#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Elizabeth Bowen

Blog Post 8: The Heat of the Day (1948)

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That Sunday, from six o’clock in the evening, it was a Viennese orchestra that played. The season was late for an outdoor concert; already leaves were drifting on to the grass stage – here and there one turned over, crepitating as though in the act of dying, and during the music some more fell.

‘The Heat of the Day’ is perhaps one of the greatest novels of the Second World War. It  has been somewhat neglected of late and I’m wondering why. Bowen’s work has been both favourably and unfavourably compared to Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock’ in terms of its noir aspect and also to ‘The End of the Affair’ with its matter of the heart. It is an atmospheric read, full of images of ghosts and haunting, perfectly encapsulating the exhausting terror and monotony of the Blitz. The relentless bleakness, the disheartening rationing, the long dull hours, the always-present possibility and randomness of death, the specific details, all these remind me of Patrick Hamilton’s also-neglected novel ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ (1947). Both novels ask the question: do we really know who anyone is?

Again, as with several other books in this series, ‘The Heat of the Day’ has semi-autobiographical elements: the younger lover, the Anglo-Irish heritage, the government job, the bombed-out flat near Regent’s Park, the sense of displacement and transience. It covers a two year period from September 1942 to 1944, the darkest of times for war-torn London and Britain. The dark is a powerful symbol in this novel. Fear lurks at night; daybreak brings hope.

Most of all the dead, from mortuaries, from under cataracts of rubble, made their anonymous presence – not as today’s dead but as yesterday’s living – felt through London.

Bowen’s style is mostly elegant, almost Jamesian. It is certainly not a quick read; it is rich and full and needs much concentration. But there is something off-kilter and awkward about her writing, as if the missing articles and verbs and odd speech patterns somehow reflect the out-of-the-ordinariness of war. The empty streets, the bombed-out buildings, the smoke, the dust, the dirt, the sirens, the fire, the ack-ack noise and the falling of bombs, all these allow people to live in the shadows, to conduct illicit affairs, to take chances, because tomorrow might not be there for them. The stilted language and the odd conversations make the form of this novel reflect its content.

If you enjoyed ‘The Night Watch’ by Sarah Waters, you should give this much earlier book a go. But give yourself some time and space and you will be rewarded.

 

 

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