The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War, By Lara Feigel Bloomsbury £25
So, what did the Blitz ever do for us?
Sunday 03 February 2013
The opening section of Lara Feigel's vivid account of the lives of five writers in London during the Second World War reads like an apocalyptic thriller. It follows Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke (writing as Henry Green) during the night of 26 September 1940, at the height of the Blitz. Yorke was an auxiliary fireman, Greene and Bowen were ARP wardens, and Rose Macaulay an over-age but highly capable ambulance driver. Feigel describes the drama hour by hour, much of it through the eyes of her subjects, in a fashion that brings Sarah Waters's excellent Second World War novel The Night Watch to mind. The dark, deserted streets, ruined buildings, and lovers meeting and melting into the night, provided fertile ground for the imagination of writers marooned amid the action. "The nightly routine of sirens, barrage, the probing raider, the unmistakable engine, ('Where are you? Where are you? Where are you'), the bomb-bursts moving nearer and then moving away, hold one like a love-charm," wrote Graham Greene.
Hilde Spiel, by contrast, exiled from her beloved Vienna and living in Wimbledon, spent the war dodging the bombs dropped by her compatriots. Cooped up with her husband, child and parents, she found the war a depressing and desultory period in her life, whereas the other writers seem to have revelled in living on the edge of the abyss. This is not a tale of the working masses but of middle- and upper-middle class writers moving in social circles where companionship marriages and multiple infidelities are accepted with good grace. The cast of husbands, wives, lovers and friends, plus their fictional counterparts, can sometimes overwhelm but the way war experiences influenced such novels as Henry Green's Caught, Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond and, perhaps most famously, Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, is fascinating. It would be hard to read Feigel's book without wanting to discover or rediscover the novels and novelists in question, high praise indeed for her labours.
Feigel goes on to explore the lives of the writers after 1945, and while this is interesting, it lacks the sheer life-or-death drama of war time. These later years might have been better saved for a separate volume. But this is a nitpicking criticism of a fine book that brings the writers of the Second World War into the spotlight alongside the poets of the Great War.
The breadth and depth of Feigel's research is admirable, but this is not a dry account of famous lives. Her love and curiosity about her subjects is palpable and her writing style is simple but affecting. It is a substantial study but the 465 pages fly by surprisingly quickly. Feigel's exhaustive study of letters, diaries, novels, and official civil defence records have produced a thrilling insight into each writer's response to war, both published and private.
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Which country would be hardest to invade?
- 2 Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
- 3 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 4 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 5 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Avengers: Age of Ultron set to make box office history with $84.5m US opening
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
The highly NSFW poster for Gaspar Noé's Love makes Nymphomaniac look like 50 Shades
New on Netflix UK May 2015: From Fast & Furious 6 to World War Z and Grace and Frankie
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
Indonesia executions live: 'Hysterical' families heard prisoners being shot dead by firing squad
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
EU exit would hit UK economy much harder than neighbouring countries, study finds