With books as with people, sometimes it’s hard to assess incompatibility: is it me, or is it him? I had respectful (if not exactly fond) memories of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September. I know her work is highly prized in literary circles and maybe in another mood I would have been more appreciative. But this time around I found myself impatient with Bowen’s quirks of style. Normally I’m perfectly happy with books in which nothing obvious happens, but I found myself tapping my foot at Bowen’s start/stop approach to narrative. In fact, my error may have been in expecting story telling in the first place.
The novel was written in 1929. My grasp of Irish history is pretty vague but we’re in the midst of “the Troubles” and the action centers on a big Anglo-Irish house called Danielstown. The central character is the young Lois Farquar, niece of Danielstown’s owner. Lois is nineteen, just out of school, and seriously underemployed. One of the enduring impressions I took away from the book — and this is certainly intentional — is one of time passing very, very slowly. Light shifts; furniture settles; people change their minds about each other. Visitors arrive at the house, meals are consumed, letters written, flowers arranged, oh! the tedium! Lois is utterly at loose ends and the only intrigue is supplied by the English soldiers stationed nearby. One — handsome, opaque — is in love with Lois, or at least with the idea of Lois. There’s a great deal of dialogue that shows the two at cross-purposes. Meanwhile genuine drama, like military raids, all takes place off-stage, and the climactic action of the book is summed up in a dry little epilogue and we never find out what happens to our characters.
But “happening” is hardly Bowen’s concern. The Last September is barely serial, if I can put it that way. It’s more like a panoramic photograph stitched together to portray different angles of a place. Incidents like a dance in the British camp or a long walk into the mountains exist to illustrate the different angles of the fraying of British rule in southern Ireland. It’s almost like the painted backdrop to a Mollie Keane novel. Only I was in the mood for a little bit more action, so I found the novel beautiful but achingly slow.