‘Shoes: An International Episode’ by Elizabeth Bowen

When it’s hard to escape abroad is difficult, there’s pleasure be had in reading about the discomforts of holidaymaking. This story, written in 1929, centres on Dillie and Edward Aherne. They’re an affluent pair, two years married, who are travelling in the South of France. When Dillie’s “good brogues” in which her feet looked “a shade powerful” go missing at the hotel, frustration ensues. She has to totter over cobblestones “to inspect local architecture and other misadventures follow. Her husband Edward, a man with a roving eye and a love of liqueurs is little use. 
 
The heat is a third protagonist. At one point Dillie comments, “The glare is so awful.” There is a correspondingly harsh exposure about Bowen’s writing. In just a dozen pages, we are shown the Ahernes’ insularity and ignorance, their deep unease with one another. The story wears the mask of comedy. After Dillie’s brogues are restored Edward asks, “Wasn’t it like a French farce – not the improper kind?” And the ending, in which “Mr and Mrs Aherne, free, frank on terms of perfect equality, clattered down the corridor, disturbing some dozen siestas,” adds to the drollery.
 
But, as so often with Bowen’s work, there’s a sense of disturbance. The sun may be bright, but it is the lack of warmth which underpins this story. I kept harking back to an earlier scene where the Ahernes enter the cathedral. “Lost to one another, they went silently into the pointed chilly darkness.”
 
Picked by Sibyl Ruth. Sibyl reads a lot of short stories and occasionally writes them. Her flash fiction ‘The Rose’ was published in Litro last autumn. You can read her individual Personal Anthology here.

From The Collected Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Penguin Books, 1983

‘Green Holly’ by Elizabeth Bowen

“A sad tale’s best for winter” decides Mamillius, the ill-fated child in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
 
To which I would add, a ghost story’s best for Christmas.
 
The wartime stories of Elizabeth Bowen have a schizophrenic element to them; on the one hand, they are about the psychological betrayals and breakages that are part of war’s unforgiving sweep, on the other, the literal annihilation of cities, streets, people. They are dystopian in that the present and past  seem to exist simultaneously, often as a simulacrum of the other. The year 2020 has seen much comparison with war, and with World War Two in particular – it has been suggested that the population invokes a “Blitz spirit” without ever really understanding the horrors of the  actual Blitz itself.
 
Elizabeth Bowen lived through the war, and the Blitz, and carried out classified and still mysterious war work. Her own home in London was mostly destroyed in a bomb blast. The supernatural stories she wrote at this time often focus on everyday objects which are strangely askew in a world out of kilter. Frequently  she uses the natural world as a symbol of menace. In ‘Green Holly’  a trio of intelligence workers – a woman and two men, both of whom the woman has previously been involved with – are awkwardly billeted together with other colleagues in a requisitioned house, once a grand mansion, over Christmas. The three seem to have dropped out of normal existence : “on the whole they had dropped out of human memory. Their reappearances in their former circles were infrequent, ghostly and unsuccessful; their friends could hardly disguise their pity, and for their own part they had not a word to say.” 
 
Bickering and just a touch self-pitying, it is no surprise that they become prey to the attentions of the house’s resident ghost, a young, coquettish and adulterous lady dressed up for a festive ball which had taken place a couple of centuries before, and which had ended in disaster. “The tiles of the hall floor were as pretty as ever, as cold as ever, and bore, as always on Christmas Eve, the trickling pattern of dark blood.” The ghost is bored, as she had been in life, and latches on to the nearest available man to amuse her – no matter that he is alive, and she is not. The story  is funny, in a cruel sort of way, vivid with spiky dialogue and the insistent undertow of disappointment and denial – both of the ghost and the three who must resist any contemporary re-enactment of that long ago, fatal Christmas Eve. 
 
First published in The Listener, November 1941. Available in the Collected Stories, Vintage, 1999

Chosen by Catherine Taylor. Catherine is a critic, editor and writer. A former publisher and deputy director of English PEN, she has been a judge on prizes including the Guardian First Book Award, the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate and Republic of Consciousness. She is part of the team behind the Brixton Review of Books. She is writing a non-fiction book, The Stirrings, (potential subtitle: The Sobranie Years) about the dark side of South Yorkshire in the 1970s and 80s. If there was a light side, she’d love to hear about it. Read Catherine’s full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here.

‘The Demon Lover’ by Elizabeth Bowen

August is a strange time of year, especially in the city. It is the listless countdown to the end of summer: leaves droop tired and tawdry on dusty trees; a whiff of something subtly off-key hangs in the air. School holidays bring exodus and an emptying out for a few weeks until a new, brisker season returns: on the Continent, the great urban destinations such as Rome and Paris sensibly shut up shop, ignoring hordes of tourists descending like greenfly onto roses. In culture, August gives a sense of playing truant from reality and from the self, such as in Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film Celine and Julie Go Boating, a cult classic about two young women who swap identities and tumble down a phantasmagorical rabbit-hole one languid Paris summer.

