From The Go-Between to Atonement, The Great Gatsby to Call Me by Your Name, novelists have used heatwaves to create tension, erotic charge and moments of possibility it is a time when all the rules change
arah Perrys S After Me Comes the Flood begins one summer in London, on the 30th day without rain. Sun blazes out of a blank sky, heat beats like a hammer on the pavement, silencing the birds. A bookseller shuts up his shop and flees the city, but in his sunstruck confusion forgets a map. Lost, he comes upon a cool holloway, a tunnel of green shade that leads to the edge of a dying lawn sloping slightly upward to a distant house it seemed to me the most real and solid thing Id ever seen, and yet at the same time a trick of my sight. A childs voice calls his name and he enters.
The reader enters oddly familiar territory, too territory that has seemed so ever since LP Hartley published
in 1953. Hartleys mesmerising novel about 12-year-old Leo, who finds himself, under slightly false pretences, in a grand house in Norfolk in a heatwave in 1900, was of course not the first to use summer as a framing device. There was Edith Whartons uneven but lingering 1917 novel The Go-Between Summer, for instance, and F Scott Fitzgeralds The Great Gatsby (1925) but Hartley understood so well what summer allowed, it is sometimes hard not to see everything else in its light. In the heat the senses, the mind, the heart, the body, all told a different tale, as Leo puts it. One felt another person, one was another person. So too for the novelist, who is suddenly given the freedom to explore ideas and dilemmas that would have seemed implausible if the weather had stayed cool.
At its most basic, this means a release from the usual constraints, although at the same time summer provides a usefully closed system. In
The Cement Garden, Ian McEwans short fever-dream of a novel, 40 years old this year, a mother dies, orphaning her children, on the last day of term, stranding them in a summer that McEwan (who, as Alexandra Harris notes in , has been explicit about Weatherland The Go-Betweens influence on his work) points out contains the hottest day since 1900. But the reader knows, or at least guesses, that even though the children bury their mother in the basement, in concrete even though all order breaks down and the kitchen, like their world, becomes a place of stench and clouds of flies adult structure and authority, if only in the guise of school, must at some point reassert themselves. Colson Whiteheads (2009) begins on the first day of the summer holidays, as a family arrives on Long Island and immediately posits an ending: Ask, How long are you out for? and all answers contemplated the end, the death of summer in its very beginning. The reader knows that whatever teenage entropy ensues (for, as in Sag Harbor The Cement Garden, Whitehead largely removes parents from the picture), some sort of order will eventually prevail. JL Carr called his brief, luminous, utterly original 1980 novel of a recently demobbed soldier finding peace and purpose in a Yorkshire belfry . Carr played with his self-imposed constraints. Birkin, and another ex-soldier, Moon, are the classic strangers entering the closed system of a small village in summer; at the same time, they make a working fraternity of two, which the villagers and a beautiful (married) woman interrupt. A Month in the Country
Leo enables Marian and Ted to continue their trysts. The Go-Between film adaptation, 1971. Photograph: StudioCanal/Rex Shutterstock
McEwans 2001 novel
begins in a country house one hot day, when a misunderstanding by a child, Briony, of an adult sexual encounter (as in Atonement The Go-Between) changes the course of many lives. At one point Leon, Brionys brother, observes I love England in a heatwave. Its a different country. All the rules change, a deliberate allusion to Hartleys opening line, one of the best-known of any English novel. Leons England is, as in Hartleys novel, prewar upper-class England, when the rules were so much more evident, and the existential effect of their loosening so much greater. (The debt to Hartley was originally even clearer: in an early draft a novel by the adult Briony was rejected by Cyril Connolly, who noted: I trust youve read The Go-Between. McEwan was disappointed when he was told it was an anachronism and had to take it out.) Sag Harbor is similarly anchored and contained by a house in the Hamptons, a holiday home: important partly because it represents the hard work it took to afford it, and partly because, like almost every other house in Sag Harbor, it belongs to a black family. Although another summer house not far away, where memory is inextricable from lost happiness, turns out to be more important still.
