‘Summer Night’ by Elizabeth Bowen

* Picked by Jonathan Gibbs

This is, structurally, rather an awkward story, that sets up a small cabal of characters in a tight little tangle of relationships, and then develops them only halfway along what might be called a plot before getting bored. (And it’s true, they’re mostly quite boring, as characters.) But Bowen’s writing throughout is characteristically luminous – though the light it gives is that of the moon, rather than the sun, even when the sun is out, as it is at the start of this story. And it’s that prose that makes this story worth the reading, equally crisp and arch, a mandarin version of the style that Muriel Spark would push through a nervous breakdown, to become something more aggressively strained. Here’s the opening paragraph, which evokes a summer evening so forcefully that you could keep yourself warm in deepest February just by reading it out loud.

As the sun set its light slowly melted the landscape, till everything was made of fire and glass. Released from the glare of noon, the haycocks now seemed to float on the aftergrass: their freshness penetrated the air. In the not far distance hills with woods up their flanks lay in light like hills in another world ­­– it would be a pleasure of heaven to stand up there, where no foot ever seemed to have trodden, on the spaces between the woods soft as powder dusted over with gold. Against those hills, the burning red rambler roses in cottage gardens along the roadside looked earthy – they were two near the eye.

First published in Look at All Those Roses, Gollancz, 1941, and collected in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Penguin, 1983

* Jonathan Gibbs is the author of two novels, Randall, and The Large Door, and a book-length poem, Spring Journal. He curates A Personal Anthology. You can read his individual Personal Anthology, plus other occasional contributions, here.

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