Friday, March 18, 2011

391. The Heat of the Day – Elizabeth Bowen

History: This book was published in 1948.
Plot: The novel opens with an encounter between Louie Lewis, a London factory worker seeking self-identity, and Harrison at an outdoor concert at Regent's Park. After Harrison rudely leaves Louie he goes to visit Stella in her rented flat. He tells her of his suspicions that her lover, Robert Kelway, is a spy, while proposing that she leaves Robert to become his lover. While she is coping with the possibilities, her son, Roderick, visits her on leave from his army training. In her conversation with her son and the memories of her divorce from his father, Stella begins to doubt if she (or anyone) can ever really know anyone else. Roderick, meanwhile, is ruminating on Mount Morris, the house he has just inherited from an Irish cousin, Francis Morris.
The narration goes on to recount Cousin Francis's visit to his wife, Cousin Nettie, at Wisteria Lodge, a special care house for the elderly and the insane/mad. He is using this visit as an excuse to leave neutral Ireland and reach Britain in order to offer his services to the Allied effort. He dies just before the reunion with his wife. At Francis's lawyer's request, Stella attends the funeral, and is told that her son will inherit the estate, even though Roderick and Francis have never met. Here, Harrison, who is unknown to anyone at the funeral, and Stella meet for the first time. Harrison insists on accompanying her on the train back to London.
The narration then recounts Stella and Robert's first meeting two years ago and their subsequent romance. Back in the narrative present, Stella shows an interest in meeting Robert's family and so they go to Robert's family house, Holme Dene.
At Holme Dene, Stella meets Robert's authoritarian mother, his managerial sister, Ernestine, and their wards, Robert's other sister's two children. His mother reluctantly allows Robert to show Stella his room, in which is a collection of photographs of Robert throughout his life. Robert tells Stella about his troubled relationship with his emasculated father. That evening they return to London.
Harrison and Stella meet again. Harrison points out to her that in visiting his family, Stella is accepting the possibility that Robert is a spy. Harrison reiterates his insinuations that she should leave Robert and start a new relationship with Harrison. Stella does not accept his offer to stay the night.
The narration jumps back to Louie. Louie has made friends with Connie, an air warden. Connie and Louie are both newspaper fanatics; Connie is suspicious of everything she reads, while Louie believes everything she reads.
Returning to the main plot, Stella leaves for Ireland to visit Mount Morris and take care of affairs for Roderick. While there, she decides to confront Robert with Harrison's accusations. Robert and Ernestine pick her up in a car at the train station. After dropping Ernestine off, Stella finally asks Robert directly if he is a spy. Robert is angry that she could entertain such an idea, and is hurt that she has been harboring such thoughts for two months. Then he proposes marriage. She says no, after which they discuss their relationship and Harrison.
Roderick, who feels guilty inheriting Mount Morris without Cousin Nettie's permission, goes to visit her at Wisteria Lodge. In the course of their conversation, it becomes obvious that Cousin Nettie is not really mad, as she is pretending to be. Her feigned insanity is her excuse to never return to Mount Morris, which she hates. Nettie reveals the true story of Roderick's parents' divorce. Everyone assumed Stella was the guilty adulteress, but in fact Victor (Roderick's father) left her for a nurse. Roderick is stunned by the revelation and calls his mother to ask her about it as soon as he can.
Stella receives Roderick's call during one of Harrison's visits just before they leave for dinner. It prompts Stella to share her history with Harrison, which she hasn't done for many other people. At dinner, Harrison confirms that Robert fulfilled his predictions about exactly how Robert would change his behavior if Stella ever revealed that he was being watched. Louie happens to be at the restaurant and makes up an excuse to talk with them. In coded language in front of Louie Stella offers herself sexually to Harrison in exchange for Robert's safety. Harrison rejects the offer, and Stella and Louie leave the restaurant together. Louie is attracted to Stella, and tries to describe her to Connie.
Robert goes to Holme Dene because the family has received an offer to buy the house. Mrs. Kelway and Ernestine refuse to make a decision without him, but clearly he has no real influence. He is tense throughout the scene.
He returns to Stella in London and confesses that he is indeed a spy for the Germans. Robert tries to justify his actions and expounds on his fascist politics. Robert accuses Harrison of interfering in their relationship, which eventually leads to his confession. Although Stella still loves him, their relationship is marred. They know Harrison is waiting outside. Robert insists on leaving via the roof.
A couple days later Stella goes to visit Roderick and reveals that Robert is dead. Back in London, she gives a report to the coroner's office in which she comes out looking like a femme fatale and Robert's treachery is hidden. Louie reads the report in the papers and (mistakenly) believes her first impression of Stella was wrong. The narrative gives a sweeping overview of the next few years of the war. Harrison visits Stella again years later during another bombing. He tells her that his first name is Robert. Their resolution of their relationship is left ambiguous. Louie gets pregnant in the course of her extramarital affairs. Connie takes care of her, and Tom dies in combat without ever knowing. Louie leaves London to give birth to her son, Thomas Victor. She retires with him to her hometown, Seale-on-Sea, with the intent to raise him as if he were her heroic husband's child.
Review: In The Heat of the Day "everyone seems trapped in someone's else's story." Relationships of any type become dependent on language, on what is talked about and how: “The ‘story’ which Harrison tells Stella about Robert, and then the stories which this novel tells us about what both Stella and Harrison do with that story have their direct public consequences. Indirect language and code are often used, as is to be expected in a novel involving [espionage]. White information and propaganda, two different forms of telling, are discussed as to the way they are produced and consumed by Louie and Connie. Additionally, the war in London gains a fictitious dimension, seen as story-telling and as if out of a thriller.
