The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

“Out of 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. From the moment of waking you tasted the sweet autumn not less because of an acridity on the tongue and nostrils; and as the singed dust settled and smoke diluted you felt more and more called upon to observe the daytime as a pure and curious holiday from fear.”

Ostensibly The Heat of the Day is a spy novel, a wartime noir.

In the first chapter Stella, the heroine, is told by a shady individual called Harrison that her lover, Robert, is selling secrets to the enemy. Harrison offers to withhold this information from his superiors if Stella agrees to become his lover. To begin with Stella is dubious. If what Robert does is performing an act for her then the implication is that his love too is part of the act. A surface cracks. The habitat of love in which Stella has lived comes to resemble the broken exposed bombed buildings littering London’s landscape. Bowen is brilliant at relating these inward crisis moments to the external world. Every description of place contains psychological insights into her characters. When, later, Stella visits Robert’s home she is horrified by the suffocating deceit of decorum she encounters in his mother and sister, a decorum that has already humiliated and unmanned Robert’s father. Robert calls his mother Muttikins. Enough said! The rot starts at home.
Stella herself is involved in a deceit. She had deceived her son about his father. Contrary to popular belief it was not she who betrayed him but the other way round. When her husband died after betraying Stella for his nurse Stella decides to court the fiction that she was the femme fatale, perhaps for reasons of glamourising her self-image.
Betrayal and deceit are ubiquitous tensions in this novel. The theme of deceit is taken up by another character, the orphaned and disingenuous Louie who is betraying her absent enlisted husband with a succession of casual affairs with men. She does this, paradoxically, to bring her husband closer.
On a deeper level The Heat of the day is a novel about dispossession. About the precarious nature of any habitat, whether it’s a physical habitat like home or an emotional habitat like love. The novel begins in September 1942 when London is being bombed every night. Bowen evokes a landscape in which homes can vanish overnight. “Habit, of which passion must be wary, may all the same be the sweetest part of love.” Habit, dependent on habitat, is a vanishing luxury in this novel. Much of the novel takes place in homes. We have Stella’s flat which is borrowed, we have Robert’s family’s home which is for sale. We have the crumbling house in Ireland that Stella’s son inherits. We have the flat where Louie lives and from where her husband is poignantly absent. And we have the nursing home where cousin Nettie lives. Stella sees homes exposed as she rides the train: “It was striking how listlessly, shiftlessly and frankly life in these houses exposed itself to the eyes in the passing or halting trains.”
Home it’s a precarious structure, both physically and emotionally.
Bowen’s sentences in this novel are as rutted and rubbled as London’s wartime streets. Often cataracted with double and sometimes triple negatives – as if speech itself is hampered, battling against a relentless hostile tide. She plays with idioms too, grotesquely altering them – as if the lynchpins of civilised life are being hacked away. There’s a deliberate forsaking of fluidity in her prose.
The last sentence implies the war is the swansong of an era of western civilisation, not an era Bowen seems to approve of.
Bowen actually wrote this novel during the war and, unlike WW2 novels written later, isn’t trying to impress with the depth of her research. It’s a consideration she is able to ignore because the world she is describing is outside her window. The odd thing is, because we’re so familiar with the way London during the blitz has been portrayed (stagemanaged?) by popular media, Bowen’s depiction can at times be bizzarely less convincing.
It should be pointed out that this is not a work of realism. Robert’s adherence to the Nazis is barely credible as a concrete possibility. Many have wondered, with justification, if Bowen should have had him siding with the Russians. Bowen after all was familiar with Burgess and the Cambridge spies. However this implausible detail doesn’t detract from the novel’s psychological power. It’s not her best novel – I’d award that plaudit to Death of the Heart – but is well worth reading.

blitz

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