Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Reading Alliance: Elizabeth Bowen and Others


I might not have read the complete novels of Elizabeth Bowen had I not formed a reading alliance with a saturnine, charming professor.  We were unlikely friends:  he was, by my standards, an elderly East coast snob, while I was a "nervous" (his unflattering epithet) midwestern blonde.  I was disabled by insomnia, and might have benefited from a Valium prescription at Student Health.  But, no, our reading friendship relaxed me and won me an hour or two of sleep.  Yet I was told he was the meanest man in the department.

"Really?  He's charming to me."

He got the idea I was some kind of savant.  What impressed him was the extent of my common reading.  I was the only student who identified a blind passage by Virginia Woolf on some kind of mischievous intelligence test he had cooked up to torment grad students.  

"How did you do that?"

"I read."

I read all the time when I wasn't socializing.  One semester I'd signed up for a class because I'd read everything on the syllabus:  it freed up time for extracurricular reading and watching Masterpiece Theater in a friend's rented room. (She was the only person with a TV.)  In grad school, too, I had a relatively "light" schedule, so I could knock off work at the classics factory at 7 p.m. I needed to read my novels, to go to six-hour foreign films, to hang out with my boyfriend...

Over the years, Dr. Saturnine and I often chatted about books while we tried to fix the Xerox machine that was held together by a single rubber band. He dubbed Anne Tyler "the most overrated American writer." (She was one of my favorites.)  I dubbed Barbara Pym "the most underrated English writer." (He hadn't read her.) We both liked Ruth Prawer Jhabvala,  Margaret Drabble, and Elizabeth Bowen.   For a man his age, he read a lot of women writers.  As I said, he was charming.

I think (I am not sure, and I never spoke of it) that Dr. Saturnine was having an affair with another professor.  She glared when she saw us chatting. Oh my God - hadn't she seen my handsome boyfriend?  She had the wrong idea.

One time I tried to chat with her.  "Have you read Elizabeth Bowen?"

She was civil.  "No, I haven't.  And, sorry, I have to go." Dropping papers hither and thither, she drifted off in her tattered hippie skirt, perhaps on her way to the faculty dining room, perhaps to class, perhaps getting turned around, since she seemed so absent-minded.  Endearingly so, really.

It is surprising how much we miss the dead.   

R.I.P., Dr. Saturnine. I don't see him as dead somehow.

And more on Elizabeth Bowen, later.


  1. This is very like an Elizabeth Bowen story. I too made a friend of an older professor. He encouraged me to become an English professor: in that course we read Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Most of the students astonished me when they asserted how boring the novel was. I was very young then. Another one that so interested me was James's Princess Casamassima.

    1. It's good to have a mentor-friend. There we go, along life's road with another avid reader. And I know how much you love Sense and Sensibility.