she explores in a history of her family home, Bowen's Court (1999, 453). In novels such as The Last September and A World of Love, the big house is read as a gothic repository of colonial violations and an emblem of the postcolonial irrelevance of the AngloIrish Ascendancy. (1) In works not set exclusively in Ireland, such as The House in Paris and The Heat of the Day, Ireland serves as a place where everyday existence is suspended and emotional and moral certainties are shattered. (2) More recently, as Modernist studies have taken a global or cultural turn toward questioning the centrality of metropolitan categories and the positioning of Modernist works within the imperial worldsystem, Bowen's big house novels have been read in light of Ireland's status as a "metrocolonial" nation, whose proximity to the metropolitan center discloses the uneven temporalities and rhythms of modernity (quoted in Eatough 2012, 71). (3)

Every writer, Bowen contends, has an "inner landscape," "a recognisable world, geographically consistent and having for him or her a superreality" (1975, 36). Yet the big house has loomed so large over Bowen studies that her landscapes have been read as backdrops or counterpoints to the big house, while as landscapes they remain unexplored. (4) This elision from critical view may be due to her landscape's association with topographical detail and the visual-pictorial, and thus with forms of description and mimetic realism seemingly tangential to modernist aesthetics (as Bowen herself writes, "what gives fiction its verisimilitude is its topography" [1975, 34]). Yet critics have recently challenged the view that modernism is a progressive emancipation from realist conventions. Jed Esty and Colleen Lye, for example, have argued that a "peripheral realism," a realism oriented from the peripheries of the capitalist world-system, can decenter modernism's privileging of metropolitan perspective. While they do not refer to realist description per se, they do distinguish "mere description" from the protocols of realist representation, which does not simply "reproduce reality" but seeks to "interrupt the quasi-natural perception of reality as a mere given," thereby articulating socialities on different scales within a global landscape (2012, 277). This sort of socio-spatial work may seem alien to Bowens novels; as Maud Ellman observes, "Everything in Bowens prose conspires to efface the human subject" (2003, 67). And Bowens landscapes, in their impersonality and indifference--and, at times, antipathy--toward human subjects, are where this effacement is most in evidence. Nevertheless, I will argue that her landscapes disclose precisely those "extraordinarily flexible and active ways of reconceiving and transcoding social referents" that constitute, for Esty and Lye, the work of peripheral realism (2012, 278).

By examining landscape, and in particular the landscapes of her Irish novels, I approach Bowen's Anglo-Irishness and her relation to Irish postcoloniality in an unusual way. Rather than working from the cartographic contours of nation-states and empires, 1 work from the more amorphous, even amphibious scaling of socio-spatialities that traverse the landscapes in which questions of national identity and postcolonial politics are enfolded. To do so, I attend to different modalities of description, which, as Mieke Bal has argued, is not a textual excess needing to be managed with narrative sense-making devices such as plot and motive, but is itself a narratology--or "descriptology"--disclosing the limits and possibilities of narrative world-making (2006, 606). …

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