[I have begun rereading the essays that appear in my manuscript The Vagabond's Bookshelf; and for some reason, I decided to start at the end and move backwards toward the beginning. This one, which appears near the close of the book, felt exactly like my present state of mind, which is not something that often happens to me when I read a piece I first wrote several years ago. (A shortened version of this piece appeared in the Threepenny Review [spring 2010].)]This morning, between eight and nine o’clock, on what may well be Maine’s last warm day of the year, I sat in my doctor’s cramped waiting room. The radio was ratcheting out “Hits of the 80s,” and so, to the accompaniment of Madonna and the J. Geils Band, I spent a dead hour glancing down at the page of my book and then up at the faces of the fellow seekers arrayed against the pale walls of our little jail: the husband and wife with his-and-her crutches who spoke to one another only in the vocabulary of illness: “Dear, write down the time of the flu clinic,” “Dear, that’s when you’ll be in the hospital”; the youngish mother and her oldish son, first laughing together about her tendency to drive the minivan at high speed, then abruptly veering into a squabble about curfews.
Nothing in that room seemed to speak the same language. Occasionally the woman with the crutch would gaze in disbelief at the radio speaker, and when I dropped my eyes to the words on my page, they seemed to stare back at me with the same disbelief. “No Narcotics on Premises,” said the walls. The son and his mother kept interrupting one another’s explanations of strict: “No, what I mean is . . . ,” “No, what you think is. . . . ” Here we all sat in grubby Canaan, Maine, in a prefab office sprouting from a foggy field, all of us, in some way, cowed by the specter of illness. But nobody understood anything about anyone else in the room. Nobody understood anything. Quite possibly, there was nothing to understand.
The book in my lap was Elizabeth Bowen’s 1949 war novel The Heat of the Day; and as seems to happen at one time or another with most of my favorite books, the novel was eerily attuned to the moment. For Bowen’s subjects are language and isolation, her manner of revelation both uncomfortable and alienating, both beautiful and haunting. And though I love this novel, it is an anomaly among my favorites because it works as a kind of linguistic étude, an aesthetic exercise, relying on a specialized technique of construction rather than the creation of an intimate and emotional bond between characters and reader. Mostly I passionately avoid such books. So every time I reread The Heat of the Day, I wonder again why this is the volume I choose so often to carry into waiting rooms and unearth from my bag during ten-hour bus trips. Why do I love a novel that so patently does not ask for my love?
When I mention Elizabeth Bowen’s name to other readers, I rarely get much of a response. No doubt, she is well known among literary academics, who as a class tend to specialize in obscurity; but as far as I can tell, she is not otherwise much read. Critic and biographer Hermione Lee backs me up on this point, while also noting that the situation was once quite different:
[Bowen] began publishing young, in her twenties, and by her thirties she was well known, much praised and much in demand. In 1942, it was said of her that “since Virginia Woolf’s death, she is coming more and more to be regarded as the outstanding woman novelist of her generation.” . . .
Yet when I wrote this book [in 1981], she had become (certainly in England) a marginalised and undervalued figure. She was certainly not part of any academic canon. . . . She was never placed alongside Virginia Woolf or Katherine Mansfield . . . as one of the “important” writers of the century. She tended to be seen as an interesting secondary figure, sidelined in the space reserved for small, likeable talents like . . . her contemporary misfits and eccentrics, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green.
In the revised 1999 edition of her original study, Lee speaks optimistically about a Bowen revival, yet her hopes coincide mostly with her perception of rising interest among feminist scholars and specialists in Anglo-Irish studies. As far as I can tell, few general readers have regained interest in Bowen’s work. And yet, as Lee says, “Elizabeth Bowen is one of the greatest writers of fiction in this language and in this century. She wrote ten novels, at least five of which are masterpieces: strange, original, vivid, exciting and intelligent. She is . . . a brilliant technician . . . , a dazzling evoker of mood and place.”
