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The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in…
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The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War

by Lara Feigel

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Surprisingly good account of five successful novelists' lives during and after World War II. This serves as a very interesting and educational timeline regarding general WWII events and day-to-day life in war-torn London, especially during the Blitz.

These writers--Rose Macaulay, Graham Greene, Henry Yorke (writing as Henry Green), Elizabeth Bowen, and (less so) Hilde Spiel--all seemed to live their lives in a very self-centered and privileged fashion. Not just how they were able to attend or host parties--which included luxuries like smoked salmon and alcohol during times of rationing and when others were starving--but in all their adulterous relationships and general disregard of most of the spouses for each other (there were a couple of doormat wives who didn't cheat as far as we know but it was excessively prevalent). Was that just normal for the times, or for the upper class, or is it just my puritanical Americana background that makes me scratch my head at how hurtful they were to each other? It made it hard for me, at first, to sympathize with them but I eventually succumbed to their collective charms...some of them doomed themselves in the end anyhow and did their penance.

After reading this, I've started further exploration of these writers' works, and after knowing more about their background and circumstances leading to their writings, I am enjoying with fresh perspective those I was already familiar with. Also, since there have been excellent movies made of some of these works, I have been enjoying catching some of them as well. Of course, [Graham Greene's] "The End of the Affair" with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore is excellent. [Elizabeth Bowen's] "The Last September" isn't the greatest movie I've ever seen, but it's helpful in visualizing what her real-life Irish "Big House" (Bowen Court) may have been like. I also enjoyed [another of Greene's novels turned into film] 1948's "The Third Man" with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, and Trevor Howard, especially considering it was filmed in post-war Vienna in the Russian district. Even more so than seeing photographs of the destruction, it is interesting to see people navigate through the city amidst the actual rubble and ruins. Heartbreaking to think of all the loss (not only on the obvious human scale) during that wretched war.

Really impressive research and ability to pull it all together. ( )
  AddictedToMorphemes | Mar 7, 2014 |
Lara Feigel, the author of The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War, was one of the interviewees on a very interesting, 2013 episode of BBC's The Culture Show entitled "Wars of the Heart". "Wars of the Heart" explained that whilst for many Londoners during the Second World War, the Blitz was a terrifying time of sleeplessness, fear and loss, some of London's literary set found inspiration, excitement and freedom in the danger and intensity. The imminent threat of death giving life an immediacy, spontaneity and frisson absent during peace time.

The Culture Show documentary seems to have been inspired to some extent by The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War as they both cover similar territory, albeit Lara Feigel's account goes into much more detail.

In this book, Lara Feigel explores the war time experiences of five writers: Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Henry Yorke (aka Henry Green), and Hilde Spiel. During the Blitz, and with the very real chance of not surviving the next 24 hours, the social classes mingled more freely, in the underground and the streets, and, in some cases, with partners and/or children evacuated, there was the opportunity for extra marital affairs.

Between them, the writers profiled were variously ARP wardens, an ambulance driver, and an auxiliary fireman. Hilde Spiel was the odd one out, being an Austrian exile, with responsibility for her parents and a young child. Her story is an interesting and informative counterpoint to those of the other four writers.

Lara Feigel uses letters, diaries, and fiction, along with historical information, to illuminate the lives of these writers during and after the Second World War, before summarising what became of them all.

I enjoyed this book very much however I think Lara Feigel chose to go into a bit too much detail. My edition was 465 pages, with another 55 pages of notes and acknowledgements. I would have preferred a more succinct account. That said, I come away from this original book, more knowledgeable about five interesting writers, and keen to read more books by these writers, in particular these books specifically inspired by this period...

Caught by Henry Green
The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen
The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene ( )
1 vote nigeyb | Mar 3, 2014 |
Ignore the clunky title, this is an excellent read. It tells the story of five writers' war experiences in London, focussing in great detail on the Blitz. Rose Macaulay was an ambulance driver, Elizabeth Bowen a Warden with the ARP, Henry Green a fireman, while Graham Greene worked for the Ministry of Information and Hilde Spiel lived as a refugee with her young family in Wimbledon.
The strength of the book comes from the writing skills of these people. Lara Feigel makes brilliant use of extracts from their letters and diaries. More telling is her analysis of their contemporary work - she can clearly outline how they reworked their experiences into their novels.
The repeated theme of all their writing is love, or relationships. Sometimes it seems love was everywhere, well, love and sex. It goes way beyond the simplistic "sex now for tomorrow we die " idea. Her work shows how love could be an obsessive part of life for some, a secret and a tragedy for others. Working continually in the chaotic dangerous conditions suspended normal living, superhuman efforts were being made by the participants and their emotions were intensified.
At 500 pages and with the level of detailed study of the five writers, you become very involved with them. Lara Feigel is an outstanding author of nonfiction writing. Her book is a first class sociological and literary study of how humans endure war. ( )
  annejacinta | Nov 4, 2013 |
Literate love among the ruins

The Love-charm of Bombs has a very interesting slant on life during and immediately after WWII because its focus is the experiences of five noteworthy authors, Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel, and Henry Yorke, who wrote under the name Henry Green. Since it discusses the way the war affected what they wrote in such fascinating detail, it added a number of books to my already over long to-be-read list, so be forewarned.

