Shock of white

I read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day this past week, about which I can’t make up my mind. I was riveted, but there’s something odd and off-kilter about it, as if one were watching a filmed tour of a house and began to suspect that the cinematographer had faked every room, omitting and rearranging by means of camera angles and montage, leaving the viewer with the strong hunch that the real house had a layout completely different from the one the film had seemed to describe.

But that’s not what I’m blogging about, here. What I couldn’t resist was the heroine’s hair, which jumped out at me as Susan Sontag-ian avant la lettre. I did a quick Google search and discovered that the similarity has been remarked upon before. Scholar Neil Corcoran mentioned it, in passing, in a monograph on Bowen, only to have a critic named Sarah Savitt sternly take him to task in the pages of The Cambridge Quarterly for having made such a gratuitous, irrelevant observation. My sympathies are with Corcoran, I’m afraid. How could one read this and not think of Sontag?

She was young-looking—most because of the impression she gave of still being on happy sensuous terms with life. Nature had kindly given her one white dash, lock or wing in otherwise tawny hair; and that white wing, springing back from her forehead, looked in the desired sense artificial—other women asked her where she had had it done; she had become accustomed to being glanced at. That, but only that, about her was striking: her looks, after the initial glance, could grow on you; if you continued to know her, could seem even more to be growing for you. Her clothes fitted her body, her body her self, with a general air of attractiveness and ease.

“In the desired sense artificial”: I hear a Harold Bloom-ian wrestling of precursor versus epigone here. It’s as if Sontag herself had written the words.

À l’ombre d’un jeune traducteur en fleur

On the heels on the movie trailer promoting his translation of Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest, editor-translator Lorin Stein is releasing an annotated, disassembled version of the book in the form of a blog. There are ten pages so far. You’ll have to take a look for yourself to understand the genre. It’s sort of half explication de texte, half apologia pro vita sua. My favorite moment so far is the photocopy of the first few pages of Michel Leiris’s autobiography Manhood with the sentences underlined that reveal similarities between the 15-year-old Stein and the 34-year-old Leiris.


When the midwife who delivered Oliver Twist lies dying in a workhouse, Dickens describes the changes in her body thus:

It is a common thing for the countenances of the dead, even in that fixed and rigid state, to subside into the long-forgotten expression of sleeping infancy, and settle into the very look of early life; so calm, so peaceful, do they grow again, that those who knew them in their happy childhood, kneel by the coffin’s side in awe, and see the Angel even upon earth.

Re-reading the book last week, I had the uncanny feeling of having come across a similar idea somewhere else recently. It took a few days to come to me, but at last I realized it’s in my friend Donald Antrim’s lovely memoir The Afterlife, when he and his sister are keeping watch over their mother’s deathbed:

At some point before dawn, my mother’s face relaxed and her skin cleared, and, though her throat and chest still rattled terribly, she smiled. It was a broad, unambiguous smile. Terry said to me, “Look, she’s getting younger.” It was true. In the hours before she died, Louanne began to resemble herself as the young woman we had seen in photographs taken before we were born—full of radiance and with her future and whatever crazed or credible hopes she had ahead of her. Amazingly, this effect occurred in spite of the absence of teeth.

And then, of course, there’s always the White Queen:

“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first—”

“Living backwards!” Alice repeated in great astonishment. “I never heard of such a thing!”

“—but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.”