I was thinking I was getting this post in just under the gun, this being the last day of March, but Mel's Irish Short Story Month has been extended into April. I'd be inclined to push my reading forward a bit and get back to the Persephone collection, but as I am also reading Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day at the moment, a couple of short stories by Bowen it is!
The Heat of the Day is the current book up for discussion for Caroline's Literature and War Readalong (unsurprisingly I am not finished), so I was curious to see how the novel was received by other readers. She is a challenging writer to read and that shows by the varied responses. I have heard both praise for the book as well criticism that her prose can be overly complicated. It seems she's considered a "modernist" writer, so I'm expecting a fair bit of sophistication in her work, but I certainly do agree she is a challenging writer to read. The upside to being a tardy reader (finisher anyway) is being able to adjust my expectations and have the benefit of those who have gone before me, though I am going to keep an open mind for the latter part of The Heat of the Day.
Neither "Sunday Afternoon" nor "A Day in the Dark" are lengthy short stories, and both are set in Ireland. Bowen was Anglo-Irish, born in Dublin she spent part of her childhood in County Cork at Bowen's Court and later lived in London. She was a prodigious short story writer, and this collected stories volume of mine (put out by Vintage Books) with its cool cover is massive, though sadly beginning to fall apart. Both stories are later works, the first set during the war years and the latter just after.
In "Sunday Afternoon" Henry has returned home to Ireland for a visit and he spends a May afternoon with friends. He works now in one of the war ministries. His London flat has been bombed and everything lost and there is about him a sense of melancholy of being cast out and separated from Ireland and his friends. He seems happy now simply to just exist on any level. He's confronted by the hostess's niece, Maria, a young woman who is ready to set off for London, and what she perhaps believes will be an adventure. She sees Henry as staid and even weak for wanting to remain in the happier days of the past. But then he tells her she is being a savage and scornful.
Maria tells Henry how she admired him at tea, but now sees how weak he is.
"The past--things done over and over again with more trouble than they were ever worth?"
The war has created a disjunction between how life was lived before and the reality of now as well as between the two generations and their expectations.
Bowen's prose is fraught with meaning and it took more than one reading to tease out what meaning I took from it, and I am still not entirely sure I am on the right track. Too, it's laden with many details, so despite the length it's filled to the brim with description and dialogue and calls for proper attention be paid to it.
"A Day in the Dark" is a post-war story set in the little village of Moher. Looking back on an afternoon in her youth, Barbie recollects an unsettling meeting with her uncle's neighbor, Miss Bandberry. At fifteen and in between school sessions Barbie was staying with her uncle on whom she had a harmless though real crush. Her uncle asks her to return a magazine, marred with oily fingerprints, though the real reason is ultimately to ask for the use of a piece of farm equipment. Formidable and taciturn, it's obvious Miss Bandberry is nursing old wounds where Barbie's uncle is concerned.
"When I speak of dread I mean dread, not guilt. That afternoon, I went to Miss Bandberry's for my uncle's sake, in his place. It could be said, my gathering of foreboding had to do with my relation with him--yet that there was no guilt anywhere, I could swear! I swear we did each other no harm. I think he was held that summer, as I was, by the sense that this was a summer like no other and which could never again be. Soon I must grow up, he must grow old. Meanwhile we played house together on the margin of a passion which was impossible. My longing was for him, not for an embrace--as for him, he was glad of companionship, as I'd truly told her. He was a man tired by a lonely house till I joined him--a schoolgirl between schools. All thought well of his hospitality to me. Convention was our safeguard: could one have stronger?"
But Moher is a small town where everyone lives practically in each other's pocket and there are no secrets, or it's assumed that all secrets are known. However innocent Barbie's situation may be, after her visit to Miss Bandberry her world takes on a slightly different and less innocent color.
There is nothing frothy or simple about Elizabeth Bowen, I've decided. I think, though, she is an author who rewards careful and concentrated reading. Next week back to The Persephone Book of Short Stories and Norah Hoult.