One From the Archive: ‘The Love Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War’ by Lara Feigel ****

The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War is the newest offering from established non-fiction writer Lara Feigel. Here, she has attempted to create ‘a powerful wartime chronicle told through the eyes of five prominent writers: Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke (writing as Henry Green).’ These authors, Feigel states in her introduction, all played their part in the war: ‘Volunteering as ambulance drivers, fire-fighters and ARP wardens, these were the successors to the soldier poets of the First World War, and their story has never been told’. They have been chosen for a very particular reason. All of them, the author of The Love-Charm of Bombs believes, ‘floated dangerously on the futureless present’ when the war began, and ‘their public war work became the backdrop for volatile individual private lives’.

To illustrate this, Feigel has interwoven extracts from the fictional writings of the five writers she has selected, along with their letters and diary extracts. These sit alongside official facts about the Second World War, creating an interlinked book which is part history textbook, part biography and part literary criticism. Along with writing about the war as it was experienced in England’s capital, Feigel has also embraced ‘post-war Vienna and Berlin’. The book is split into six parts, each of which provides a chronological picture of the war, beginning with the Blitz and ending with accounts of the lives of each of the authors in the post-war years.

Feigel’s introduction sets the scene immediately: ‘… And then the sirens will start wailing, as they have wailed every evening for the last two and a half weeks, and another night of bombing will begin’. She has chosen to begin her narrative in the midst of the Blitz, the physical beginnings of the Second World War for British civilians. The first figure she describes is that of the ‘imposing’ Elizabeth Bowen as she surveys the city below her home, ‘strong-backed and long-necked’. The war, states Feigel, provides a situation through which Bowen can excel, not just as a writer, but in her role as an ARP warden: ‘She has found a home in wartime London and she paces the blacked-out streets with a vigorous certainty’.

The author then moves geographically from one writer to the next: ‘A few streets south’ of Elizabeth Bowen’s residence is ambulance driver Rose Macaulay, ‘who is finding the intensity of wartime London more sad than exhilarating’. Henry Yorke works ‘just around the corner from Macaulay’ as an auxiliary fireman, and is ‘enjoying the Blitz… pleased to be a hero at last’. Graham Greene works nearby at the Ministry of Information and in his nightly shifts as an ARP warden, and Austrian writer Hilde Spiel, who fears yet ‘another wakeful night at home’ in light of the air raids is a resident of Wimbledon. An informative map has been included to illustrate the locations of these authors.

‘Bowen, Green, Macaulay and Yorke were participants rather than witnesses [in the war], risking death, night after night, in defence of their city’, Feigel tells us. These writers are all separate from one another – they did not make up a set of literary friends akin to the Bloomsbury Group, for example – but all are linked, both through friendships and mutual acquaintances within the writing world. Spiel is the only one of Feigel’s authors who is not in the same position as the others. Although she went on to translate the works of Bowen and Greene into German after the Second World War, Spiel has been included as ‘a counterpoint to the more exalted lives of the other four protagonists: a reminder of the gloomy and often horrific reality of the war years’. Such a decision is an interesting one to make, particularly as Spiel herself seems so far removed from the others in the book. The chapters which focus on her feel entirely separate, whereas those which focus on the other authors link into one another rather nicely.

From the outset, The Love-Charm of Bombs is historically and geographically grounded, and the author has set the scene incredibly well. She has interspersed her own writing and original sources from the five authors which she focuses on with quotes from prominent writers of the day – Harold Nicolson and Virginia Woolf being prime examples. She presents each of the writers in a glowing light, explaining their origins and following their decisions and life stories in minute detail at times. She describes their circumstances, their privileges, their turmoil and their relationships. Throughout, we also learn about the ‘liberating effects of war for women’, the fascination of doing one’s utmost for the war effort, the camaraderie within air raid shelters, the uniforms and duties of wardens and the like, and ways of avoiding conscription into the Army. Feigel has also illustrated the ways in which wartime experiences have impacted upon the fiction of each of her writers, and how they used their own day-to-day lives to craft harrowing stories.

The lives of the female authors whom Feigel has focused on are far more interesting than the lives of her men. There was something entirely endearing about her portrayals of Bowen, Macaulay and Spiel, but the sections which detail the lives of Greene and Yorke lack the same sparkle.

The book certainly contains a lot of material, but it is written in such a way – almost with a fictional third person perspective style of narrative voice – that it does not at any point feel overwhelming. Feigel has done well to create such a multi-layered biography of five very different wartime experiences, and The Love-Charm of Bombs has evidently been meticulously researched, a fact which is evident from the extensive pages of notes and bibliography alone. Photographs have been included throughout to better illustrate points, and the majority relate incredibly well to the text which surrounds them. The only downside to the text is that it does begin to feel rather repetitive at times, and the same details are often written about several times within the space of just a few pages. It is perhaps a little long on the whole, but it is well pieced together, and Feigel certainly cannot be faulted on her marvellous research.

Purchase from the Book Depository

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