Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day

‘Atmospheric’ and ‘evocative’ seem to be popular adjectives for The Heat of the Day. I agree that the book is both of those things; in my last post I highlighted a passage, for instance, that struck me as especially powerful at summoning up not so much the look as the feeling of wartime London, and cumulatively I think the whole novel brings to us the fraught, anxious, oppressive yet inarticulate sense of a world under siege literally but also morally and psychologically.

It’s that shift from the literal world into something intangible and abstract that finally interested me the most about this novel. Bowen’s style overall is very intrusive, by which I don’t mean that her narrator is intrusive (though occasionally that is true too) but that at really no point in the novel could I lose myself in it. The plot is too minimal and develops too slowly to generate suspense the way you might expect of a war novel centered on an accusation of spying for the enemy. And the emotional elements of the novel, though very intense, were too indirect or intellectualized to prompt laughter or tears (though there was the occasional wry chuckle). Throughout, the syntax is difficult and obtrudes on our awareness, so that we have to know at all times that we are reading, and we have to work pretty hard at it, too.

I often suggest to my students that they look for clues about how to read a novel from what the novel itself is doing or emphasizing or sounding like. Though it was not necessarily pleasurable working my way through Bowen’s sentences (though sometimes it was intensely so–again, see previous post!), they were never truly impenetrable and often yielded to slower reading and closer attention. Working through them came to seem to me like part of the point of the book, which is very much about what people are not able to say, or can’t (or won’t) say directly–those layers of meaning behind seemingly innocuous actions and phrases, for instance, but also the ever-present risk of mistaking glib fluency for honesty and accuracy, surfaces for sufficient truths. At every moment, after all, there are all the things you feel but can’t articulate, and maybe aren’t even conscious of yourself: I was reminded of Woolf’s comments about post-Victorian novelists becoming “aware of something that can’t be said by the character himself.” One effect of the war, too, is that it makes open emotion, as well as open conversation, more difficult, potentially even dangerous; to the general human difficulty of understanding and articulating our experience, then, is added the particular pressure of this historical moment. This is the murky verbal territory which this novel seems to be navigating. Wishing it were clearer and simpler is a bit like wishing both life and feelings were clearer and simpler, or at least that the novelist had undertaken to clarify and simplify it for us. There are novelists who do this, and render complexity with superb lucidity. George Eliot comes to mind (I know, when does she not, for me?!)–but Bowen is obviously not one of these, and for reasons that I’m sure have to do both with her place in literary history and with her individual theory of the novel. (I have been trying to get my hands on her essay “Notes on Writing a Novel”: from the snippets I’ve seen, it is quite illuminating about her aesthetic principles.)

When the narrator is speaking in The Heat of the Day–or, since there isn’t really a particularized narrator, when we get direct exposition–the language tends to clears up, limning in contexts or proposing frameworks for understanding the characters’ situations. I thought this passage, describing Stella and Robert as they sit at their coffee, was particularly suggestive about why the book has the components and structure that it does:

But they were not alone, nor had they been from the start, from the start of love. Their time sat in the third place at their table. They were the creatures of history, whose coming together was of a nature possible in no other day–the day was inherent in the nature. Which must have been always true of lovers, if it had taken till now to be seen. The relation of people to one another is subject to the relation of each to time, to what is happening. If this has not been always felt–and as to that who is to know?–it has begun to be felt, irrevocably. On from now, every moment, with more and more of what had been ‘now’ behind it, would be going on adding itself to the larger story. Could these two have loved each other better at a better time? At no other would they have been themselves. . . .

Not just the choices Robert and Stella face are meaningless outside of time, but also their very identities: there is no timeless, universal ‘Stella’ who has to figure out what to do about her suspicion that her lover is a spy, but only Stella in 1940, or 1942, or 1944, her thoughts and feelings and experiences interwoven with, generated by, “what is happening.” In order to appreciate Stella’s actions, we have to accumulate as much as possible about her thoughts and feelings but also about the environment in which they are moving, or by which they are being shaped. There’s a literal sense here, again: the whole issue of leaking secrets to the enemy can arise only during a conflict. But there are more diffuse issues here too, I think: the relationship between our personal and political loyalties, the nature of our identification with our country, our expectations of family, are all things we take for granted but could (probably should) historicize. Victorian novels are sometimes described as historical novels about their present. I think Bowen is doing something similar except that she has zoomed in so that both the history and the present with which she is concerned are tiny moments magnified–and not, again, explained with the magisterial authority of her 19th-century predecessors. George Eliot’s characters are often confused, her readers rarely. Here, I think we too are stymied about just what it is, exactly, that Stella should do once Robert admits his guilt. Interestingly, her action is inaction: she does not try to stop him from heading out by the roof, even though she clearly understands his intentions.

I was intrigued by the abstract way in which Robert’s treason is represented. Again, I am trying to take my cues from the novel to find the significance of Bowen’s choices. It would, surely, have been easy enough for her to spell out his motives much more clearly, specifically, and politically. As it is, I think the words ‘German’ or ‘Nazi’ are never used–only ‘the enemy’ or ‘them’ (or ‘us,’ depending on who’s speaking). He makes a vague, almost Carlylean argument about people’s inability to handle their freedom (arguably, the portrayal of English society in the novel does little to defend democracy against his careless dismissal):

Tell a man he’s free and what does that do to him but send him trying to dive back into the womb? Look at it happening: look at your mass of ‘free’ suckers, your democracy–kidded along from the cradle to the grave. . . . Do you suppose there’s a single man of mind who doesn’t realize he only begins where his freedom stops? One in a thousand may have what to be free takes–if so, he has what it takes to be something better, and he knows it: who could want to be free when he could be strong? Freedom–what a slaves’ yammer!