Stella becomes especially sensitive towards the way certain events are narrated, such as her divorce. She also emphasizes that story-telling is the mechanism we have to perceive and remember the past: One of the strongest arguments Robert uses to justify his act of treachery is a critique of public and official discourses: “Don’t you understand all that nation-related language is dead currency?”
This book has several character parallelisms:
Stella and Louie: Stella and Louie are displaced women in London. Louie is from Seale-on-Sea and only came to London to be with her husband who is now away at war. Stella rents her flats and all her furniture, she has no place to call hers, no permanent home, and not even any things (all her furntiture etc. is in storage somewhere.)
Both are willing to have sex outside their monogamous relationships for monogamy’s sake. Louie carries on her adulterous affairs because she feels closer to her husband with any man than she does with no man. Stella ultimately offers herself sexually to Harrison to try and protect the man she actually loves, Robert.
Both are mothers who lie to their sons about the sons’ fathers. In both cases, the mother is making the father look better than he is. However, Louie is also making herself look better by claiming that Thomas Victor’s father is her husband, whereas Stella is accepting the blame for adultery that she didn’t commit in her lie to her son. Whether or not this makes her look worse is a matter of perspective—yes, she looks guilty, but she rejects the role of a victimized wife (which she really is).
Robert and Harrison: Both are attracted to Stella, and their simultaneous vying for her person (sexually and psychologically) is central to the plot.
Both are involved in espionage, Robert being a nazi spy and Harrison being a counterspy for England. Furthermore, both are betraying their home country—Robert by spying for Germany, Harrison by trying to buy Stella’s sexual favors with his influence as a counterspy.
Harrison has an uneven gaze with his off-balance eyes; Robert has an uneven gait because of his limp.
Both are named Robert.
Neither one has a proper home that we know about, and where they go when they are not with Stella is a mystery. Maud Ellmann argues that this means neither one is a proper “character” by the standards of realism, a deliberate move on Bowen’s part
Robert and Roderick: Both are men that Stella loves, one as a son and the other as a lover.
They have very similar sounding names—at Cousin Francis’s funeral, Colonel Pole accidentally calls Roderick Robert.
Roderick looks “more like himself” in Robert’s dressing gown.
Robert believes in fascism because he thinks people can’t handle freedom. Roderick eagerly accpets his destiny to be a landowner at Mount Morris, and Stella is relieved that her son has such a script laid out for him rather than being free to be nothing.
Cousin Nettie and Robert: Both come from houses that affect them negatively: Cousin Nettie from Mount Morris, where generations of Anglo-Irish women went mad or nearly mad, and Robert from Holme Dene, a “man eating house."
Both live duplicitous lives, Robert as a German spy in London and Cousin Nettie as a sane woman who feigns insanity.
Both are trying to establish gender identities by rejecting certain gender roles. Robert is not honoring his fatherland and running a household, but he tells Stella that being a spy in secret makes him a man again, meaning that he is a man, but only in secret. Cousin Nettie tries and fails to be a proper wife to Francis, and only is able to settle down and establish her own domestic space by feigning madness and leaving her married house for good.
The idea of Britain becomes prominent (usually in connection with the war) mostly when seen from outside the countryside. The characters that do leave the city to go either to Mount Morris, in Ireland, or to Holme Dene, in the Midlands, think of their country in rather gloomy terms. Except for reports provided by the narration, the consequences of the war upon the country are seen chiefly mainly from the outside too. On the surface, London during the Blitz is not particularly characterized by strong displays of nationalism; instead, life the present is celebrated by the imminence of the possibility of being killed during the bombings. However, the actions of the two main male characters seem to be motivated by their relationship with the nation. While Harrison tries to put an end to Robert’s act of treason to the country, the latter charges against [nationalism] and national pride as a reason to fight the war.
The novel poses general questions such as whether or not one can know somebody completely and whether two people can know a third person in exactly the same way, as illustrated by the triangle Stella-Robert-Harrison. Specifically, one of the main tensions in the book lies in the degree of knowledge that each of the male characters may or may not have about the other, using Stella as intermediary. As expected, propaganda plays an essential role in the book, as well as the disclosure of the concealed identities of the spies and intelligence agents. On her part, Stella is also concerned by her progressive detachment from her son Roderick and begins wondering if she in fact knows him as she thinks she does.
Roderick is determined throughout the narration to unbury the real story of Victor’s adultery, Cousin Francis’ actual reason for visiting to Britain and Nettie’s motivation to check herself in at Wisteria Lodge.
Opening Line: "That Sunday, from six o'clock in the evening, it was a Viennese orchestra that played."
Closing Line: "They passed overhead, disappearing in the direction of the West."
Quotes: "A rapture of strength could be felt in the rising tree trunks rooted gripping the slope, and in the stretch of the boughs; and there travelled through the layered, lit, shaded, thinning and crossing foliage, and was deflected downward on to the laurels, a breathless glory. In the hush the dead could be imagined returning from all the wars; and, turning the eyes from arch to arch of boughs, from ray to ray of light, one knew some expectant sense to be tuned in to an unfinished symphony of love."
Rating: Okay

No comments:

Post a Comment