The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War
Bloomsbury, 528pp, £25
The academic industry has recently put a great deal of energy into reshaping what used to be called “biography” and is now called “life writing”. Lara Feigel runs a graduate course in the subject at King’s College London. I suspect from the quality of this book that students will soon be queuing over the length of Waterloo Bridge to get on to it.
The emergence of life writing studies marks a turn away from the introversions of “theory” and its hermetic attention to text, outside of which, as Derrida loftily instructed, there is nothing. Scholars of life writing insist that there are indeed things outside literature (call it “life”) which are important to literature – formative, even.
Feigel has come up with an innovative exercise in this genre of what one might call “new biography”. The underlying thesis is that, for a set of five British writers, the Blitz on London in the early 1940s intensified their sense of being while breaking down conventional sexual restrictions and fostering novel and enhanced forms of literary expression. “Surgery for the Novel”, D H Lawrence had prescribed in 1923 – “or a Bomb”. In 1941, the bombs came.
“Who are you going out with tonight,” girls would ask each other, “someone you’d like to die with?” As Feigel’s writers saw it, London experienced a metropolitan orgasm. “It came to be rumoured,” said Elizabeth Bowen, “that everybody in London was in love.” Life in the blackout capital was dark carnival. “As writers observed the strangeness of war imaginatively,” Feigel writes, “London became a city of restless dreams and hallucinogenic madness, a place in which fear itself could transmute into addictive euphoria.” Heady stuff. As one of the few Britons still alive who experienced the Luftwaffe’s assault, I have to say it didn’t strike me quite like that.
What is undeniable is that the Blitz shook London into a temporary classlessness. Rose Macaulay (another of Feigel’s five) was surprised and gratified to be addressed as “mate” by working-class colleagues. “For the first time,” Bowen said, “we are a democracy.”
The five writers Feigel chronicles are not a “group”, although, given their class background, their paths and their sex lives often crossed. Bowen was nearing 40 when the first bombs fell. She had married “safely” in her early twenties. Her first lover was astonished to discover that after 11 years of marriage and 35 years of life she was still a virgin. She made up for lost time, and during the summer of 1941 began a doubly adulterous affair with a Canadian diplomat, Charles Ritchie. It was the love of her life and never more passionate than during the Blitz, when Liebestod was on the cards.
Bowen did her bit as an Air Raid Precautions warden. Macaulay, almost 60, wangled herself into service as an ambulance driver. She was an incorrigibly reckless driver and had injured her lover mortally in a pre-war prang. But at night, in the blackout, she could hurtle unhindered around the streets. Graham Greene and Henry Green served as ARP warden and fireman, respectively. Both enjoyed the “tomorrow we die” freedom that the Blitz offered for rampant and joyous adultery. They treated their wives abominably and their mistresses worse. As a kind of subplot to the sexual adventurism, Feigel chronicles the life of a family of Austrian refugees in Wimbledon clustered around the novelist Hilde Spiel. Decent, terrified people, they were convinced that, one way or another, Hitler was going to get them.
In Officers and Gentlemen, Evelyn Waugh, who was roughly the same age as Green and Greene (and those other famous firemen, Stephen Spender and William Sansom), satirises these home-front heroes “squirting their little jets of water”. He did so with the authority of an officer in a commando unit but, as Feigel points out, they saw hotter action than Captain Waugh ever did.
It would have been easy for all these writers (less Spiel) to have escaped to the safety of the country or – in some cases – another country. Bowen had a stately home (Bowen Court) in neutral Ireland. She stayed in her Regent’s Park flat in London and luckily was not there when it was bombed. Macaulay had her beloved library destroyed. She, too, was lucky to be not at home. Greene’s house in Clapham Common (immortalised in The End of the Affair) took a direct hit. All of Feigel’s quintet would have been on Himmler’s methodically prepared execution lists. None - theless, even when invasion and occupation seemed highly likely, they stuck it out.
Of course, they were, with the exception of Spiel, cushioned by their class background. When they took off their scratchy uniforms, they could have a bath and change into tailored clothes. Bowen wrote a short wartime story about her loyal maidservant. Her lover noted in his journal that she seemed never to have difficulty acquiring smoked salmon. Waugh deplored “Claridge’s slowly decaying. Wine outrageous in price and quality, sent daily from the Savoy. Newspapers always late.” This was not the universal complaint in Whitechapel. “London is extraordinarily pleasant,” Greene airily informed Anthony Powell, “with all the new spaces, and the rather Mexican effect of ruined churches.” Again, one doubts the maracas were clacking merrily in the East End.
In the context of total war, London was lucky. Many civilians (between 30,000 and 40,000) died in the Blitz. The Germans lost as many in a single raid on Hamburg and Dresden. London sustained just enough damage to shake things up. No one stopped to wonder at the aesthetics of the Hamburg or Dresden firestorm as did A P Herbert, sailing his little boat down the Thames and sniffing the various scents from burning spice warehouses during a particularly heavy raid on the docks.
Stephen Spender noted the extraordinary stimulus to culture. Horizon, which he coedited and whose Bloomsbury offices were multiply blitzed, sold up to 100,000 an issue. “A little island of civilisation, surrounded by burning churches – that is how the arts seemed during the war,” he wrote. What became the Arts Council was born in these years. When it was all over, the verdict was passed by the ever-grandiloquent Bowen. “War is a prolonged passionate act, and we were involved in it.” Like slow bruises, great fiction emerged (love stories, most of them) in the postwar, post-coital years: Loving, The End of the Affair, The Heat of the Day, The Towers of Trebizond.
Feigel has written a wonderful book in a critical genre in which she is a pioneer. There will, for sure, be more works of “new biography”. Let’s hope they are as good as this one.