nigger: old world v. new

original 1939 title of 'and then there were none'

Having a purely new world sense of the word, I nearly fell out of bed when I read the line,

…as strong as a nigger. p.41 The Death of The Heart.

Anna, for whom ‘bigot’ is an entirely pointless character development, uses it casually to describe her servant. Its usage clashed so strongly with my sensibilities, and this is after reading Blood Meridian and Beloved without the faintest pique, I felt compelled to find out why. Why do I accept it in some novels but never in others?

According to wiki, ‘nigger’, pejorative and all, was fair game in the UK until the 1970’s, so Anna’s speech is consistent with late 1930’s UK usage, which saddens me since I’d believed until now that the UK outpaced the US in race relations, hence my expectations and varying tolerance. Silly me.

Cue my own little death of the heart. Time for me to be maudlin, to mourn the loss of illusions, and continue to two-step around a word I wish was less loaded everywhere.

the death of the (maudlin) heart

two words: terminally dotish

Elizabeth Bowen was a remarkable individual: she was the first woman in her family to inherit property; she rolled with Virginia Wolff; she took younger lovers, female lovers too; she was multi-talented – she gave up art to pursue writing; she was not only a prolific writer, but a staunch political activist; she’s Irish-born, towering, fearless.

Bowen’s fifth novel The Death of the Heart, in the vein of Henry James, author of The Portrait of a Lady, is about the baptismal loss of innocence in a cold and cruel world. Lilian, a passionate young woman at a boarding college, is expelled after a debilitating infatuation with her cello mistress… wait…. No, that’s what I wished the novel was about. Bowen thought Portia’s story was more compelling. Right….

The Death of the Heart is about Portia, a gauche melodramatic sixteen year old, sent to live with her older brother, Thomas, and his cynical wife, Anna. (Lilian, sadly, is just Portia’s friend from lessons.) Portia falls tragically in love with Anna’s friend, Eddie, a Lothario type who once smiled at her after she fetched his hat. Eddie sees Portia’s innocence as a safe haven from his otherwise corrupt life, so he reluctantly shakes her off when she demands more than friendship. Devastated, she throws herself at another of Anna’s friends, Major Brutt, who once gave her a jigsaw puzzle – she mistook that gesture for ‘love’ too. He won’t take advantage of her simple-mindedness either and marry her as she suggests, so she gets dumped twice in one day. She refuses to return home, however, because St. Quentin, another of Anna’s friends, has told her that Anna has been secretly reading her diary. A servant is dispatched to retrieve Portia from Major Brutt’s room.

Are you waiting for something novel-worthy to happen? Too bad.

Now I’ve read a lot of nothingness in my time, but this is a special class of nothingness, the kind that biblical overtones, orphaning Portia, and seasonal reification can’t save. It’s poorly executed nothingness.

The lack of action was to be offset by Portia’s ‘stormy inner world’, embodied in her diary, and the nuanced interaction of the more sophisticated characters. But Portia’s diary entries, pitched as “distorted and deeply hysterical,” p.10, are on the contrary, inane, impersonal and indistinguishable from the narrator’s monotonous voice.

I am back here, in London. They won’t be back till tomorrow. p.228 (Portia’s diary entry)

Thomas and Anna would not be back from abroad till Friday afternoon. p.229 (Third-person narrator)

The older characters’ conversations strike an equally weak and false note. They soliloquize in each others company or, with very few exception, talk in a sort of rehearsed improvisation, revealing very little of themselves, even when congenially frantic.

‘We know what we think we’ve done, but we still don’t know what we did. What did she expect, and what is she expecting now? It’s not simply a question of getting her home this evening; it’s a question of all three going on living here … Yes, this is a situation. She created it.’

‘No she just acknowledged it. An entirely different thing. She has a point of view.’

‘Well so has everybody. From the outside we may seem worthless, but we are not worthless to ourselves. If one thought what one felt, one would go mad. It does not do to think of what people feel.’

‘I’m afraid in this case we may have to. That is if you are anxious to get her home. Her “right thing” is an absolute of some sort, and absolutes only exist in feeling. There they both are waiting in Kensington. Really you will have to do something soon.’p.308

Then there’s the technically riddled exposition.

