The Heat of the Day
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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.
There is a muted intensity to all personal interactions, and this is the kind of book where we need to pay attention to every word spoken, to every tiny gesture made, to almost decode the currents between people.
If you come to this book expecting either a war-time romance, or a spy story then you will inevitably be disappointed. So much of this book is obscure, based around things not said, actions not taken, deeds which don't happen, and the book is haunted by ghosts: not just the dead, but the bombed churches which cannot ring their bells, and the dead souls of the living.
London is familiar and yet also alien, and many of the characters are portrayed in a similar way. So this is an odd book in lots of ways which keeps us feeling somehow just a little off-kilter - but it builds up into a strange, almost dreamy, mysterious and peculiarly haunting read.
This isn't an action packed novel of spies and espionage that it might seem but that is all to the book's benefit. Stella and the other characters are all perfectly observed and beautifully portrayed. Bowen's prose draws you into those nights of fear and steaming days of ennui, the `hot yellow sands of each afternoon'. High moments of the story are attached to historical Allied events but this isn't a war story as such, although it does deal with lives irreparably altered by the outbreak of war. I love the rhythm and the delicate nature of the prose, there is a haunting beauty to this book that deserves to be more widely known.
Here's another interesting book about the run up to the Second World War:
The Separate Principle
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