Veering: A Theory of Literature by Nicholas Royle (Edinburgh University Press, 2011) is a mirthful reading pleasure. It is the diary of an academic's daydreaming.
Imagine my pleasure at the celebration of Elizabeth Bowen in Chapter 8: Veerer: Where Ghosts Live.
A newbuild tradition of the ghost story, I was saying. 'A story, to be a story, must have a turning-point', she declares. The more haunting the story, I would suggest, the more the turning-point is a veerer. Bowen's 'Attractive Modern Homes' is about the Watsons, a couple who move about eighty miles across country to a 'box-like' 'semi-detached house' that has just been built, on the edge of a new estate that has not yet been completed. It is the very unhauntedness of the place that becomes disturbing. Everyone is a newcomer: 'everybody feels strange and has no time for curiosity' (522). Until moving house Mrs Watson 'has been happy without knowing, like a sheep or cow always in the same field' (524).
Step over a cliff –
The narrator comments: '[Mrs Watson] never needed to ask what was happening really. No wonder the move had been like stepping over a cliff. Now no one cared any more whether she existed; she came to ask, without words, if she did exist . . .' (524). Mr Watson also becomes prone to 'dread' (524–5). They become less alive than ghosts, as if in a surreal yet absolutely mundane confrontation with the meaning of the family name: what's on? (And even perhaps, in more teasingly phal- logocentric tenor: what son? what future?) It is a story that peculiarly pivots on a walk up the half-funnily named Nut Lane, into the woods. Mr Watson does not know that his wife has already wandered off in the same direction. As he makes his way, 'recoiling from branches in the thickety darkness', he thinks that seeing a ghost would be a comfort compared with the 'entombed', 'unliving' nature of the new estate he is walking away from: 'The idea of a ghost's persistent aliveness com- forted some under part of his mind' (525). Suddenly, he comes upon 'a woman's body face down on the ground'. Is she masturbating? Miming a crucifi xion? Making love to the earth? Simulating burial? We read:
Her arms were stretched out and she wore a mackintosh. With a jump of vulgar excitement he wondered if she were dead. Then the fair hair unnatu- rally fallen forward and red belt of the mackintosh showed him this was his wife, who could not be dead.
The language, as so often in Bowen, is quietly but ineluctably erotic. Mr Watson 'could not have been more stricken in his idea of her if he had found her here with another man. He did not like to see her embrace the earth' (525–6). This is not where ghosts live, Bowen suggests, it is not animated enough for that. It is not 'decent', the man tells his wife: 'Get up.' As she fi nds her feet she 'keep[s] her face away' from him, then:
'Decent?' she said. 'This place isn't anywhere.' 'It's round where we live.'
'Live?' she said, 'What do you mean, live?' 'Well, we – '
'What do you mean, we?'
'You and I,' he said, looking sideways at her shoulder.
'Yes.' She said. 'It's fi ne for me having you. Sometimes anyone would almost think you could speak.'
'Well, what is there to say?' 'Don't ask me.'
Harold Pinter's dialogues are closer to Bowen's than has perhaps been appreciated.43 These lines recall Bowen's nice dictum that dialogue is 'what the characters do to each other'. 44 These characters are neither living nor ghosts. 'Attractive Modern Homes' could indeed be regarded as part of a newbuild tradition, uncertainly humorous and disquieting, that challenges us to think anew about where ghosts live. Rather than think of them as merely fearful, Bowen's work suggests that not to live with ghosts, not to be able to acknowledge that you are where ghosts live, is not to be alive at all.
The Watsons also have two children, a boy called Freddie and a girl called, as chance would have it, Vera. Bowen herself seems unable to resist some play on the girl's name, when she writes: 'Vera was a child with naturally nice ways who would throw anything off' (523). It is Vera's capacity to throw anything off that, perhaps above all, intimates the unsteady but quirky hopefulness of Bowen's story. As the couple return from their strange encounter in the wood, they are intercepted by a neighbour who introduces herself as Mrs Dawkins (a further play perhaps, with 'door' and 'kin') and asks if Vera could come to tea that afternoon and play with her daughter Dorothy (another 'dor'). Mr Watson now having 'edged past them', the two women concur that, when it comes to 'settl[ing] into a place', men 'don't feel it in the same way' (528). There is 'a crimpled dead leaf' (527–8) in Mrs Watson's hair, come from her escapade in the wood: at the very end of the story, standing by the gate in conversation with her new acquaintance, she 'pluck[s] the leaf from her hair' and remarks: '"Still, I've no doubt a place grows on one . . ."' (528).