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.
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