Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Writers Behaving Badly in the London Blitz

New book from Lara Feigel of King's College, London.

I've been working on research about World War II, and, at the library one day, I happened to stumble upon a fascinating new book with the curious title, The Love-charm of Bombs, by Lara Feigel. She has accomplished a daunting work of scholarship, as she follows five prominent writers during the time of the London Blitz.

The eerieness of the setting and the wild behavior of the protagonists, makes the story irresistible. The skies seem to rain orange on every page.
Graham Greene, author of The End of the Affair, The Third Man, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana and Ministry of Fear among many other stories, is one of the writers followed in this fascinating book.

The title is based on a quote from the most famous of the writers, Graham Greene (1904-1991), who wrote of the bombings of London by the Nazis: "The nightly routine of sirens, barrage, the probing raider; the unmistable engine ('Where are you? Where are you? Where are you?'), the bomb-bursts moving nearer then moving away, hold one like a love-charm." Graham Greene was not just an incredibly talented writer: he was a very strange man, indeed.

The other writers are not as familiar to me: Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Henry Yorke, and Hilde Spiel, but the book makes me want to look them up. Like most writers, they left wide trails for a researcher to follow. They wrote diaries, they wrote letters to agents, they wrote to their families whom they hoped were safely stashed outside London, they wrote lovers, friends, enemies, and sometimes, they even wrote each other.

The work of digging up all the diaries and letters and organizing their sequence over the time period covered by the book--almost a decade (from pre-war to post)--had to be an enormous task for the author, Dr. Feigel, a college professor who has made this era the focus of her work. 

Most of the writers lost loved ones, or their homes, or both. Most had war jobs, were volunteer air raid wardens, ambulance drivers, spies (no kidding!) and one, Henry Yorke, the son of a wealthy factory owner, spent days on end as a volunteer fireman, fighting the fires ignited by the incendiary bombs dropped by the German planes. Amidst all this, still, they wrote. Fiction. Non fiction. Journalism. Book reviews. Everything you can think of, and the book has lots of photos of its writers huddled over typewriters that are propped up on coffee tables, kitchen tables, and packing boxes.

They wrote in between illicit love affairs, drunken sprees, digging out strangers from the rubble of buildings, and as they moved into and out of neighborhoods, suburbs, and offices, in hopes of finding some kind of refuge from the nightmare. Most of us cannot even imagine such lives as these people lived and catalogued from the beginning of the Blitz (" ... and why are we naming it for the German word for lightening?" asks one of them, early on) in September of 1940, to the bleak post war period when Londoners still  had to live with great austerity.

I have come to believe that writing is a kind of madness, and that those who have it, cannot not write. Some have it worse than others, some have a better talent for storytelling. But write they (I think I can also say "we" here) must. As Graham Greene told his poor beleaguered wife, "unfortunately, the disease is also one's material."

In the end, I think Greene was wrong about the "love-charm" part--although it may have been true for him in is own strange case. For most of the writers, I believe the drama of drinking and carrying on was not so very different among this group during the Blitz than it might have been in their upper middle class social circles at other times. What the war did give them were scenes most writers see only in their imaginations and nightmares, and this created powerful settings for those who chose to use them. 

Feigel recounts how Hilde Spiel, a writer and Jewish refugee from Austria, returned to Vienna after the war to have a familiar waiter say to her, conspiratorially, how wise she was to have left for "a better war" in London. It is one of the most telling moments in the book. The passage of time has dimmed our memories that the Allies, especially Britain, were also victims of that terrible time. Lara Feigel has done a terrific job of reminding us how some of the most talented among us used the illumination from this fire to do some of the best work of their lives.

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