Exploring the Visual Qualities of Literature
Published in Fall/Winter issue of Éire-Ireland in 2007, Keri Walsh‘s “Elizabeth Bowen, Surrealist” remains the benchmark in relating the work of this Anglo-Irish writer with visual culture. I have read it many times since embarking on my own journey through Bowen Studies in 2008 and, on each reading, I am struck by its arresting, lucid and provocative argument.
Situating her essay within the context of European surrealism, the Irish tradition and Bowen’s fellow modernists, Walsh develops and expands a key remark made by Neil Corcoran in Elizabeth Bowen: The Enforced Return (2004) which aligns the Anglo-Irish author’s writing with the surrealist aesthetic. Comprehensive, yet admirably succinct in her discussion, Walsh traces Bowen’s ambivalent relationship with surrealism through her personal impressions and close readings of such texts as “The Tommy Crans,” “Her Table Spread,” “Last Night in the Old Home,” “Tears, Idle Tears,” The House in Paris and, in particular, “Mysterious Kôr” and “The Happy Autumn Fields.” Moreover, she outlines how Bowen engages with and critiques a host of surrealist tropes including the pre-eminence of childhood; the femme-enfant and convulsive beauty; the role of shock and of the artist; and the blurring of boundaries between the conscious and unconscious in the latter two texts.
Walsh’s achievement here is twofold. Firstly, and importantly, through her discussion of Bowen’s relationship with surrealism she places the author within the discourse of literary visuality. Moreover, and as an extension of this, Walsh contends that Bowen’s engagement with the movement and the ideas of André Breton presents her with an opportunity to be both creative and critical. Having conducted numerous reviews, literary and artistic, over the course of her career Bowen’s criticism is often very perceptive. Her commentaries on the Royal Academy exhibitions of 1936 and 1938, for instance, demonstrate a careful and considered judgement of these respective events, but it is the latter that showcases a stronger sense of maturity and professionalism. This resonates with Walsh’s own argument that, although Bowen plays somewhat mockingly with aspects of surrealism in her writings of the 1930s, it is in the psychological nuances of her fiction of the 1940s that the author demonstrates a more affecting engagement with the movement.
In her final analysis, Walsh discusses veristic surrealism as an academic rather than automatic development within the movement and that this is perfectly suited to Bowen’s meticulous realist style. Addressing two stories from The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945) – “Mysterious Kôr” and “The Happy Autumn Fields” – Walsh concludes by reflecting on the veristic techniques and qualities present within each story. Moreover, such discussion enables Walsh to argue that Bowen is an important figure in connecting French surrealism with Irish modernism and that the author’s engagement with surrealism accounts for the distinctive quality of her writing.
Walsh’s contribution to Bowen Studies, in particular, is one of excellence in its careful mapping of a series of provocative connections between Bowen and visual culture, in addition to opening the way for new avenues of scholarly enquiry in this field.
“Elizabeth Bowen, Surrealist” was published in Éire-Ireland, volume 42, numbers 3&4 (2007) and can also be viewed online via Project Muse.