Among her other strengths, Bowen is adept at plunging herself and her readers into the intense world of children at the brink of adulthood; and when I was in my twenties, her novels The Death of the Heart (1938) and The Little Girls (1963) were mainstays of my reading life. Perhaps I was still young enough, still close enough to her protagonists, to crave that clarity of eye, that blunt yet stylized acknowledgment of the cruelty, wildness, and bewilderment of girls, even as they mold themselves obediently to the strictures of class and fate. But as I grew older, especially as my fascinations with language became more transparent, I found myself returning more often to a volume that I had once idly plucked from a used-book rack merely on the strength of its beautiful cover: The Heat of the Day.
Set primarily in London in 1942, it focuses on a triangle of characters: Stella Rodney, a beautiful and isolated widow living temporarily in a borrowed flat; her lover Robert Kelway, charming and devoted, who, like Stella, is employed “in secret, exacting, not unimportant work”; and Harrison, who as we eventually learn is also named Robert, is also an intelligence agent, is also in love with Stella, and who arrives on her doorstep with the claim that her own Robert is betraying Britain to the Germans. Around these characters swirl other attachments—Stella’s soldier son and his Irish inheritance, her lover’s parasitic mother and braying sister—as well as the accidental Louie Lewis, an embarrassing innocent who has been left to her own strangely adhesive devices while her husband is away in the war.
Writing about another Bowen novel, The House in Paris, critic and novelist A. S. Byatt notes that it is “both a very elegant and a very melodramatic novel.” The same can be said of The Heat of the Day, with its secret agents and baleful old mother and tragic love affair. As characters, they sound as if they could appear in any suspense novel. Yet The Heat of the Day is like no other book I’ve ever read, even others by Elizabeth Bowen, for the suspense arises not so much from character development or plot twist per se but from Bowen’s charged and mysterious manipulation of language.
Here, for instance, is how the novel opens: “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.” No matter how often I read that first sentence, the strange delicacy of its construction continues to haunt me—the way in which the grammar pivots on “it,” thus crystallizing the passivity of all involved in this scene: the orchestra, the reader, even the hour. So by the time we reach those falling leaves, “crepitating as though in the act of dying,” we are immersed in the patient, customary foreboding of wartime London, though the writer has spoken not a single word about the war.
When I first read The Heat of the Day, I was in my late twenties or early thirties. I had not yet consciously identified myself as a poet. I still clung, albeit despairingly, to my novel-writing dreams, fooled in large part because I was continuing to read and reread so many novels so intensely. Yet The Heat of the Day brought me up short. In order to comprehend it, even on the simplest chronological level, I had to wade deliberately into Bowen’s opaque and stylized language. And to my own surprise and perturbation, I was lured under by that language even as it mystified me. I did not immediately comprehend that I was now in the hands of grammar, for in the past I had expected prose to efface itself before the delights of character or plot. Indeed, when confronted by a book like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, with its interchangeable, disembodied voices, I had run away as fast as possible. But now, for the first time, I found myself bewitched by the prose on the page—and what’s more, I didn’t necessarily have to understand Bowen’s ulterior implications. Merely I needed to read.
Nonetheless, the perturbation remained, mostly because I distrusted my manner of absorbing the novel. The way in which my attention tended to skim the syntactical river of Bowen’s sentences rather than dive into them seemed more like laziness than a newfound awareness of diction. A bit of dialogue such as “‘Absolutely,’ he said with fervour, ‘not!’” was apt to jolt me away from the characters’ conversational exchange into a parallel syntactic quandary, where the peculiar, ominous placement of a single word might seem to have the implications of an atom bomb.
Despite my longstanding attraction to the elegance and ambiguous precision of this novel, I can easily believe that plenty of people would dislike it—as, for instance, Hermione Lee does. Although she admits that The Heat of the Day is “in some ways the culmination of [Bowen’s] work,” she finds it “a strained and strange performance.” Strained is certainly true, as evidenced in sentences such as this one, which writhes painfully down the page like a snake trapped in a narrow box: “Constrained to touch things, to make certain that they were not their own reflections, [Stella] explored veneers and mouldings, corded edges, taut fluted silk, with the nerves of her fingers; she made a lustre tinkle, breathed on the dome over a spray of birds, opened the piano and struck a note, knowing all the time she was doing nothing more than amuse herself, if she could amuse herself, and was outside the society of ghosts.”