This book opens during the Blitz of London when four of the authors had active roles in the late night, class-mixing, civilian mobilization that played a crucial part in protecting the city. Rose Macaulay spent her nights driving an ambulance to still smoking ruins to collect the wounded, Henry Green put out sometimes raging bomb-ignited fires as an auxiliary fireman, and Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene roamed pitch-dark streets to enforce the blackout as ARP wardens. Nightly danger and the high drama of their jobs became a kind of aphrodisiac so all of them were involved in passionate affairs that had a lifelong influence on the stories they wrote. As a more isolated young mother and an Austrian writer in exile, Hilde Spiel’s experiences during the war were different but equally absorbing and they round out the book.

The book continues to follow the writers’ upturned lives and intense love affairs into the early post war years when Europe was restructuring and Cold War was starting. For most of the five, the Blitz was the high point of their lives, filled with excitement and purpose, and for me the vivid chapters that covered that time are the most engrossing part of the book, though I enjoyed all of it. The interconnected WWII experiences of these highly literate civilians make compelling reading, especially since The Love Charm of Bombs is written with a sort of fervent scholarship. ( )
  Jaylia3 | Oct 29, 2013 |
I was smitten with ‘The Love-charm of Bombs’ from the very first time I read about it. The prospect of seeing London in the Second World War through the eyes of five remarkable writers – Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke (who wrote under the name Henry Green) – was simply irresistible.

And I was pulled in from the very first page, into the Blitz. I found Rose Macaulay, who had already lived through the Great War, driving an ambulance; Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene serving as ARP wardens – making sure that the blackout was maintained; and Henry Yorke in a team of auxiliary fireman.

The picture that is painted – of dark skies, empty streets, damaged buildings – of community, fear, exhilaration, uncertainly – is extraordinarily vivid.

For a moment I wasn’t sure that this was going to work – the telling of stories of real people, constructed from their letters and diaries, from the writings of their contemporaries, and from historical records. It felt strange to read that Elizabeth (Bowen) walked out on to her balcony and stretched, but I held on and soon I was caught up, in a story that reads like a novel, that sometimes spins off into history, into biography, into literary analysis.

Four of the principals moved in the same literary circles – Virginia Woolf, J B Priestly, Rosamund Lehmann, Evelyn Waugh and May Sarton are among those who mix and correspond with them – but Hilde Spiegel lived a very different life. She was a wife, a mother, exiled from Austria to South London, trying to establish herself in a new world, trying to find just a little time for her writing. Her story, of which I had known nothing, was fascinating and a wonderful counterpoint to the stories of the other four.

In an uncertain world, passions ran high. Graham Greene and Henry Yorke had both evacuated their wives and children to the country and both behaved as single men might, taking up with other women. Their stories seemed similar at first, but that only highlighted how different they were as they moved in different directions and revealed different attitudes. Elizabeth Bowen met Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie who would be the great love of her life, though she remained married and he would marry another.

But Rose Macaulay’s story was sadder. She lost her sister and her lover to cancer, and she lost her home, her letters, her books to a German bomb. My heart broke for her.

Lara Fiegel wove their stories together beautifully. She wisely kept her style simple, focusing on the stories and the facts, her writing had exactly the right momentum, and the perspective was wonderful. I can’t quite explain it, but she brought me close those real lives without ever making me feel I was intruding.

But even better was the writing about the books that were written during the war or inspired by it. Elizabeth Bowen’s feelings about her relationship with Charles Ritchie are echoed in ‘The Heat of the Day’ and ‘A World of Love’; Henry Yorke’s experiences in the fire service inform ‘Caught’; ‘The End of the Affair’ has some – but not all – of its roots in Graham Greene’s wartime relationships; and Rose Macaulay walked through the ruins that she would not be able to write about until many years later, in ‘The World My Wilderness.’

Lara Feigel’s love, curiosity and knowledge shine, leaving me eager to read more by and about all those she writes about, and applauding what she has accomplished with this book.

In the end the story moves beyond the War, looking at the consequences and the rest of the lives of the five principals. The War had changed their lives and the end of the War would change them again.

There is so much here, so many fascinating details that it is impossible to pick out points to focus on. This is a book that I will go on thinking about, read again, and come back to when I pick up the books I’ve been reading about. But I need to shout about it now, because it’s wonderful!

‘The Love-charm of Bombs’ has left me in awe of Elizabeth Bowen, drawn to Rose Macaulay, more interested in Henry Green and Graham Greene than I ever thought I’d be, and curious to read more about the life of Hilde Spiel.

Time, I think, to read and re-read their work, and then come back to this book … ( )
5 vote BeyondEdenRock | Jan 22, 2013 |
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As poetic as it is enlightening this detailed biography of five literary figures is achingly beautiful in its depiction of the disturbing everyday realities of war.

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