Authors: Lara Feigel
The Love-charm of Bombs
‘An original and ingenious recreation of the Second World War in London as experienced through the lives of writers who also fought fires, drove ambulances or worked in the Ministry of Information . . . This is a highly readable interweaving of their individual stories – shocking, enjoyable, full of surprises’ Michael Holroyd
‘A fascinating and brilliantly researched group biography . . . an extraordinary tapestry of life in wartime, from September 1940 in London to the ruins of postwar Europe . . . This is a glorious mixture of history, literature and riveting gossip about war as – yes – an aphrodisiac . . . what remains with you at the end of this engaging book is the sense that Larkin was right, and that after the bombs, after the grieving, “what will survive of us is love”’
‘One pleasure of this brave and original book is seeing these lives overlap, mirror each other, and diverge . . . Feigel shows the English in a new light: not cold or repressed, but a sensuous people for whom love matters most of all. She also shows why the period from September 1940 to May 1941, when we stood alone against the powers of darkness, remains the defining moment in our recent history’ Peter J. Conradi
‘A fine account . . . An absorbing and well-researched group biography of five prominent writers’ Robert McCrum,
‘Intelligently written, seamlessly presented, and with something of the quality of a tapestry’ Nicholas Shakespeare,
‘Reads like an apocalyptic thriller . . . A fine book that brings the writers of the Second World War into the spotlight . . . 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 . . . A thrilling insight to each writer’s response to war, both published and private’
Independent on Sunday
‘A skillfully composed group portrait . . . Feigel is a good storyteller and responsive to the nuances of expression in the period’ Tessa Hadley
‘Feigel writes with modesty and grace, never patronises or sentimentalises her subjects, and makes the reader glad to be sharing her ideas.
The Love-Charm of Bombs
is a bounding success as an account of wartime London and as a study of highly strung but tough characters under stress . . . I haven’t for many a year read a book of literary scholarship with such impatience to know what happens next’ Richard Davenport-Hines,
‘A strikingly original book. It succeeds in its ambitious combination of group biography and literary criticism . . .
The Love-charm of Bombs
excels in demonstrating that these years of bleakness and loss were also, for a fortunate few, a time of extraordinary excitement and literary aspiration’
‘Scintillating account of the lives of London litterateurs during the Blitz’
‘From these various fragments she has created a meticulously researched and elegantly rendered whole’
‘Feigel’s method of juxtaposing writers in London brings out the drama and accidents of wartime, while her well-documented historical research supports both a detailed account of the German air raids and a broader outline of progress of the war’
Times Literary Supplement
‘Inspired . . . Feigel had an immense task in shaping these extraordinary stories of love, war and creativity. The later sections of Feigel’s elegantly written, multifocal biography have the charm of a maze’
Sydney Morning Herald
‘It reads like a novel because there’s great intimacy in this fugue-like composition of writers and their books and world events. Feigel has an ear for her subjects’ individual voices, an eye for detail, a feel for contiguities and for the city of London. After the frenzy and intoxication of war, the dénouement of Bowen and Macaulay and Spiel, Greene and Yorke and their entourage of family and lovers, all coming to terms with the end of an era, all spent and striving to renew: that is the most moving and revealing section of this extraordinary book’ Evelyn Juers,
‘As an account of life in London under bombardment and as an examination of how a handful of gifted writers responded to the stress and anxiety of war, Ms. Feigel’s intelligent and lucidly written book is continuously interesting and illuminating’
Wall Street Journal
‘Lara Feigel’s ambitious fusion of criticism and biography . . .
The Love-Charm of Bombs
is a richly layered work . . . Her writing radiates with poignance and insight’
‘A lovingly researched book that focuses on the experiences of five writers living in London during those suspenseful months . . . This is an enterprising, lively and original work, full of striking cameos and fresh insights’ Miranda Seymour,
New York Times
It is six o’clock on the evening of 26 September 1940, at the end of the first month of London air raids. This is the final hour of daylight on one of the last days of an Indian summer. Soon it will be time to black out windows and to retreat indoors. Any light will be eliminated, leaving people to stumble along gloomy streets. 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.
Across London, people are making the most of this final interlude of peace before the bombers arrive. ‘War had made them idolise day and summer,’ the narrator observes in Elizabeth Bowen’s wartime novel
The Heat of the Day
; ‘night and autumn were enemies.’ Between the dark and fearful nights, the days offer a brief holiday from fear. ‘Out of mists of morning charred by smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter.’ In Marylebone, Bowen herself must shortly go on duty as an ARP (Air Raid Protection) warden. From the balcony of her terraced Regency house at the edge of Regent’s Park she can see the empty boating lake where trees have started to shed their first autumnal leaves. The park is shut because of an unexploded bomb and the white terraces bordering the park look to her like scenery in an empty theatre.
Standing on her balcony surveying the park, Elizabeth Bowen presents an imposing figure. She is strong-backed and long-necked; her face with its high cheekbones and tall forehead seems to many of her friends to have become more beautiful now that she has entered her forties. The narrator of Bowen’s first novel
observes that everyone has an age at which they are most themselves. The Second World War is Bowen’s own. As an Anglo-Irishwoman she has always had torn loyalties; in her childhood she was half at home in the Cork countryside and half at home on the Kent coast. Now she has found a home in wartime London and she paces the blacked-out streets with a vigorous certainty. She is a successful and popular writer who has already published ten books and is confident of her own powers. And literary success has brought social and romantic success. Since her early twenties Bowen has been married to Alan Cameron, an English civil servant. The marriage is contented but celibate and for two years before the war Bowen was engaged in a passionate affair with the Irish writer and one-time IRA gunman Sean O’Faolain. In the summer of 1941 she will fall in love with the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie, the man who will centre her world for the next thirty years.
A few streets south in Marylebone, Bowen’s friend Rose Macaulay is in her flat in Luxborough Street, completing the day’s writing before fear and noise make it impossible to concentrate. She is exhausted by the weeks of bombing, and is unlikely to have much sleep tonight. Later, she will go on duty as an ambulance driver, rescuing people trapped by debris or scalded by fire. Unlike Bowen, Macaulay is finding the intensity of wartime London more sad than exhilarating. She is almost sixty and is a frail though wiry and redoubtable woman. The arduous physical labour of her work as an ambulance driver distracts her both from her dismay at the war going on around her and from personal sorrow. For the last twenty years she has been in a secret but idyllic love affair with the married Irish novelist and former priest, Gerald O’Donovan. Ten years older than Macaulay, he is now dying and Macaulay can confide in very few people about the loss that she is preparing herself to face.