Yet strained is the point of this novel, though it cannot have been an easy or comfortable style to inhabit. Indeed, Bowen apparently found the novel extraordinarily difficult to write. “It presents,” she wrote to her lover Charles Ritchie, “every possible problem in the world.” Surely many of those problems must have been linked to her notably odd language, and this is exactly what Lee dislikes:
The sense of strain makes it a very mannered book. Bowen’s idiosyncratic style is always very carefully controlled. But in The Heat of the Day, for the first time, it begins to look like affectation. . . . To get the feeling of tension and pressure, The Heat of the Day uses double negatives, inversions, broken-up sentences, and passive constructions: “Up his sleeve he had something”; “Soon now however should come King’s Cross”; “To a fault not unfeeling, she was not wholly admirable.” This can make not just for an evasive surface but for an impenetrable one.
To my mind, however, impenetrable is not an accurate choice of words. Much of the strain inherent in this novel arises from the stress within the sentences, hysterics barely repressed below the author’s lacquered diction. I know of no other novelist whose syntax assumes the primary task of both concealing and revealing the cracks that fissure our emotional composure. And I say our because the syntax extends its power over not only the characters but also the reader and, I am quite sure, the writer. When Stella asks Robert if he has been “passing information to the enemy,” Bowen’s delineation of his response convinces me that the author, her heroine, and I are all clinging to the gunwales of the same lurching linguistic boat. For “he spoke, when he began to speak, as a man who, in an emergency more fantastic, more beyond the possibilities of experience, than any man should be asked to meet, casts round him for words at random, realises their futility before uttering them, but does all the same utter them, as the only means of casting them from him again, rejected.” As I push myself to imagine the strain of inventing such a sentence, a sentence whose grammar so precisely enacts Robert’s reaction, I begin to think that Bowen may have been speaking no more than the truth when she averred that writing this book “presented every possible problem in the world.”
In “Notes on Writing a Novel,” Bowen declared, “plot might seem to be a matter of choice. It is not. The particular plot is something the novelist is driven to: it is what is left after the whittling-away of alternatives.” Perhaps diction, too, imposes its directives. Certainly it does in poetry. So when I read Bowen’s claim that novels are “the non-poetic statement of a poetic truth,” I think she’s being disingenuous. She may not be writing in lines and stanzas, but undoubtedly she is allowing word choice, syntax, and punctuation to unreel the complexities of her characters and control her dramatic arc. Here, for instance, is a passage that appears early in chapter 1—our first encounter with the spy Harrison:
New, only he knew how new, to emotional thought, he saw now at the first of his lapses, the whole of its danger—it made you act the thinker. He could, now, do not better than travesty, repeat in order to judge exactly how much it showed, his originally unconscious trick of the hands; he recalled this trick in his father, not before in himself—but it must have been waiting for him. Yes, he had recourse to it, fallen to it, this evening out of some unprecedented need for emphasis in the body. Yes, he had been forced to it by the course of what in the strict sense had not been thought at all. The futility of the heated inner speed, the alternate racing to nowhere and coming to dead stops, made him guy himself. Never had he not got somewhere. By casting about—but then hitherto this had always been done calmly—he had never yet not come on a policy which both satisfied him and in the end worked. There never had yet not been a way through, a way round or, in default of all else, a way out. But in this case he was thinking about a woman.
Immediately, in this passage, Bowen tosses her reader to the language lions. “New, only he knew how new”? With a sentence opener like that, how does she expect me to concentrate on Harrison? The repetitions are so harsh, the comma so precisely placed, that the diction feels almost comic—except that, somehow, it isn’t funny at all. And this disconnect itself segues the reader into another compelling peculiarity of The Heat of the Day. Not only do the linguistic mannerisms override any tendency toward silliness, but their syntactical distractions and surface glitter are not framing devices so much as the actual cloth from which the novelist shapes her character. A line such as “There never had yet not been a way through, a way round or, in default of all else, a way out,” with its hairpin double negative skewering the extended, subjectless, guarded predicate, gives me the eerie sensation that grammar itself is plumbing the essence of the repressed watcher Harrison. And when Bowen snaps the paragraph shut with her terse, flat-toned, conventionally constructed explanation “But in this case he was thinking about a woman,” I feel almost as if she’s kicked me in the teeth.
