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.
38 thoughts on “Elizabeth Bowen: The Heat of the Day (1948) Literature and War Readalong March 2013”
Like you, Caroline, I’m in no rush to read another novel after this, although in the end I enjoyed it more than not. I take her short stories are better?
You raise an interesting point about the convoluted and sometimes alienating style. I wonder to what extent this is purposeful: ebbing and flowing, starting and stopping, a bit like life in the blitz?
Yes, the short stories are much better. According to what ‘ve read, she spoke like this and wrote like she spoke. Her editor edited some but left a lot. She was conscious of those sentences and tried to amend some. I really think there is no intention here, certainly not mirroring the blitz. Most of her short stories are like that as well but the also contain those wonderfully atmopsheric descriptions.
I thought it was a surprsingly quick read and had many great elements but stumbling over those sentences, again and again annoyed me. She’s been compared to Virginia Woolf but I can’t remember whether her sentences are this convoluted. I didn’t strike me as such. But Henry James has such moments.
I’m in the process of reading this. When it began I did give a little groan as I recalled that Bowen had two styles, one a sort of faux Henry James with commas like small occasional tables you bark your shins on in a crowded room, and then the other style where she relents and writes like a normal person (and there are some because I recall the relief). Of course, I can’t remember which of her novels belongs to which style as it’s been years since I last read her. But I was sorry that this one fell into the torturous camp.
The pictures of the small table in a crowded room is very apt.
I think we all felt the same about the syntax. It’s akward and I’m sure not entirely wanted. At least when I read her biography, it seems that way. I have another of her novels, The House in Paris. I hope that’s not like this.
The syntax feels so German in places, bad German but still closer to German usage than to English. At one moment I was wondering if it was not utterly clever and wanted to mirror German infiltration but then I remembered her short stories and many are just like this without ever touching on a Nazi spy theme.
The writing style in those quotes is indeed awkward. I smiled when I though that if Bowen’s style had been interpreted a little differently she might have been considered an innovative breaker of rules:)
I think that’s one aspect of seeing it, at least that’s what people say of Henry James and Faulkner. I’m not sure at all they always did it on purpose. I feel there’s some torturous thinking behind it as well.
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I absolutely hated it, but I’m shocked to see that I am not way out on a limb. It was much worse than I anticipated. I knew the plot was likely to not be to my liking, but I was surprised what a chore it was to read it. I very seldom stop reading a book once I get started, but I definitely would not have finished this one if it wasn’t for the Readalong. (Plus I kept hoping something would happen. It was like sitting at the Black Jack table hoping to make back your losses). It was a chore, I have to tell you!
The novel starts well because it is obvious she is a gifted writer – perhaps too gifted. The best way I can describe the book is it was like wading through a pool of precious gems. At first, you are awed by the sparkling jewels of sentences, but after a while it is just a wade in a pool and it becomes increasingly likely that when you reach the other end (exhausted) there will be no payoff worth the slog.
None of the characters were likeable. Little happens. The scenes between Stella and Harrison are monotonously repetitive. It may be set in a war, but the war is very peripheral. I disagree that it gave a good impression of what London was like. Her decision to set it after the Blitz was poor. The whole subplot of Louie and Connie (the newspaper addicts – WTF) was lame. Why are they in this story – to make it longer? The death of Robert and his justification for being a traitor were ridiculous and made it obvious Bowen had no idea how to close the story. She wrote well, but plotted poorly.
My biggest problem with the book was I got the feeling Bowen crafted every single sentence. This made for slow reading. The book had no flow to it. I was surprised to read your analysis about her “convoluted” sentences. I did not get that impression. I just assumed she crafted them too much. Bowen must have been paid by the semi-colon. I lost count at 1,000. (Just kidding – I didn’t count them, but there were a ton.) Sometimes you can be too brilliant for casual readers who are not totally invested in your story.
I have read 24 of the 25 Readalong books since I started the Readalongs and I think this was the one I liked the least.
I agree on quite a lot of points and was thinking of you while reading it. I knew you’d hate it. I would have thought that it would be her writing style that would annoy you even more.
I’m surprised you felt the sentences were well crafted. Some are, like the initial ones but so many were plain ridiculuous. I was astonished. Her editor should have been strciter. I cannot imagine what this book was like before he gave his input.
