Sunday, September 28, 2008

Compost and Living Ghosts

No, I'm not talking about Green Machines and worm castings here – or, if so, only in a metaphorical way. My topic today is literature.

I have a 1946 copy of a Vintage paperback ($1.65) of Stories by Elizabeth Bowen. Bowen is an Anglo-Irish writer who lived from 1899-1973, author of many novels, short stories and memoirs, including The House in Paris and The Death of the Heart. If you click on the photo at the left, you go to an excellent book review of a biography of Bowen, written by novelist Stacey D'Erasmo for the New York Times. Looking at this haunting photograph, I have to wonder: what became of those 6 serious young women gathered around Bowen's chair at Bryn Mawr in 1956? And don't you just love their clothes?

I'm only beginning to read Bowen now, despite a long interest in (Anglo) Irish literature and women writers. It follows well on the Ghost Lamp theme: Bowen made use of the idea of the ''living ghost''– a ghost that appears in one place even while the living person is walking around in another. As D'Erasmo notes, "It's a beautifully condensed image of many things, not least of which is the novel itself."

Bowen wrote her own preface to Stories by Elizabeth Bowen, in which she asks "What kind of stories does, or did, Elizabeth Bowen write?" (treating herself like a living ghost). These few pages are compressed with fascinating comparisons of various genre: poetry, short stories, and the novel.

I especially like this one: "Fortunately, however, there are many other writers; taken all-in-all we complement one another – literature is a compost to which we are each contributing what we have. The best an individual can do is concentrate on what he or she can do, in the course of a burning effort to do it better."

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