He associates his disaffection with the retreat from Dunkirk: “It was enough to have been in action once on the wrong side. Step after step to Dunkirk. . . That was the end of that war–army of freedom queuing up to be taken off by pleasure boats.” But his complaints never distill into specific political statements, and they are never attached, either, to political or historical contexts the way, say, Lord Darlington’s fascist sympathies are in The Remains of the Day. So, I conclude, taking my cue as much from what Bowen does not include as from what she does, the spy plot is something of a thematic feint (though on this I would be happy to hear other views): it’s not betraying Allied secrets to the Nazis that’s the issue but a more general problem of betrayal or loyalty, a question of how or why we form the loyalties we do (in Robert’s case, it seems to be something more visceral or temperamental than political, though I thought he remained too enigmatic as a character for us, or Stella, to really understand his motives).

I have a lot of questions remaining about the book, about aspects that interested me and seemed significant but that on this one reading did not settle into patterns. There’s the side plot, for instance, about Louie and Connie: why is it there? I ended the book thinking Louie was there partly as a witness to the other story, but the letter Connie writes about her pregnancy also creates a thematic resonance, about lives thrown off kilter by the war and people affected in unexpected, maybe inexplicable, ways: “It is no use,” she writes, “for you or me to judge, you simply have to allow for how anything is going to take a person, as to which there is no saying till you see.” That certainly describes the other characters, so maybe there are further parallels, or maybe the juxtaposition illuminates the central issues of love and loyalty in ways I didn’t pick up on. What does Mount Morris bring, to Roderick, who to Stella’s surprise takes so seriously his role as master of the house? Is it the continuity that matters, given the great uncertainty stalking the rest of his life and indeed much of the wider world? Is it nostalgia for identities that are rooted in one place? Harrison, for instance, is unsettling in part because nobody knows where he actually lives. What about Harrison? There’s something so morally unpleasant about the way he tries to blackmail Stella into intimacy, but in the end he seems steadier, more admirable, if just as enigmatic, as Robert–whose name (in a nice little doppelganger-ish twist) it turns out he shares. What about Stella herself, living under the shadow of a scandal we learn was always founded in error, ending up in scandal again after Robert takes the roof exit from her “luxury” flat? Why does the knowledge (again, imperfect) that Stella is “not virtuous” prove so inspirational to Louie? Finally, for now, what about the war itself? On another reading, I would want to track more carefully the convergence of major events in the war with the more minor cataclysms on the home front. At the every end of the book we get an unusually specific review of military events, from the German capitulation at Stalingrad to “the Russian opening of their great leafy Orel summer drive,” on into 1944, “The Year of Destiny,” and the D-Day landings. We sit in Stella’s new apartment during the “Little Blitz,” and the guns, instead of being threatening, buy her time in the conversation–her relationship to the war itself seems to have changed. And yet it’s Louie who actually ends the novel, watching not the bombers, which “invisibly high up, had droned over” a little before, but swans, “disappearing in the direction of the west.” Is that a hint that the unnatural condition of war is coming to an end, or just another reminder of the omnipresence of time?

This was my first experience reading Elizabeth Bowen. It wasn’t easy, and I was glad for the external motivation of my book group meeting, which helped me make concentrating on the novel a priority. (Unfortunately, I was the only one at the meeting who had finished the novel, which is one reason I still have so many questions lingering! Please, Bowen readers out there, help me out!) The Heat of the Day does not seem to be considered Bowen’s greatest novel: from what I’ve read, just poking around the internet, people seem to identify that as The Death of the Heart. I’m interested enough that I think I’ll look around for a copy of that. In the meantime, it’s back to Testament of Friendship, which has been on hold for too long.

3 Comments to Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day

  1. June 2, 2011 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    This seems a very sensitive and insightful review to me, Rohan. I have read several Elizabeth Bowen novels, only I have a problem with her work in that it refuses to stick in my mind. I can’t even remember which ones I’ve read, although I would have thought they included both this and The Death of the Heart (I’m sure I read The Death of the Heart…). But I do know my experience has been very mixed. One book I found so turgid that I almost gave up reading her. But then I read another and loved it. I’ve just finished The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton and that was excellent, and made me wonder whether there isn’t a slowing-down-the-moment style very popular in this era of British literature. Hamilton drags out the moment, adding numerous commentaries, although his style is far more crisp and economical than Bowen’s. But don’t take my word on this – two authors from the era do not make me an authority on it! I’m half tempted to read Bowen again, if I can make up my mind which of her novels remain unread on the shelf…..

  2. Sam's Gravatar Sam
    June 2, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Great and thoughtful post.
    For what it’s worth, I love “The Last September”–beautifully written, and some scenes and lines that I remember being laugh-out-loud funny (a quality I don’t think is part of ‘Death of the Heart’)

  3. June 8, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Wimbledon Bookclub will be discussing Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Death of the Heart” on June 6th 2011 and June 20th 2011.

    Any and all are welcome but places are limited.

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Summer Reading 2014

Rohan:
1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
5. Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolo Rising
6. Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
7. Zoe Ferraris, Finding Nouf
8. Georgette Heyer, Friday's Child
9. Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones
In progress: Bronte, Villette; Kloester, Georgette Heyer

Maddie:
1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
4. Judy Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't
In progress: Dessen, Dreamland

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