I felt repeatedly shat upon from a great height with character development. Portia’s ‘unfortunate’ background was first delivered in pages and pages of stilted conversation between Anna and her ‘old family friend,’ St. Quentin, self-consciously interspersed with “Have I told you all this before?” p.17 and “Does this bore you?” p.19, as if not even Anna (or Bowen, for that matter) is convinced that this is the way to expand Portia’s character. Matchett’s suspiciously detailed and intimate chats with Portia are equally convenient. They were woefully obvious literary devices and instant ‘fail’s.

the majestic elizabeth bowen, 1953

I’m still struggling to reconcile my image of Bowen and Portia, her creation. If The Death of the Heart was written by a man, I’d call him a misogynist, Portia is so terminally silly and melodramatic. More Lilian may have helped, but the technical problems make me doubt it.

I like Bowen, so I really wanted to like this novel; alas, though she was remarkable, The Death of the Heart is terrible.

My regard for Grossman and Lacayo’s Top 100 just took another body blow.

father lucifer-tori amos


Though still a work in progress, here are the novels that I’ll be reading in 2011.

Struck through titles have been completed.
Bold titles are presently being read.
* indicates reread.

  1. 1984-1948-George Orwell
  2. The Adventures of Augie March-1953-Saul Bellow
  3. All The King’s Men-1946-Robert Penn Warren
  4. American Pastoral-1997-Philip Roth
  5. An American Tragedy-1925-Theodore Dreiser
  6. Animal Farm-1946-George Orwell*
  7. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret-1970-Judy Blume
  8. At Swim-Two-Birds-1938-Flann O’Brien
  9. Atonement-2002-Ian McEwan
  10. Beloved-1987-Toni Morrison*
  11. The Big Sleep-1939-Raymond Chandler
  12. The Blind Assassin-2000-Margaret Atwood
  13. Blood Meridian-1986-Cormac McCarthy
  14. Catch-22-1961-Joseph Heller
  15. The Catcher in the Rye-1951-J.D. Salinger*
  16. A Clockwork Orange-1963-Anthony Burgess
  17. The Corrections-2001-Jonathan Franzen
  18. The Death of the Heart-1958-Elizabeth Bowen
  19. The French Lieutenant’s Woman-1969-John Fowles
  20. Go Tell it on the Mountain-1953-James Baldwin
  21. The Grapes of Wrath-1939-John Steinbeck
  22. The Great Gatsby-1925-F. Scott Fitzgerald
  23. A Handful of Dust-1934-Evelyn Waugh
  24. The Heart is A Lonely Hunter-1940-Carson McCullers
  25. The Heart of the Matter-1948-Graham Greene
  26. Herzog-1964-Saul Bellow
  27. Housekeeping-1981-Marilynne Robinson
  28. I, Claudius-1934-Robert Graves
  29. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe-1950-C. S. Lewis
  30. Lolita-1955-Vladimir Nabokov*
  31. Lord of the Flies-1955-William Golding
  32. Lucky Jim-1954-Kingsley Amis
  33. The Man Who Loved Children-1940-Christina Stead
  34. Midnight’s Children-1981-Salman Rushdie
  35. Mrs. Dalloway-1925-Virginia Woolf
  36. Naked Lunch-1959-William Burroughs
  37. Never Let Me Go-2005-Kazuo Ishiguro
  38. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-1962-Ken Kesey
  39. The Painted Bird-1965-Jerzy Kosinski
  40. A Passage to India-1924-E. M. Forster
  41. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie-1961-Muriel Sparks
  42. Snow Crash-1992-Neal Stephenson
  43. The Sound and the Fury-1929-William Faulkner
  44. The Sun Also Rises-1926-Ernest Hemingway
  45. Super Sad True Love Story-2010-Gary Shteyngart
  46. Things Fall Apart-1959-Chinua Achebe*
  47. To the Lighthouse-1927-Virginia Woolf
  48. Ubik-1969-Phillip Dick
  49. Ulysses-1922-James Joyce
  50. Under The Net-1954-Iris Murdoch
  51. Under The Volcano-1947-Malcolm Lowry
  52. Watchmen-1986-Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons*
  53. White Teeth-2000-Zadie Smith*
  54. Wide Sargasso Sea-1966-Jean Rhys*