Taking characters to another (hot) country for a short space of time works, too: So Rachel Cusk, in
(2014), removes her protagonist to broiling Athens to teach a course; Deborah Levy, in Outline (2016), parks a mother and daughter in southern Spain in August. Constraint is useful for the basic plot reason that it can force unexpected people together; summer adds heat to the pressure. Hot Milk
Heat and long days do interesting things to time, and, however short and finite the season, it can give the impression both of being separate Summer is its own time, as Whitehead puts it in
Sag Harbor and of going on for ever. There was so much time that marvellous summer, remembers Birkin in A Month in the Country. Day after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and the hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted away from the plain. It was a sort of stage-magic. I had a feeling of immense content and, if I thought at all, it was that Id like this to go on and on, no one going, no one coming, autumn and winter always loitering around the corner, summers ripeness lasting forever. In The Cement Garden, there is too much time, terrible time, dripping and sweating and shapeless. In After Me Comes the Flood, the bookseller John Cole is repelled by the degree to which the adult inhabitants of the mysterious house drift through summer days, lost in games, making papier-mache heads, building a kind of curdled, dangerous child-world.
Time is dripping and sweating and shapeless The 1993 film adaptation of The Cement Garden. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/Rex
Long time, and often deep time:
Sag Harbor is, among other things, a bravura enactment of how the repetitiveness of summer the arrival, the hope, the familiar porches and the corners of beach both anchor a self and illuminate how it is changing; how Benji and his friends (and his parents friends, and his grandparents friends) find themselves mingling with who we had been, and who we would be. Tove Janssons (1972), a small wonder of a novel, occurs over the warm months after a six-year-olds mother has died, and which she, her father and her grandmother are spending on a small island in the Gulf of Finland. The father is largely absent, working, or planting misguided gardens, so the girl spends her time with her grandmother who, close to the end of her own life, is able to drift through the nightless days sharing the rhythm of a childs vivid present. One summer, but also a lifetime of summers, memories growing out of each other, like the underbrush the two know so intimately; the tree trunks, ferns and lichens and moss, layered and revealing glimpses of each other. Much of the power of the last third of The Summer Book , too, comes from Virginia Woolf setting one summer moment against another in the same place, but 10 devastating years later; the attempt to repeat/complete an innocent trip only underlining how impossible that is. To the Lighthouse
Because things must change. In F Scott Fitzgeralds novel, Jay Gatsby moves to West Egg and attempts, with his golden net of money, to recapture the summer when he and Daisy Buchanan fell in love; in Andr Acimans
(2007), Oliver comes to stay with Elios family for a summer in the Italian Riviera, and Elio discovers a love against which all his later life will be measured. And in Hartleys Norfolk, Leo loses his innocence. Early on he sees the elder daughter of the house, Marian, saying farewell to a man. But when Marians mother asks if they met anyone in town, Leo is so distracted by the pleasure of being chosen by Marian, who has just bought him beautiful clothes better suited to the heat than those he arrived in, he forgets and says no thus committing his first act of complicity, and displaying his suitability as a go-between. For the next few weeks Leo enjoys the heat, is ecstatic with it, but becomes caught between Marian and her working-class lover, Ted, feeling but not always comprehending the degree to which his childhood is being stripped away. Call Me by Your Name
Elio discovers a love against which all his later life will be measured Call Me By Your Name, 2017 adaptation of Andr Acimans novel. Photograph: Co/Sony/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
The moment Leo definitively grows up is the moment he learns what spooning is; for Briony it is the day she thinks she sees her sister being attacked.
The Cement Garden builds inexorably to a moment of transgressive sex sex that might never have occurred if it wasnt so hot, if the children werent so alone, if there were any boundaries operative at all. The discovery of sex isnt always terrible, of course; in Sag Harbor, for instance, Benji experiences his (classically underwhelming but nevertheless precious) first kiss. The summer fling is a cliche elegantly mocked in, for example, Michael Frayns 2012 Greek island farce but that only underlines its ongoing power as an idea, which is of sudden possibility, of the promise of self-fulfilment and a kind of adult joy no less potent for probably being doomed. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, thinks Nick in Skios The Great Gatsby, then there was something gorgeous about Gatsby, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life he had an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. The summer is an emblem of it.
