Much has been written about British pluck during the Blitz. Though more than 30,000 civilians would die from German bombs, London thrust out its chin, undaunted. GNAWING TENSION AMID THE THREAT OF IMMINENT DEATH became a part of everyday life. For the writers chronicled in Lara Feigel’s ambitious fusion of criticism and biography, wartime London became a kind of playground for the senses, A CENTER OF CHARGED EMOTION, SOME OF IT ROMANTIC.
Feigel’s striking title comes from an essay by Graham Greene, who wrote of how “bomb-bursts moving nearer and then moving away, hold one like a love-charm.” For the ever-bored, death-obsessed Greene, the war offered an apocalyptic confirmation of his own morbid fantasies; war also gave the writer license to pursue several adulterous affairs.
Elizabeth Bowen, another of the writers spotlighted here, looked back on the Blitz as a period of “lucid abnormality.” For Anglo-Irish Bowen, life was lived in the near-term, “afloat on the tideless, hypnotic, futureless to-day.” War was also an erotic spark for the married Bowen, who carried on a passionate (and life-changing) affair with a Canadian diplomat.
Along with Bowen and Greene, Feigel looks at the experiences of experimental novelist Henry Yorke (who wrote under the pen name Henry Green), writer Rose Macaulay, and Austrian writer Hilde Spiel. The quintet was not a tightly knit group, à la Bloomsbury. THROUGH THE WAR, THEY WERE MOSTLY IN THEIR 30S AND 40S, SAVE MACAULAY, WHO Entered HER 60S DURING THE CONFLICT. Bowen and Macaulay were close, but not conspiratorial. Greene and Yorke knew some of the same people, but otherwise did not cross paths. And Spiel was an outsider altogether, cut off from chatty London literary circles in suburban Wimbledon, though she would translate both Bowen and Greene.
Yet the war impinged directly on their lives — Greene, who worked as an air-raid warden, had several close calls — and percolated through their work. “As writers, they observed the strangeness of war imaginatively,’’ Feigel writes. “London became a city of restless dreams and hallucinogenic madness; a place where fear itself could transmute into addictive euphoria. To stay in London was to gamble nightly with death. And so each day was unexpected; each moment had the exhilarating but unreal intensity of the last moment on earth.”
Feigel rather extravagantly claims the quintet “were the successors of the soldier poets of the First World War.” This is an inexact comparison. While they played a part on the home front — Bowen served as a warden and wrote reports on Irish opinion for the Ministry on Information, while Yorke worked as a fireman and Macaulay drove an ambulance — they were not contending with the squalor of the Somme. Indeed, the upper-class Bowen and Yorke lived it up at fancy lunches and splendid parties.
Feigel is fortunate to have such literary witnesses to London at war. Key texts like Bowen’s novel “The Heat of the Day’’ and Greene’s “The End of the Affair’' are pressed into service and squeezed for meaning. We follow Greene and Bowen on their nightly rounds and Macaulay on an ambulance run. Greene and Yorke dispatched their wives and children to the country and ruthlessly pursued affairs. For the already handsome Yorke, being a firefighter only enhanced his sex appeal. It also gave him literary material — “It will make a good book one day,” he wrote to a friend in 1941.
Gloomy Greene perked up as the bombs fell; he prowled the streets at night, and slept in his lover’s bed. After devastating raids in the spring of 1941, he chirped to fellow novelist Anthony Powell, “London is extraordinarily pleasant these days with all the new spaces.”
NOT ALL SAW IT AS FUN AND GAMES. For Macaulay, the war was a trial. As a pacifist, her hopes were crushed in 1939. Driving an ambulance gave her a way of being in the war while not supporting it. In an essay, she raged against the “blind, maniac, primitive, stupid bestiality of war.” In 1942, her longtime lover, Gerald O’Donovan, died of cancer, and that same year her flat, along with her precious library, was destroyed by a bomb. Spiel’s war was not easy either: Her marriage suffered, and she chafed against the loneliness of exile and role of wife and mother.
“The Love-Charm of Bombs’’ is a richly layered work. Feigel moves from the bombs of the Blitz to the frightening menace of V1 rockets in the conflict’s last year to the postwar lives of her writers in a book that is SOME 500 PAGES but feels twice as long. This is a criticism and a compliment. Her close readings of Greene & Co.’s literary output are often plodding and academic in their overkill. As a close reader of psychological states — of Bowen’s passions, of Macaulay’s grief, of Spiel’s frustrations — Feigel is almost overbearing in her intensity: BUT IN SUCH INSTANCES, HER WRITING RADIATES WITH POIGNANCE AND INSIGHT. About Bowen in particular, the author is excellent. For me, Bowen is the most discriminating barometer of this formidable quintet; a finely tuned instrument who captured the minutest inflections of human behavior in both war and peace. PEACE WOULD BRING ITS OWN EMOTIONAL COMPLICATIONS FOR ALL, YET WAR, FEIGEL WRITES, BROUGHT “AN INTENSITY THEY WOULD NEVER KNOW AGAIN.”
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.