As for the plot…. I agree as well. I didn’t find it believable at all and Robert’s death was so strange. The justifications for his spying were weird too. I thought there were a few very interesting bits, though. She has a lot to say about class and women’s positions in society. The epsiode at Robert’s family home are quite funny.
And I love the way she creates an atmosphere. I find if she’d chose the Blitz as setting she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to create such an eerie atmosphere.
Overall it’s maybe one of two of my least favourite titles.
You know that it was you who suggested this title. It’s funny, right?
I did not reply because I have been waiting to check to verify that last comment you make, but my e-mails have been down so I haven’t been able to find where I would have recommended this book. I find that hard to believe.
I disliked her writing style because it was a slow read. You had to concentrate on every sentence. It did not flow.
I am pleased that we agree for the most part.
Honestly, you did, I hadn’t even heard of it. It was one of a few, together with the Vietnamese book we will read in December. I think you saw her in an anthology, The Book of Great War Stories…. The one I messed up, and bought the wromg one. I can look for the e-mail.
I think everyone who read this with us agress more or less. While I would never call it bad, it certainly wasn’t a good choice for the read along. The Wars should be better. My intro post is up soon.
I believe you. I looked in that book and here was the intro to an excerpt:
“In her novel, The Heat of the Day, Bowen describes that peculiar atmosphere in London during the bombing raids of the autumn of 1940, when a new intimacy evolved among the people of the city. While the ‘Spirit of the Blitz’ and the cockney resilience became self-advertising mechanisms of defence, there were more louche, romantic and desperate undercurrents.”
I must have been thinking of you and your audience when I suggested it. In my defense, I would never have proposed it if I had known that the above passage was inaccurate because the book is actually set after the Blitz. Mea culpa.
I understand why you chose that, this promises an entirely different book! What were they thinking. I was familiar with Bowen but not with this novel and was astonished at te tome you suggested it.
I liked and didn’t like this novel. I loved the descriptions of wartime London. I didn’t get the spy aspect at all. And some of her sentences are just too much to handle. So clunky. Yet, I enjoyed reading the novel. It was a nice change of pace for me and something out of my comfort zone. I just wish her editor helped a bit more.
Same here. I’m surprised Kevin had a bigger problem with the plot than the syntax. I hated those sentences and really would have veen glad for the editor’s intervention. But some passages were great.
I haven’t got to my copy yet but it’s sitting near the top of the TBR (soon) stack. Doesn’t sound entirely promising…
I couldn’t help comparing it to Balchin’s Darkness Falls From the Air and would say his novel is much better. I’d like to know how you will like it. Have you read other books by her? Which ones did you like?
It reminds my my attempt at reading Bowen’s prose. (The Little Girls) Never went further than page 148. The bookmark is still in the book…
That may have been even worse. Did you read it in English then? Long sentneces is one thing and I don’ mind that at all but this is so weird.
No I have a French copy. Tried it twice.
I wonder how they tralsate this. The syntax feels wrong, would you stick to it as a translator. You’d have to.
Those first and third examples are horrific (esp. the first one, which looks like somebody’s literal translation of a foreign poem, enjambment and all), but I don’t think the middle one’s so bad actually. “Sleeplessness disembodied the lookers-on” is another howler considering what a well-respected author she was. Anyway, thanks for enduring the punishment for me–will look for my WWII London spy fix elsewhere, I guess!
Yes, do that. If you want to read her, try her short prose or another novel. According to Litlove there are at least two which are written in a way that makes sense.
What you say about the paragraph sounding like a literal translation is interesting. A lot felt to me like badly translated German.
As you said on your blog, Henry James’ sentences are not as bad as this.
Nice review, Caroline. Sorry to know that Elizabeth Bowen’s novel didn’t work for you. Out of the sentences you have quoted, the first one (which starts with ‘In the street below’) is really contorted! The portrait of a likeable Nazi spy is interesting, but maybe not believable as you have said. But nice to know that Bowen captures the atmosphere of London of that time quite well in the story. Hope you enjoy reading her short stories now. I found Bowen’s ‘The Demon Lover’ is one of the anthologies I have and I am hoping to read it soon 🙂
Thanks, Vishy, It was not as good as I expected. Too many weird sentences like “in the street below”.