I have never been overly intrigued by the modernist poets—Eliot and Pound and their ilk. Yet their novelist contemporaries are a different story: I return again and again to James Joyce’s “The Dead,” to Virginia Woolf’s The Years, to Henry Green’s Loving. Their questing syntax and curious dramatic visions have insinuated themselves into my poems as Wallace Stevens’s and William Carlos Williams’s verse innovations have not. So when I read The Heat of the Day, I cannot help but wonder if these novelists represent a missing poetic link. After all, who in the twentieth century was the inheritor of the narrative tradition? Who picked up where Tennyson and Coleridge and Shelley and Milton and the Beowulf bard left off? Like their poet forebears, the modern novelists both loved a story and were seduced, overwhelmed, by the shifting power of the words that fell from their lips.
In her letter to Charles Ritchie, Bowen referred to the tensions of inventing both a spoken vocabulary and a “moral vocabulary” for her characters. In a way, she had to invent a language in order to invent a language—a poetic task if there ever was one. Bowen’s diction compels both the characters and the readers of The Heat of the Day to exist in a state of stress and pressure and helplessness. As Virginia Woolf said about poet John Donne, “With the first words a shock passes through us; perceptions, previously numb and torpid, quiver into being; the nerves of sight and hearing are quickened. . . . More remarkably, we do not merely become aware of beautiful remembered lines; we feel ourselves compelled to a particular attitude of mind.”
But language is nonetheless an impossible burden to bear. This morning, when I sat trapped on my chair in the doctor’s waiting room, I had reached the point in the novel when Robert, in Stella’s bedroom, in the ghoulish, “half-red dark” of a fading electric fire, tries to explain why he has betrayed his country. Meanwhile, “Freeze frame!” shouted the J. Geils Band, and the woman with the crutch turned to her husband and murmured, “Diabetes.” I looked down at my book. Robert said,
What is repulsing you is the idea of “betrayal,” I suppose, isn’t it? In you the hangover from the word? Don’t you understand that all that language is dead currency? How they keep on playing shop with it all the same: even you do. Words, words like that, yes—what a terrific dust they can still raise in a mind, yours even: I see that. Myself, even, I have needed to immunise myself against them; I tell you I have only at last done that by saying them to myself over and over again till it became absolutely certain that they mean nothing. What they once meant is gone.
I’d like to say I experienced an epiphany, an “oh, this is what the novel is really about” moment. But what I really had was immunise in my lap with a “Freeze Frame” soundtrack and a “No Narcotics on Premises” punch line. I read the sentences, I tasted their bitterness, even though the words, at that moment, meant nothing. Yet they clung to me, like a seed in a tooth. I drove home and sat down at my kitchen table. I opened the book, and I read them again.
Perhaps the act of rereading is itself the only true explication of the power of literature; for after all this chatter and speculation about The Heat of the Day, I still cannot exactly explain why I return to it, why I cling to it. I never feel better when I finish the novel, never feel that I have clarified anything new about myself or the world. I have never once found myself imitating Bowen’s style. All I can pinpoint is the seriousness of her language, and serious is not really what I mean. Rather, her words are formal and somber, like an arcane dance. They bow and turn, step forward and back. They exist, like the portrait of an age exists—remote and harsh, elegant and harrowing.
“What a terrific dust they can still raise in a mind,” in mine, at least, as they do also in the mind of poor ignorant Louie Lewis, that stray soul wandering through Bowen’s novel, bumping up against the world. “Often you say the advantage I should be at if I could speak grammar,” she laments; “but it’s not only that. Look the trouble there is when I have to only say what I can say, and so cannot ever say what it is really. Inside me it’s like being crowded to death—more and more of it all getting into me. I could more bear it if I could only say.”