IN this book, Rachel Bowlby examines representations of ‘many ordinary days and their smaller and larger shaping cultural stories’ (2). She studies works in which ‘the mission of art—and it is a mission—is to represent what is ordinary and down-to-earth’ (10). This leads her to collate a wide variety of both literary and non-literary examples, prompting some intriguing and unusual links. For example, in the chapter entitled ‘A Single Man and a Single Day’, she places Homer’s Odyssey, Isherwood’s A Single Man, and Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child side by side, tying all three together via comparisons to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The texts for examination in ‘Numbered Days and Diaries’ are even more diverse; here, Bowlby looks at the diaries of Leonard Woolf and of Boswell, as well as Bridget Jones’s Diary, and considers them alongside an analysis of ‘“Wearable technology” such as the fitbit’ (49). As she does so, she makes numerous fascinating observations. For instance, in ‘Numbered Days and Diaries’, she notes that ‘[l]ike the digital confirmation of a PIN, the numbers of a four-digit date seem to provide an assurance of objectivity and precision’ (56). Throughout the chapter, she explores this idea, writing carefully about our impulse to exert control and order over a chaotic world. The chapter on ‘Commuting’ is especially interesting. Here, Bowlby collates examples from Great Expectations, Arnold Bennett, George Gissing, Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and Rose Macaulay’s Told by an Idiot in order to consider the representation of the commuter as a ‘plain man’ who, ‘almost by definition … lacks individuality’ (29 and 26). Having painted a series of careful vignettes of this character in his or her various literary forms, Bowlby concludes the chapter with a charming description of her own experience commuting, from which she realizes that ‘in reality no two journeys, even commutes, and no two days in the city, are ever the same’ (39–40). Thus, a thought-provoking series of musings emerges. The book is an enjoyable read. However, the reader may be slightly perplexed. This volume forms part of Oxford University Press’s ‘The Literary Agenda’ series. One might, therefore, wonder what the agenda behind these analyses is. The book comes closest to stating its aim in an early chapter, ‘The Daily Narrative Journey’. Here, through readings of Eliot and Fielding, Bowlby observes that a ‘conceptual ambiguity’ lies at the heart ‘of “everyday” stories’; such tales are both example of ‘familiarity and repetition’ and ‘stand-out events, defined by their separation from the everyday in the repeating, continuing sense’ (19). Bowlby acknowledges here that there is something paradoxical or tricky about her everyday stories. The readings she offers do not, however, always sustain this point. For example, as I outlined above, the chapter on commuting begins by outlining numerous literary representations of the commute as unchanging and monotonous. Bowlby realizes that this cannot entirely be the case: she ends the chapter by observing that every journey is, in fact, different. She does so, however, by giving an account of her own commute. She does not tease out the paradox in relation to her literary examples. On other occasions, too, the book sidesteps a profound yet potentially illuminating conundrum. In an early chapter, Bowlby introduces realism and modernism—two movements both eager to represent the ‘everyday’ but with somewhat different ideas about the way in which this might be achieved. By examining the two, and the way in which their aims are thwarted, it becomes clear that absolute verisimilitude is impossible. We are faced with the ‘existential absurdity of the hypothetically fully recorded life’ (20). This idea is an important one. However, it seldom informs the readings that take place in the chapters that follow. Bowlby’s book does, however, return to the idea in a much later chapter. There, she points out that ‘[r]eal life is already, in this small sense, literary: it’s already to do with a play of likely and less likely stories and roles’ (155). In these observations, the ‘everyday’—the premise on which this book is founded—becomes an increasingly problematic category. Ultimately, in the chapter headed ‘Woolf’s Untold Stories’, Bowlby observes, when examining Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway, and Night and Day that ‘the day, in these novels, is never just any old day, or any new day. It is always, in one way or another, steeped in various kinds of significance’ (140). Thus, the stories that Woolf promotes as ‘everyday stories’ are, in some way, not what they say they are. The very act of writing and reading, of transforming something into a ‘story’ undermines the notion of the ‘everyday’. A ‘story’ is always, in some sense, significant, and therefore exceptional. Thus, although it does not fully confront the idea, Bowlby’s book leaves the reader wondering if, perhaps, the ‘everyday stories’ of its title are, in fact, an impossibility. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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