Summer is full of erotic charge. People wear fewer clothes, see more of each other. Things grow into ripeness, and more than ripeness, which is exciting but also threatening, overwhelming a worry traced again and again through female sexuality. So the belladonna plant that plays a starring role in
The Go-Between is a none-too-subtle metaphor; in The Cement Garden a hormone-soaked teenage boy watches, fascinated and discomfited, as his sister flowers into adulthood. Charity Royalls sexual awakening amid the proprieties of turn-of-the-last-century rural America is, in Summer, Edith Whartons central subject. In Jesmyn Wards devastating 2011 novel set in the summer of 2005 in an isolated, rackety house in coastal Mississippi sex is something 15-year-old narrator Esch takes almost for granted; the discovery that she is pregnant, womanly ripe, however, changes the emotional landscape almost as much as Hurricane Katrina will alter its physical lines. Salvage the Bones
Everything is so confused. Lets all go into town! The 1974 Great Gatsby film. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar
Hot Milk the young female protagonist visits her father and his new partner, then returns to the Spanish beach where she is suffering a doomed love for another woman. I was flesh thirst desire dust blood lips cracking feet blistered knees skinned hips bruised, but I was so happy not to be napping on a sofa under a blanket with an older man by my side and a baby on my lap the latter a situation that in Whartons Summer seems the best possible outcome for a young woman in Charitys position. And yet even this progress is not what it seems, because a central theme of Hot Milk, published more than a century later, is how much of the mothers indefinable illness is a response to a marriage traditionally the culmination of the season of love in which she could not find the words for how her own wishes for herself had been dispersed in the winds and storms of a world not arranged to her advantage.
It is not just women who find the world organised for someone elses gain, however. Again and again summer is cast as a time when the icy ramparts of class might, just possibly, melt. The young man Whartons Charity meets is an urbane, book-writing architecture enthusiast from New York. Gatsbys dubiously acquired money, spent on parties, a pool, a huge house, gives him the illusion for a few short weeks that he might claim to be Daisy Buchanans social equal. In Helen Crosss
My Summer of Love (2001), the father at the big house asks the working-class girl who mucks out his pony to make friends with his troubled daughter. In The Go-Between, Leo enables Ted and Marian to continue their trysts, and feels increasingly at home in a milieu far grander than his own. What is happening, he feels, is nothing less than a struggle between order and lawlessness, between obedience to tradition and defiance of it, between social stability and revolution.
But even as these class-crossings seem possible, divisions become apparent. Leo is troubled by small moments his hostess noting how well his clothes are mended, or his friend mocking him for wearing his school hat in the country that illuminate his social inferiority. Charity works in the village library but has no education; when the young man from New York asks for advice, at once she sees the gulf between them, and while later she can briefly forget it, it is always there, getting deeper.
Which is of course one sign of the irreversible process of growing up a glimpse of ones relation to the world and to other people. In
, the fourth volume in Karl Ove Knausgaards season-cycle, published in June, he remembers his youthful summers as being the worst time of year, because they were accompanied by an expectation of pleasure and joy and groups of friends swimming or boating or on holiday and there I sat while the sun was shining outside and I didnt know where to go or what to do it marked me, not just who I was in the eyes of others, but also who I was to myself. Leo, while glorying in a kind of zenith of the self, becomes alienated in fundamental ways yearning for a more glamorous life, troubled by the duplicities he is being required to enact, while only, like the child he is, wanting to please. Marian, I dimly realised, was the rock on which I was split. Summer
In the summer light things seem clearer, more vividly themselves than at any other time. Just before the harvest ends, Birkin is taken on a Sunday school picnic. For me that will always be the summer day of summer days a cloudless sky, ditches and roadside deep in grass, poppies, cuckoo pint, trees heavy with leaf, orchards bulging over hedge briars. Charity goes on a buggy ride with the youth she now knows loves her too. The haze of the morning had become a sort of clear tremour over everything, like the colourless vibration of a flame: Wharton uses the word flame so often in this novel that it has to be deliberate: a flare of great heat and light containing in itself extinguishment and ashes.