I first saw it at the old Renoir cinema in London’s Brunswick Square, the same August I started my first ‘proper’ job – at the British Library, then part of the British Museum on Great Russell Street. My job, as a researcher on a seemingly endless project to digitise the library’s vast holdings of 19th-century books, allowed me to wander freely among the book stacks and dust motes. Here, on stiflingly hot afternoons, I read prodigiously – and not only three-decker Victorian volumes. At some point I discovered the wartime writings of the Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen – The Heat of the Day, her superb novel of the Blitz and betrayal – and short stories of forsakenness shot through with horror. 

The most uneasy of these is ‘The Demon Lover’ (1941), in which the backdrop of a bombed-out London sets the scene for a fatal promise extracted during an earlier war. Bowen rapidly creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia and menace: late one sultry August day, with the weather about to turn, a middle-aged woman, Mrs Drover, makes a brief foray to her family’s boarded-up London house in a quiet square to pack up a few essential items before returning to the country where they have been evacuated away from the bombs. Though Mrs Drover is alone, we and she sense that she is being observed by someone, or something: “a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs Drover’s return”. 

The emphasis here is on the ‘human’. Inanimate objects have taken on the suffering and disappointment of the war years and all is weirdly askew: “in her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up.” As “the unwilling lock” on Mrs Drover’s front door relents to her key, Bowen gifts us the entire arc of the story in the last, leaden sentence of its opening paragraph: “Dead air came to meet her as she went in.” The ensuing ghostly tale is as much about the psychological trauma of war (a period of “lucid abnormality” according to Bowen) and the passing of time, as it is conventionally supernatural. In the house – to which only she and a part-time caretaker have a key – a hand-delivered letter awaits Mrs Drover, apparently from the barely known soldier fiancé who has been missing presumed dead since they last set eyes on each other on a gloomy August evening in 1916, exactly twenty-five years before. It curtly reminds her of a promise made, an hour of meeting, an appointment which must be kept. 

In a 1944 postscript to the first publication of The Demon Lover and Other Stories,Bowen explains how in these “between-time stories” “the past discharges its load of feeling into the anaesthetised and bewildered present.” The individual is all but smothered in an atmosphere of confusion and upheaval, where every positive has its reliably sinister negative. Thus Mrs Drover recalls “with dreadful acuteness” the “complete suspension of her existence” during the final days she had spent with her former lover, a passive deferment similar to the annihilating torpor of war. A long impasse has a way of turning against those who cease to be watchful: for, as it turns out most terribly for her: “You have no time to run from a face you do not expect.” 

First published in The Listener, November 1941. Collected in The Demon Lover and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1945 and The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Vintage Classics, 1999. Chosen by Catherine Taylor, who is a critic, editor and writer. A former publisher and deputy director of English PEN, she has been a judge on prizes from the Guardian First Book Award to the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate and is part of the team behind the new Brixton Review of Books. She is writing a non-fiction book about the dark side of South Yorkshire in the 1970s and 80s. You can read Catherine’s full Personal Anthology here.

‘Mysterious Kôr’ by Elizabeth Bowen

It starts like this and then it goes on:
Full moonlight drenched the city and searched it; there was not a niche left to stand in. The effect was remorseless: London looked like the moon’s capital – shallow, cratered, extinct. It was late, but not yet midnight; now the buses had stopped the polished roads and streets in this region sent for minutes together a ghostly unbroken reflection up. The soaring new flats and the crouching old shops and houses looked equally brittle under the moon, which blazed in windows that looked its way.
First published in 1942. Collected in The Demon Lover, Jonathan Cape, 1945, and Collected Stories, Vintage Classics, 1999

‘Mysterious Kôr’ by Elizabeth Bowen

’Mysterious Kôr’ describes two lovers wandering blacked-out London during the Blitz. The blasted city is “drenched” in moonlight and looks like “the moon’s capital – shallow, cratered, extinct”. The lovers have nowhere to go. Pepita lives with virginal Callie, who has offered to share her bed with her roommate so that Arthur, a soldier on leave, can sleep on the sitting-room divan that usually serves as Pepita’s bed. Unimpressed by the prospect, they stay out on the streets pretending the city is ‘Mysterious Kôr’, from H Rider Haggard’s novel She, by way of an Andrew Lang poem (“Mysterious Kôr thy walls forsaken stand / Thy lonely towers beneath a lonely moon”).

There are many things to admire about Bowen’s 1944 story, but the thing I love most about it is what Pepita says when Arthur challenges her interpretation of Lang’s poem. “What it tries to say doesn’t matter: I see what it makes me see”. There is so much truth about the relationship between reader and text in these two lines (just as there is so much truth about the relationship between women and men in the way Arthur quibbles in the middle of a game of make-believe). At the end of the story, wrapped in dreams, Pepita returns to Kôr alone as Callie and Arthur talk in the pre-dawn darkness. This story, like most of the stories in this anthology, contains a good deal of ambiguity, and different readers will emerge from it with different impressions. Is that frustrating to some people? It seems to be, although I can’t understand why. Ambiguity is the space in a story into which we readers can insert ourselves and interpret, interrogate, interact.

From The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Penguin 1983. Read it, possibly illegally, here