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Books feature

Love among the ruins

For a small circle of distinguished writers, the Blitz seemed to act as a powerful aphrodisiac, says Sam Leith

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

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

Bloomsbury, pp.514, £24.99

The phrase that gives this book its title is Graham Greene’s:

The nightly routine of sirens, barrage, the probing raider, the unmistakable engine (‘Where are you? Where are you? Where are you?’), the bomb-bursts moving nearer and then moving away, hold one like a love-charm.

Greene was apparently proud of ‘love-charm’: he used it more than once. It seems to me that the most telling part of the full quotation, though, is that ‘unmistakable engine’. Isn’t Greene’s determination to hear those words in the machine noise a token of the way writers appropriate bare reality? The love-charm is crafted by the one it ensorcels.

Lara Feigel’s book is a well-researched, novelistically narrated story of the romantic entanglements of a handful of writers who sort of knew each other, or nearly did, during and after the second world war: Henry Yorke (aka Henry Green), Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Elizabeth Bowen.

The opening section makes the narrative case for their association with some verve, introducing them by plaiting the stories of what happened to each in the course of a single night in London: 26 September 1940.

For each, the war meant something slightly different. For Henry Yorke, it was excitement: working as an auxiliary fireman was sexually energising and socially freeing. Graham Greene skulked about, typically, hoping to be hit by a bomb. Anglo-Irish Elizabeth Bowen felt the tensions over Irish neutrality as her own; while we hardly need rehearse the identity issues Hilde Spiel — an Austrian with a German husband — faced. (That said, the yearning to move out of Wimbledon is at least as powerful in her as the need to come to terms with her native identity.) Rose Macaulay — in her late fifties and with her longtime secret lover dying — careered around the bombed streets driving an ambulance recklessly fast: a lanky, mournful Penelope Pitstop.

The obvious point, well-made, is that the presence of death (and in many cases the absence of wives and children who had been evacuated to the country) made people frisky. The Blitz was experienced as a time of intense living — hectic gaiety and romantic abandon. Also, for many of these writers, the bombing was seen binocularly: even as they dug in the rubble for bodies or doused fires, they could experience the aesthetic spectacle of London under bombardment as a sort of magnificence.

Their descriptions are vivid. Bowen says:

The Nash pillars look as brittle as sugar […] blown-in shutters swing loose, ceilings lie on floors and a premature decay-smell comes from the rooms. A pediment has fallen on a lawn.

[Alt-Text]


Macaulay:

Jerry zooms and drones about the sky, still pitching them down with long whistling whooshs and thundering crashes, while the guns bark like great dogs at his heels. The moonless sky, lanced with long, sliding, crossing shafts, is aflare with golden oranges that pitch and burst and are lost among the stars.

The succeeding sections follow their progress in twos and threes, with the protagonists sharing chapters as they share themes. The book hangs together remarkably well for something so centrifugal.

Coincidence sent these writers during and after the war to many of the same places — Ireland, Berlin, Vienna — and this allows Feigel to look at the experience of war and postwar not just in London but from a defeated Germany and an Ireland that becomes for some of these writers a sort of yearned-for retreat.

Certain themes emerge — ruin, separation, split loyalties, anomie, heavy drinking, sexless companionate marriages, the twining of sexual and religious angst — in the lives and the books that drew on them. This remains, though, less a war-history or literary-critical book than a deft long-form example of the higher gossip: the prime focus is on movements of the trouser and matters of the heart.

It is striking — at least to my own unusually monogamous and idealistic generation — quite how readily and roomily and forgivingly these marriages and even these love affairs tolerated infidelity. Henry Yorke’s wife Dig seems to have regarded his catting about with aristocratic sangfroid. Bowen’s husband and Greene’s wife (and other lover, come to that) didn’t make too much fuss. Hilde Spiel and her husband both played around and, though they fought, their affection for one another never curdled.

The model seems to be the wife of Goronwy Rees, the serial bounder who jilted Rosamond Lehmann: she said she regarded her husband like a favourite cat: ‘You see, with a cat, you like to see it go out in the garden and enjoy itself and then you are very pleased to see it again when it comes in.’ The prime romantic agonies expressed here are not betrayal but separation.

Not all of them were necessarily genuine agonies: writers in love, or in love with love, or in love with the language of love, can trowel it on. It’s for each reader to decide whether the florid, earnest and often contradictory professions of love to two or three people at once that pepper these pages are evidence of largeness of spirit and fine moral complexity or just your basic humbug.

Henry Yorke — who as fish go was definitely on the low-temperature side — activates the humbugometer when his young, beautiful and NQOCD lover tells him she’s pregnant with his child. His letter, full of pretty thoughts — ‘Very confused at first, then a tremendous illumination with a welter of feelings underlying it […] Being yours I shall love it and I only hope it will not make any fundamental difference to you’ — is, as Feigel pertly notes, scrupulous in avoiding any admission of paternity.

There was an awful sort of comedy to the way Graham Greene’s marriage to his wife Vivien finally split up. Even as he confessed and repented of his affairs with Catherine Walston and Dorothy Glover, his passionate love letter sent to Catherine came back return-to-sender and was opened by Vivien. She confronted him; he declared that he was leaving her; she begged him not to; and — in Feigel’s nicely comic formulation — ‘Graham assured her, in a moment of cruelty that Vivien would never forget, that he would still send her the proofs of his novels to read.’

It sounds funnier from this distance than it will have done then. One way and another, all this love caused a lot of suffering. Elizabeth Bowen had a particularly piercing line in self-delusion. She got on very well with her husband, whom she didn’t sleep with. But she built what Feigel more than once and with justice calls a ‘fairytale’ around her relationship with Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat who spent most of their affair in Canada or Europe while she was in Ireland. ‘Do you love me as much as I love you?’, she asked him in a letter — but answered her own question: ‘Yes, I think you do.’ Within a few years of their romance starting, he married his cousin Sylvia.

Bowen’s response to his less than wholehearted commitment (in addition to a good deal of moping and some decent novels) was to ennoble their relationship by casting him as Rilke to her Princess Marie or Flaubert to her Louise Colet. If only some quirk of the space-time continuum had furnished her bookshelf with, rather than the Duino Elegies, a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You….

One ends this engaging and well-handled group biography by drawing the perhaps not too surprising conclusion that writers are just as damn silly — probably sillier — about their love affairs as everybody else.

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