The Love-charm of Bombs, Restless Lives in the Second World War
Mark Le Fanu on the wartime lives and loves of writers in London
Strange title for a book, to make the reader wonder about its contents — even before one picks it up (and it is a pretty weighty volume): what is, or can be, so charming about bombs? What is so potent about them that can turn them into a ‘charm’ or a magic spell, rather than (or in addition to) a deadly weapon of destruction?
The topic becomes clear after a few pages: Lara Feigel’s subject is the peculiarly erotic atmosphere of the Blitz as it impinged on the lives of a number of chosen writers — two men, three women — who stayed on in London as civilian workers (air-raid wardens, firefighters etc) for the duration of the war, and who seem to have found in that dark time a perversely heightened pleasure in the savour of life — as well, of course, as material for the books that made them famous.
Well… mostly famous. We know some of Feigel’s figures but not all of them. Graham Greene needs no introduction, but here in addition is another Green, Henry (although it’s a pseudonym — the writer’s real name was Henry Yorke). Elizabeth Bowen was a major novelist of her day, as was Rose Macaulay, though perhaps few of us read the latter’s books nowadays.
The fifth and last writer, Hilde Spiel, an Austrian Jewish émigrée, one would have to call obscure — which does not mean that she is not interesting: Feigel makes her interesting, as indeed she makes all her chosen cast interesting. How she achieves this is at first glance something of a mystery.
One of the reasons it is a mystery is because one can’t even call the five a ‘group’, as such. Certainly, they knew each other, or, at the very least of each other. But they didn’t live in each other’s pockets, like the Bloomsbury Group did. So in a way these are parallel lives to start off with. It makes the effort all the greater to tie them up and make them cohere within the book’s covers. One can only marvel at Feigel’s skill in rising to this challenge. The book has a beautiful, organic wholeness. What is it that makes it so impressive?
That these writers all had complicated love lives goes without saying. Three of them — Greene, Yorke and Bowen — lived openly with lovers while married; in all three cases the spouses appear to have been uncommonly complaisant (though maybe they were secretly suffering). Macaulay was complicatedly in love with a married ex-priest, whose premature death in a driving accident she was largely responsible for. The guilt played havoc with her emotional life.
Spiel was different in not taking conspicuous lovers (or else not taking lovers conspicuously), but neither was her marriage, to an ambitious and bullying fellow émigré called Peter de Mendelssohn, an especially happy one. So ‘restless’ lives, yes: complicated and refractory. Feigel’s success — which makes her book as much a feat of literary criticism as it is of social history — lies in tracing the contours of her characters’ bohemianism deep into the fabric of their writings, illuminating that writing in a way that really pays dividends.
Along the way there are many intriguing historical diversions. Bowen’s dalliance with Sean O’Faolain brings in the whole landscape of neutral Ireland during the war, a fascinating topic on which Feigel has new light to shed. Spiel’s Jewish cosmopolitanism, meanwhile, comes into its own in the period after the war ended, where the account of her employment as a journalist in Berlin and Vienna gives substance and shading to the detailed passages Feigel devotes to Greene and the making of the film of The Third Man. So we are in England, but also on the continent, and that is an unexpected bonus. It gives the book heft and authority.
The other bonus is one of pure generosity: Feigel’s subtitle disposes us to think that the book will cover only the Second World War. But the lives she writes about didn’t end with the war — nor did these people all of a sudden stop being interesting. Fully half of Feigel’s book is taken up with the afterburn — what one might call the postwar reckoning. For my money, these passages just get better and better. One wouldn’t miss Feigel’s super-epilogue for anything.