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The Love-Charm of Bombs, By Lara Feigel. Bloomsbury, £25

 

Five writers who lived through the London Blitz accounted it as critical in their creative lives as well as epochal in the nation's history. The novelist Elizabeth Bowen was an ARP (Air Raid Protection) warden; so, by nights, was Graham Greene, to whom Lara Feigel owes her title. Rose Macaulay was an ambulance driver. Henry Yorke (better-known as novelist Henry Green) was an auxiliary fireman. All were deeply affected by the suffering and death they encountered. The odd one out is Austrian Hilda Spiel, surviving bitterly in dull Wimbledon.

One pleasure of this brave and original book is seeing these lives overlap, mirror each other, and diverge. Feigel explores the effects of witnessing this new form of apocalyptic devastation, during which 40,000 civilians died. There was the constant uncertainty about whether one's home and loved ones would survive the night.

To live on such close terms with death changed the experience of time and – as Samuel Johnson observed of hanging – concentrated the mind wonderfully. It also invited a holiday from conventionality, and sexual freedom. Yorke, Greene and Bowen each enjoyed a largely celibate marriage to a complaisant partner who stayed loyal while the writers had affairs.

What fascinates Feigel is the intensity and immediacy of wartime emotional life. War lent to passion an exhilarating power that, in turn, produced remarkable writing. In 1941, Elizabeth Bowen fell in love with Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat; the affair fed into one of her best novels, The Heat of the Day. Greene's The End of the Affair and Henry Yorke's Caught rework their writers' wartime lives.

It seems as if Feigel fell in love with her cast of characters and could not let them go. After the war ends, a further 250 pages follow, set in Berlin, Vienna, Ireland and elsewhere. Feigel shows the English in a new light: not cold or repressed, but a sensuous people for whom love matters most of all. She also shows why the period from September 1940 to May 1941, when we stood alone against the powers of darkness, remains the defining moment in our recent history.

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