Monday, April 25, 2011

The Heat of the Day, by Elizabeth Bowen

This was another of the titles in the collection of Anthony Burgess' 99 Best Novels.  I reached for it because I was completely unfamiliar with Elizabeth Bowen, an Anglo-Irish writer who mixed with the Bloomsbury clique. I was in the mood to try a new author and a book about which I knew nothing in advance.

The word that comes to mind when I think about this novel is 'atmospheric'.  The story opens at an outdoor theatre where a musical concert is taking place.  Although we don't know the year or the city, the author tells us that it's in a time of war and draws an almost cinematographic image of the scene.  She observes some of the concert-goers in minute detail, others en masse. It is clear that the war has affected them all, even as they take part in a somewhat commonplace entertainment. Only after several pages does Bowen disclose that we are in Regent's Park on the first Sunday in 1942.

Although the war infuses the story, Bowen writes with enormous subtlety and restraint.  It's a marvelous portrait of the English stiff upper lip. Drama? No thanks, we're British.  War is high drama, of course, and where Ernest Hemingway presented it in terse monosyllables, Elizabeth Bowen shows it in gorgeous descriptions of clipped and formal conversations, black-out curtains, teas at which guests are expected to bring their own rations of butter, and quirks of body language.

She describes Louie, a young wife, alone and displaced in London after her husband's posting overseas:
About her way of sitting... there was a sort of clumsy not quite graceless pre-adolescent strength. The effect of her was, at the first glance, that of a predominating number of London girls of this summer when the idealisation of Russia was at its height -- that of a flying try at the Soviet comrade type. Or, at least, this seemed the effect she hoped to convey. But with her this had not been successful, or gone far enough...
Louie is floundering.  Her parents have been killed in a bombing raid, her husband is away (Bowen points out Louie's vagueness on his particular whereabouts), and she is about as self-sufficient as a spaniel.
Left to herself, thrown back on herself in London, she looked about her in vain for someone to imitate; she was ready, nay, eager to attach herself to anyone who could seem to be following any one course with certainty. Tom by this time, had been drafted abroad; more or less she understood him to be in India. In his letters home he expressed the hope that she was getting on well and being a good girl; to this she never had any notion how to reply, so did not.  
Louie's story, however, is not the central one.  That belongs to Stella Rodney, an elegant and self-possessed middle-aged widow, and Robert Kelway, her lover.  Early in the book, a mysterious character approaches Stella and intimates that Robert may well be a spy. Stella ponders this information in silence for two months.  Much like her creator, Stella is a woman of great restraint.

In what feels like a moment of comic relief, Robert leaves London and returns to Holme Dene, his family's house, which someone has just offered to buy.  The house has been listed with the sales agent for decades, yet the prospect of a buyer has completely discombobulated Robert's adult sister, Ernestine, and their dour battle-axe of a mother, whom both of them address -- with ridiculous incongruity -- as "Muttikins".  They meet at Holme Dene to discuss this startling event:

"Muttikins," went on Ernestine, "cannot help feeling that there must be something behind this offer." She glanced across again: Mrs. Kelway indicated that yes, this was what she could not help feeling.
"What's behind the offer is someone's wanting to buy the house."
"Oh, I daresay, Robert; but it is so sudden. It is not even as if this was a safe area."
"Nothing has happened," said Mrs. Kelway in an offended tone.
"Oh, indeed no, Muttikins, and why ever should it!" Having sacrificed some seconds to laughing the idea off, Ernestine resumed: "Of course it's nice being a neutral area, not evaculated into, not evacuated out of, therefore quite quiet; but even so... who can be after a house no one has seen?"
"Certain no one has seen it?"
"No one we do not know has been to the door."
"Well, it can be seen from the road, at this time of year, or at any rate from a little way down the drive."
"We do not care for people coming down the drive," said Mrs. Kelway.
"That," agreed Ernestine, "is exactly what we do not like the idea of. If they want the house, why cannot they come to the door and openly ring the bell? Creeping and spying about when we did not know, calculating the value of everything, planning how soon they could get us out...  This is England, Robert; one expects to have privacy."

London, however, is far from neutral territory, and the falling bombs have quite the opposite effect on the Londoners' ideas of privacy:
So, among the crowds still eating, drinking, working, travelling, halting, there began to be an instinctive movement to break down indifference while there was still time.. The wall between the living and the living became less solid as the wall between the living and the dead thinned. In that September transparency people became transparent, only to be located by the just darker flicker of their hearts. Strangers saying "Goodnight, good luck," to each other at street corners, as the sky first blanched then faded with evening, each hoped not to die that night, still more not to die unknown.  

Stella, too, journeys out of London briefly, making a visit to her uncle's Irish farm.  Whilst waiting at the Irish train station, she muses about the seasons, and about her short respite from the Blitz:
The two stations also, in Stella's mind, become epitomes of the two most poignant seasons -- in spring, in autumn everything telegraphs its mystery to your senses; nothing is trite. And more: in these years the idea of war made you see any peaceful scene as it were through glass.

Louie contemplates Tom's official military portrait in its frame.  Even her simple mind can see the truth through that glass -- nothing will ever be the same after the war, and no one will come through untouched.
The frame with the regimental crest held a picture of what was at the best abeyance -- at the worst, there came out of it a warning to the bottom of her heart, that no return can ever make restitution for the going away. You may imitate but cannot renew safety.   

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.