Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day introduces us to London during WWII. The novel starts on a Sunday in 1942 and ends exactly two years later. London is a ghostly city. Many houses are but ruins, other’s are abandoned. People’s lives have changed, relationships are formed much more quickly but they end as abruptly too. Social differences become smaller, the society is less strict as a whole. Everything is perceived more intensely. The seasons, the hours of the day, the light. The beauty and spookiness of the time is captured in evocative passages like the one below.
Out of the mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter; between the last of sunset and first note of the siren the darkening glassy tenseness of evening was drawn fine. . . . The diversion of traffic out of blocked main thoroughfares into byways, the unstopping phantasmagoric streaming of lorries, buses, vans, drays, taxis past modest windows and quiet doorways set up an overpowering sense of London’s organic power–somewhere here was a source from which heavy motion boiled, surged and, not to be damned up, forced itself new channels.
The very soil of the city at this time seemed to generate more strength: in parks the outsize dahlias, velvet and wine, and the trees on which each vein in each yellow leaf stretched out perfect against the sun blazoned out the idea of the finest hour. Parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs–drifts of leaves in the empty deck chairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes–presented, between the railings which girt them, mirages of repose. All this was beheld each morning more light-headedly: sleeplessness disembodied the lookers-on.
In reality there were no holidays; few were free however light-headedly to wander. The night behind and the night to come met across every noon in an arch of strain. To work or think was to ache. In offices, factories, ministries, shops, kitchens the hot yellow sands of each afternoon ran out slowly; fatigue was the one reality. You dared not envisage sleep.
The main story centers on Stella, her lover Robert, her son Roderick and the intelligence agent Harrison. The side story involves two girls, Louie and Connie. It’s a peculiar story. Harrison visits Stella one night and tells her that Robert is a spy working for the Nazis. Harrison could protect him to some extent if Stella was willing to become his lover.
It’s hard to imagine what it would feel like to hear something like this about the man you love. Stella doubts it at first but Harrison has proof and after a few months she accepts it and confronts Robert.
I’m not exactly sure why Elizabeth Bowen chose this topic or why she chose to paint the portrait of a likable Nazi spy. I didn’t feel this was believable at all.
If you put the story aside and concentrate on other elements, you will find an excellent description of wartime London. I liked the many side stories far more than the main story as such. The female characters are all interesting. There is Stella who was perceived as a fallen woman as it was said she had walked out on her husband. Nettie, the wife of a distant Irish uncle lives in a home for mentally ill patients but is perfectly fine. Louie sleeps with various men, to feel closer to her husband who is stationed in India. The status of women has changed a lot at the time, the society is less rigid, many could finally break free,
Robert, although far less of a character than most women in this novel, is interesting because he symbolizes the wounded men who came back after Dunkirk, unfit for future service. Many of these men must have been very bitter. I’m not sure though that an experience like this would have pushed many to become Nazi spies.
All in all this was a disjointed reading experience. I liked the atmosphere and the mood, didn’t care for the story and often had the feeling Elizabeth Bowen cannot write novels. As much as I liked her shorter prose and could forgive her for many convoluted sentences, in this book she went too far. According to Glendinning’s biography, her editor changed many sentences and told her many times to work on them. It’s not that they are long – long sentences hardly bother you when you read German or French literature – but the structure is weird. Let me give you a few examples.
In the street below, not so much a step as the semi-stumble of someone after long standing shifting his position could be, for the fist time by her, heard.
Or her way to break up dialogue and add long complicated tags
“This is certainly,” she agreed, with the affability of extreme disdain, “rather a point.”
This one is hilarious
“Absolutely,” he said with fervour, “not! Though you know I do wish I knew what’s rattled you.”
While I would still recommend to read The Heat of the Day for many different elements, I’m not so keen on reading another of her novels soon unless someone tells me there is one in which the sentences are not as contorted. For the time being I’ll stick to the short stories.
The Heat of the Day was the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWI novel The Wars by Canadian writer Timothy Findley. Discussion starts on April 29, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.