1970 Booker Prize Shortlist – Eva Trout – Elizabeth Bowen

Do any of you enjoy tackling “The Times” crossword? If not surely you know of it? The crossword where “Player getting six, duck, then fifty batting is a test opener” equals “Violinist”( Six = VI. Duck = O. Fifty = L. Batting = IN. Is = IS. Test opener = T. You are meant to think this is about cricket and the misdirection is compounded by the fact that both the start (‘player’) and end of the clue (‘test opener’) appear to refer to the game). And the crossword is made up of 32 odd clues, all just sitting there in front of you and you have not a sniff of how to decipher it.
Got the mental idea? The picture? Well translate that into 300 or so pages of sold text and you’ll be part of the way there to understanding conceptually at least, or even “enjoying” Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen. In all honesty I can safely say, that to date, I have not come across a more challenging book from the Booker list (of the ones I’ve managed to finish that is – some have been too tiresome to even pursue to the end).
Our “story” is that of early 20’s Eva Trout, living with one of her ex-teachers, Iseult, and her husband, Eric, and “working” with the local clergyman’s family, the Dancey’s. Eva is about to come into a significant inheritance and her Trustee, Constance, as well as her guardians are concerned by her mental state. The novel opens with Eva taking the clergy children on an outing to the castle where she spent sometime in boarding school, only for her to exclaim that this was to be the venue of her honeymoon.
The book is split into two equal parts (both at 151 pages in my edition) set eight years apart. The second half, simply called “Eight Years Later”, Eva’s ruminates about the time we discovered in “Genesis”, the first part.
We have characters like the albino Elsinore, who nearly drowns in a lake, references to Dickens (Iseult and Eva visit Bleak House) and hundreds of concurrent threads or red herrings:
Horrible sea storms used to beat about. Seven miles out lay the Goodwin Sands. (Yes the Goodwin Sands.) Weeks after a cattle ship came to grief, bloated animal carcases, many of them burst open by putrefaction, “tumbled and beaten out of shape, and yet with a horrible sort of humanity about them,” continued to be washed up on to Viking Bay. Flaubert, reflected Iseult, would have been interested. Henry James, less so. What now one came to think of it, had James, that Dickens really had not? Or if he had, what did it amount to?
Throw into the mix hundreds of words no longer used in common day language and you need a copy of the Oxford Dictionary bedside just to figure out what on earth Elizabeth Bowen is talking about. Has anybody come across “cabalistic” and “verdigris” on the same page before? How about mullions and embrasures in the same sentence? Throw into the mix different voices or views for each chapter, using narratives, diaries or letters to oneself?
Time, now? Midnight, exactly midnight. The Equator. Tomorrow’s today. We dawn on a better word, like a Chekhov ending. Dope. This could be the moment for me to go. This is a moment handed me on a plate. Yes, but the car’s gone to the sea. No car: no matter, because I am not going. No intention of going. Here I stay, ils ne passeront pas. I married, this is my marriage. This is my crime, I intend living it out. I can’t turn back, the path has grown behind me. What was I once?— who cares. What can I never be again? Intact.
Back to the crossword theme, I used to have a bit of a rush when I could work out one or two clues, but never knew the feeling of fully figuring out a whole puzzle. But I do know there are people who can decipher them every single day – just the same as there would be people who could give me 500 reasons to revisit this book.
As Elizabeth Bowen says late in the piece “Life is an anti-novel”.
I’m sure there will be numerous high brow literature types out there who will poo-poo my struggles with an icon of the literary world, but I’m not too proud to admit I’ve never finished Joyce’s Ulysses and know I never will. And this novel, although obviously rich in subtext, themes, existentialism et al read too much like a text one would tackle for a thesis for me to thoroughly enjoy. Nowadays, I’ve slipped into the 21st century lazy culture and need to be transported, not feel like I’m back in a University. I suppose that it’s a pity books like this aren’t written anymore, but then again I’m pretty sure the market for them would be small!!!
Thanks to h2g2.com for the “How to solve the Times crossword” article where I lifted the example.
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