One great power of Hartleys book is the contrast between Leos bright conviction that he is among the inheritors of summer and the coming glory of the 20th century, and the knowledge shared by the narrator (Leo in the 1950s) and the reader of just how terrible the first half of that century was going to be. In
The Great Gatsby, the first world war is only just over, and any travel from East or West Egg to New York City requires one to pass the valley of ashes. A Month in the Country is set in 1920; Birkin somehow survived Passchendaele the extreme shade a setting for his jewel of a Yorkshire summer, an unlooked-for gift given on borrowed time. Atonement begins in 1935, the second world war a coming darkness that gives extra brightness and fragility to the summer day. There is a whole subgenre of fictions set in the heatwave of 1976, when writers could use the ominous background of National Front marches, forest fires, a falling pound and the Notting Hill carnival riot: Maggie OFarrells Instructions for a Heatwave, Alex Wheatles The Seven Sisters, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vines A Fatal Inversion, Stephen Poliakoffs play Strawberry Fields. And by simply mentioning the word Katrina, Ward invokes the ruin that will be visited on thousands of largely black, largely poor families like Eschs; their father tries to prepare for it, but he is chaotic and alcoholic, and for a long time his children, preoccupied with their own challenges, do not listen. The reader, however, knows what kind of storm is coming.
Ripeness is exciting, but also threatening, overwhelming a worry traced again and again through female sexuality. Atonement, 2007. Photograph: Allstar/Working Title/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar
So there is ripening, flowering, fecundity, but also, as the heat climbs, putrefaction, the unpredictable dog days, the invisible, gathering flood (Sarah Perrys title is, as an engine of inevitable dread, extremely effective). The tension in
The Go-Between comes less from the mechanical threat of the lovers being discovered than from a growing sense of moral tarnishment, a deflowering, the reader willing Leo to step back before its too late. The Great Gatsby, as with a whole later line of novels and short stories (by James Salter, John Updike, Fitzgeralds own Tender Is the Night) set among privileged Americans, already contains its fallenness. The days and nights are beautiful, white sand and green grass and blue breakers, but full of alcohol and faithlessness; Gatsbys parties, all whisperings and champagne and stars, whirl around an empty core. But its so hot! wails Daisy Buchanan, late in the novel and on the verge of tears, looking out at Long Island Sound stagnant in the heat. And everything is so confused. Lets all go into town! They end up in a New York City hotel room, drinking too much, the thin veneer of respectability cracking all about them. In The Cement Garden, the mothers body releases a terrible smell and splits the cement open.
Remarkably often in novels that take summer for their shape and impetus, a day of unbearable heat coincides with a major set piece (a cricket match, a concert, a harvest party, a homecoming festival, a firework display, a declaration of the heart) and a storm. During the night, Birkin says, the year had crossed into another season. All too suddenly possibilities wither. The marriage survives, the upstarts are vanquished they kill themselves, or sacrifice themselves to a loveless marriage, or are sent to war. Gatsby floats dead in his lovely pool, then is buried alone in the rain punishment for the delusion that with his wild chutzpah he could bridge the divide between his beginnings and his dreams, could finally reach the little green light at the end of the dock. The upper classes close ranks. Theres a disappointing conservatism about it where is the revolution so confidently promised? or perhaps more accurately, a chilly realpolitik: They were careless people, Tom and Daisy they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together.
Sag Harbor never even makes the pretence that racial divisions might be healed: part of the preciousness of summer at this particular beach is that it is a breathing space; a couple of months without the need to know where the exits were in case something racial went down.
A few days of autumn cold had wiped out all trace of the rich fields and languid groves, writes Wharton. She could no longer believe that she was the being who had lived them; she was someone to whom something irreparable and overwhelming had happened, but the traces of the steps leading up to it had almost vanished. Over and over again one summer becomes the hinge, often but not always the high point, of an entire life.
The question then is how to look back on it: as tragedy and the cancellation of a lifes promise (
The Go-Between)? As a mistake for which to make decades of reparations ( Atonement)? As unavoidable as growing up, and thus an everyday grief ( Sag Harbor)? Or perhaps just sometimes, it is possible to attain a different kind of realism, to celebrate, as Elios father tells him in Call Me by Your Name, a brief time where hope and life and love were, against all odds, at one. Remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. Most of us cant help but live as if we have two lives one a mockup, the other the finished version but theres only one and before you know it your heart is worn out. Grasp the moment, even though you know it will pass. Ah those days, writes Carr in A Month in the Country, which is that extraordinary thing, a novel that manages to bring alive, without sentimentality, a rare, unlooked-for few weeks of gentle happiness. Sometimes, listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.