Some authors are much better in the shorter form.
I hope you will like The Demon Lover. I’m looking forward to hear what you think of it.
Her prose style certainly does slow the reader down, doesn’t it? I am only a third of the way in as I’ve had a cold this week and it’s been a brutal sort of work week–meaning the book hasn’t quite suited my mental state! Still, I will keep reading as I am all the more curious about it now after reading your post! I read The Last September and The Death of the Heart years ago and remember getting on well with both of them, but now it’s been too long to say how they compare with this one. My copy, interestingly calls (well a quote anyway) this her masterpiece.
I’m sorry to hear you were not well. I escaped the big cold everyone else had. The weather is nasty here and I’m glad I’ll be in Morocco soon.
It’s interesting, I sometimes see called her masteroiece and then again her weakest novel. As Litlove says there must be a few which are more accessible.
In any case, take your time. Neither Lizzy nor TBM were all that enthusiastic about it. Kevin hated it but at least he thought she wrote very well. I had my doubts. Did she want to write such clunky prose?
Oh, Morocco! Lucky you and it’ll be nice and warm there, too! Her prose is unusual–I’ve not read enough about her to know anything about her style, but I want to see if my library has any criticism can read. I am hoping to read a couple of her short stories this weekend still so will be comparing her styles–longer novel–v. short stories.
I just heard it will not be that warm. maybe better. The last time I was there the temperatures were so high, I burned my fingers on a stone I picked up in a garden.
Looks like we had similar thoughts about this book. My review will post tomorrow.
I really wanted to like this book because the characters were very interesting, especially Harrison. But I didn’t like the writing at all, and thought about abandoning it several times. I couldn’t read this book before bed because it put me to sleep…and then I didn’t get any reading done.
I agree that Robert becoming a spy after Dunkirk just doesn’t feel realistic. I could see him being bitter about his injuries, but his reasoning for giving secrets to the Nazis was pretty odd.
Even though Bowen goes on and on (and on!) at times, and I had a hard time understanding what she was getting at, I still felt removed from the characters, which is sad because they were the best part of the book. Except for Louie and Connie. I didn’t understand the point of including them.
Well, I’m not sorry I read it. You can’t love them all!
I’ve already got The Wars for this month and The Yellow Birds FINALLY came from the library, so hopefully I’ll have time for both.
We all agreed it seems. Some thought it was a real chore, others liked parts. It didn’t put me to sleep but I felt really disconnected as well.
I’m looking forward to your review and thanks for participating.
I can understand that you’d be bitter to be wounded and feel useless but becoming a spy for the enemy because of that? And his end. It felt like Bowen didn’t know how to end it all and just “pushed” him from the roof.
I liked Connie and Louie but they felt like stuck to it.
I’m sure you’ll like The Yellow Birds better. I’m looking forward to The Wars.
I read TBM’s reviews and how she mentioned the writing…your quote here makes it worse 😉
I really don’t understand the quote you have shared. Her writing is surely not for a non native like me, it sounds unlike English.
The story, based on your review, also diesn’t sound intriguing. Good review tho 🙂
Thanks, Novia. I would not recommend this to you. I was glad to see that the native speakers were struggling as well, so it’s really her writing.
Some sentnces need to be read twice at least. Some on the other hand were very beautiful but over all it was a mixed bag.
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Elizabeth Bowen is a writer I’ve meant to read for a long time, but I think I’ve already once given up on “The Heat of the Day”. I think her writing is a bit old-fashioned as opposed to that of Elizabeth Taylor which is just as lively today as it was fifty years ago when she wrote. I am an Elizabeth Taylor (the writer) fanatic, and the world must be coming around to my viewpoint since three of her novels have been turned into movies during the last 10-15 years.
You are so right. It is old-fashioned. When reading the stories it didn’t strike me so much but now… And I agree on Elizabeth Taylor. I’ve reviewd two of her novels (Blaming and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont) and loved them both. I still got “Angel” to read and even thought I would like to read all of her books.
From other comments on other blogs I see that there must be a few Bowen novels which aren’t as old-fashioned.
Elizabeth Taylor is a strong short story writer too. I must have read over a dozen of her books and probably only missed one or two.
I didn’t know that she wrote stories as well. That’s very good to know, thanks.
Now I’m tempted to start Angel soon.