Elizabeth Bowen: The Heat of the Day (1948) Literature and War Readalong March 2013

The Heat of The Day

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.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

TBM (50 Year Project)

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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.

Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way (2005) Literature and War Readalong February 2012

Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way is one of a few WWI novels told from an Irish perspective. Unlike How Many Miles to Babylon or many other WWI novels, its main theme isn’t class which was something I was glad for. Not that I think it wasn’t important but it has become one of the clichés of WWI literature. That and so many other elements. Luckily there aren’t all that many clichés in Barry’s novel.

Nineteen year-old Willie Dunne from Dublin volunteers in the early days of WWI. Like so many before or after him, he has no real reason, or they are at best quite vague and mostly personal. Maybe little Willie wants to prove himself and prove his father that he is worthy despite of his size. His father, a tall and imposing fellow, is a policeman. Something little Willie could never have become because he is barely taller than a midget. The army doesn’t care. They are in such great need of volunteers that they accept almost anyone.

We follow naive little Willie to Belgium where he spends his first months in the relative comfort of the rear camp, hardly seeing any fighting at all. Nothing really bad happens to little Willie and his company until one day, the soldiers see a yellow cloud hovering slowly over no-man’s-land. It takes them far too long to realize what that yellow cloud means, and only much too late, when many of them are already dying a cruel death or maimed for life, do they flee in horror. After this moment the novel takes a turn and becomes graphic and tragic and Willie loses his naivety at a breathtaking speed.

Although he sees many horrible things, it is only after his first leave to Ireland, that Willie is really affected. Not because he doesn’t fit in anymore – Barry doesn’t use this cliché either – but because Ireland is on the brink of the War of Independence and Willie, a compassionate man, is saddened to see the death of a young rebel and to realize that for the first time in his life, he doesn’t see things like his father.

Back in the trenches he tells the other Irish lads what he has seen at home. The newspapers write about it too and the British officers are aggressive and see them even more as cannon fodder than before. The longer the war lasts, the more intense the fighting in Ireland gets, the less the efforts and losses of the Irish are appreciated. In the end there are finally no more volunteers from Ireland. They do not want to fight for the enemy anymore and some would even gladly join the Germans. When Willie takes his second leave to Dublin, the aggression in the streets against his British uniform is open.

It is rare that I resent an author for his narrative technique but I do resent the way Barry wrote this novel. Furthermore I had a hard time with his style, I think it’s far from fluent and the overuse of adjectives at times was annoying. Just one example:

Now they rose up in the violent moonlight and entered bizarrely a huge field of high corn, the frail stems brushing gently against their faces, and because Willie was a small man, he had to grip the coat of the Sergeant-Major Moran in front or he would be lost, set adrift to wander for ever in this unexpected crop. The absurd bombs followed them religiously into the field, smashing all about the darkness, the stench of cordite and other chemicals obliterating the old dry smell of the corn.

As if the violent moonlight wasn’t enough, they have to enter the field bizarrely, followed religiously by absurd bombs? Admittedly, this was one of the worst passages but there were others, equally florid. This doesn’t explain why I resent him but it’s part of it. I felt tricked. This novel works like a trap door. You are lured into a devastated house which is bad enough but the moment you are inside, the carpet is pulled away from under you and the trap door opens. There is a building up of graphic scenes and an intensification of the tragedies that befall poor Willie that felt really mean. I was upset that the book had to end like it did, so absolutely depressing, without the tiniest little bit of hope or light. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because the book describes graphic scenes, it’s because he intensifies them and accelerates it towards the end, when we do not see it coming anymore and, on top of that, has poor Willie experience one personal tragedy after the other.

With the exception of the dishonest structure, and an almost sadistic finishing off of the main character, the novel has a lot of elements that I thought well done. I haven’t read any WWI novel this eloquent on the use and the horrors of mustard gas. Nor any novel that showed the role of the priests so well. Father Buckley was my favourite character in this novel. A Catholic Priest with true compassion and a wide open heart. And I liked Barry’s choice of theme. His look at authority and its major representative, the father is very interesting. The father as a figure comes in many different forms, as the biological father, the King, the Priest. Coming to terms with authority and ultimately becoming a man and independent are important aspects. Little Willie isn’t a boy anymore at the end of the book, he is a man, with his own opinions, his own life. The book stays away from the usual criticism of high command but uncovers all sorts of hidden false authority.

A Long Long Way has been my second Sebastian Barry novel and I was also annoyed by the first. I just don’t like this type of artifice and manipulative writing that is so keen on effect.

I hope others have liked the book better. After all it has won many prizes. I’m looking forward to see what you thought.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Serena (Savvy Verse and Wit)

A Long Long Way is my second contribution to the War Through the Generations Challenge hosted by Anna and Serena.

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A Long Long Way was the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Jean Giono’s Le grand troupeau – To the Slaughterhouse. Discussion starts on Friday March 30, 2012.

Literature and War Readalong February 27 2012: A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

In last year’s readalong we also read a WWI novel from the Irish perspective. It was one of my favourites and since I’m fond of Irish literature, I thought it would be great to add another one this year. I wanted to read Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way since Danielle (A Work in Progress) first mentioned it. WWI has a special meaning for the Irish. They were neutral during WWII, so, clearly, WWI has another importance. There were reasons why they remained neutral during the second World war which are tied to their own history. While some men, like the character Willie Dunne in this novel, fought for the Allies, other forces in the home country were about to erupt and would lead to the Easter Rising. WWI, the Irish War of Independence, followed by the Irish Civil War, cost the Irish too many lives for them to risk being dragged into WWII as well. I’m certainly simplifying but in a nutshell this was one of the reasons.

Some of what I just mentioned is the topic of Barry’s novel.

Here are the first sentences

He was born in the dying days.

It was the withering end of 1896. He was called William after the long-dead Orange King, because his father took an interest in such distant matters. On top of that, an old great-uncle, William Cullen, was yet living in Wicklow, across the mountains as they used to say, where his father himself had been reared.

I have read Sebastian Barry’s award-winning The Secret Scripture three years ago and I was one of a very few who didn’t like it. It had nothing to do with the writing as such which is great and one of the reasons why A Long Long Way was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005. The reasons why I didn’t like it were timing and implausibility. I had just read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox before and the theme is the same, only I liked O’Farrell’s novel much better as it didn’t rely on implausible coincidences. Despite this unfortunate encounter I’m really looking forward to A Long Long Way and hope that some of you will join me.

Have you read Sebastian Barry?

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The discussion starts on Monday, 27 February 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.