Friday, 14 July 2017
Robinson: appendix 1 – Elizabeth Bowen
As Tom Sabine suggests in his kind note on Robinson (here; and then here), once Robinson is on the radar he keeps cropping up.
Following up Tom Sabine’s suggestion, here’s Robinson in Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Summer Night’, the final story in her 1941 collection Look at All the Roses: ‘Robinson did not frequent drawing rooms … When he was met, his imperturbable male personality stood out to the women unpleasingly, and stood out most of all in that married society in which women aspire to break the male in a man … When Robinson showed up, late, at the tennis club, his manner with women was easy and teasing, but abstract and perfectly automatic. From this had probably come the legend that he liked women “only in one way” … Robinson had on him the touch of some foreign sun.’
Did Bowen name this character knowingly? I doubt it. Still, he is in the club (whose other members, as surveyed in Robinson, include the Robinsons of Céline, Kafka, Patrick Keiller, Chris Petit, Sherwood Anderson, Muriel Spark, et al), even if less for his own awkwardness than for the disconcerting effect he has on others. Justin, in company with Robinson, becomes ‘prone, like a perverse person in love, to expose all his own piques, crotchets and weaknesses’. The woman who at the start of the story is driving to Robinson to spend the night with him becomes, when at last she is alone with him, stranded: ‘The adventure (even, the pilgrimage) died at its root, in the childish part of her mind.’ Only Justin’s sister, completely deaf, is at ease with him (‘She does not hear with her ears, he does not hear with his mind. No wonder they can communicate.’).
It’s a fine story: a late summer light, three generations (including a child dancing naked on her parents’ bed with snakes chalked on her skin), inconvenient guests, urgency and ennui, wartime (‘Now that there’s enough death to challenge being alive we’re facing it that, anyhow, we don’t live. We’re confronted by the impossibility of living’). Nothing, really, happens. Elizabeth Bowen is to me a touchstone, but I hadn’t read this story before: thank you for the cue.
Robinson in this story is the outsider. He’s a ‘factory manager’. He has been in this town for three years, which sounds a reasonable length of time but, in a small town, isn’t. He ‘had at first been taken to be a bachelor’ but he’s not; he’s living apart from his wife and children (three, one dead). The woman who is driving to him is also married, also has children. Victoria Glendinning, in her biography of Bowen (which I’d forgotten I had; I found it while perched on a stool looking for another book entirely), says that ‘the starting point’ for Robinson was a man named Jim Gates, ‘the manager of a creamery in Kildorrey’: ‘completely non-intellectual, genial, a life-and-souller’. With Jim Gates, Glendinning writes, Bowen ‘had, simply, a good time, with lots of drinks and lots of cigarettes and easy laughter … His company was a liberation not only from the excessive sensibility of others but from her own – that sensibility which was at the centre of her talent and also, some have thought, its limitation’. Bowen, Glendinning writes, ‘needed men like Jim Gates: extrovert, practical, a little coarse.’ I’m very uncomfortable with literary biographers telling me what their subjects needed, or didn’t need, but I think I know a Robinson when he turns up.