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The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War [Paperback]

Lara Feigel
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
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Book Description

27 Feb 2014

When the first bombs fell on London in August 1940, the city was transformed overnight into a battlefront. For most Londoners, the sirens, guns, planes and bombs heralded gruelling nights of sleeplessness, fear and loss. But for Graham Greene and some of his contemporaries, this was a bizarrely euphoric time when London became the setting for intense love affairs and surreal beauty. At the height of the Blitz, Greene described the bomb-bursts as holding one 'like a love-charm'. As the sky whistled and the ground shook, nerves were tested, loyalties examined and infidelities begun.

The Love-charm of Bombs is a powerful wartime chronicle told through the eyes of five prominent writers: Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke (writing as Henry Green). Volunteering as ambulance drivers, fire-fighters and ARP wardens, these were the successors to the soldier poets of the First World War and their story has never been told. Now, opening with a meticulous evocation of a single night in September 1940, Lara Feigel brilliantly and beautifully interweaves letters, diaries and fiction with official civil defence records to chart the history of a burning world in wartime London and post-war Vienna and Berlin. She reveals the haunting, ecstatic, often wrenching stories that triumphed amid the mess of a war-torn world.


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Product details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Paperbacks (27 Feb 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1408830906
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408830901
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 12.9 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 128,601 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

Intelligently written, seamlessly presented (Nicholas Shakespeare, Daily Telegraph)

[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 bomds, after the grieving, 'what will survive of us is love' (Bel Mooney, Daily Mail)

The Love-Charm of Bombs is full of good things, clearly expressed, and captures well the strange euphoria of war, and the equally unexpected sense of dreariness when it is over (Craig Brown, Sunday Mail)

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, Independent)

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 (John Sutherland, New Statesman)

A fine account of how five writers responded imaginatively to the blitz ... Lara Feigel, a young critic, has transformed this insight into an absorbing and well-researched group biography of five prominent writers ... She persuasively demonstrates that London in 1941 sponsored all the sensations usually found on the battlefield ... Feigel is particularly good on the erotic corollary to the blitz: wartime passion (Robert McCrum, Observer)

Vivid account ... Reads like an apocalyptic thriller ... Feigel describes the drama hour by hour, much of it through the eyes of her subjects, in a fashion that brings Sarah Waters's excellent Second World War novel The Night Watch to mind ... 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. It is a substantial study but the 465 pages fly by surprisingly quickly ... A thrilling insight to each writer's response to war, both published and private (Independent on Sunday)

At a time when many dons sterilise themselves in theory, defend their flimsy doctrines inside dense thickets of jargon, and are oblivious of human character or motive, 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, and of the way that novelists transmute adultery into great art ... I haven't for many a year read a book of literary scholarship with such impatience to know what happens next (Richard Davenport-Hines, Sunday Telegraph)

Scintillating account of the lives of London litterateurs during the Blitz (Scotsman)

A skilfully composed group portrait ... The result is deeply interesting, because Feigel is a good storyteller and responsive to the nuances of expression in the period (Tessa Hadley, Guardian)

[An] excellent group biography (Scotsman)

Lara Feigel's book is a well-researched, novelistically narrated story ... [an] engaging and well-handled group biography (Sam Leith, Spectator)

Feigel has thoroughly researched her subject (Sunday Express)

From these various fragments she has created a meticulously researched and elegantly rendered whole (Newsweek)

An enchanting biography ... A genuinely accessible text (Western Daily Press)

Her new book, in the estimation of the Mail on Sunday's Craig Brown, "is full of good things, clearly expressed, and captures well the strange euphoria of war, and the equally unexpected sense of dreariness when it is over" ... Richard Davenport-Hines, in the Daily Telegraph, pronounced it "a bounding success as an account of wartime London and as a study of highly strung but tough characters under stress, and of the way that novelists transmute adultery into great art ... I haven't for many a year read a book of literary scholarship with such impatience to know what happens next." (Oldie)

The descriptions of the atmosphere in London during the Blitz are extraordinary (Cara (Aer Lingus))

Lara Feigel attracted very good notices for her study of literary London during the blitz ... An ideal book for that wet afternoon by the beach (Robert McCrum, Observer, Summer Reads)

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 (Economist)

A lovingly researched book that focuses on the experiences of five writers living in London during those suspenseful months . Ms. Feigel . Writes well about Bowen, Greene and Green . Ms. Feigel's sympathetic portrait of the woman unkindly referred to by Virginia Woolf as "a spindle shanked withered virgin" is especially welcome because no good biography has as yes been written of Macaulay. By revealing her under pressure during those wartime years, when she lost not only her home, but also her secret lover of almost two decades, Ms. Feigel animates a rare, passionate and courageous figure . This is an enterprising, lively and original work, full of striking cameos and fresh insights (International Herald Tribune)

A fascinating work of high art and low morals ... A seductive mix of history, literature and gossip, it reveals war to be the most potent of aphrodisiacs and proves that novelists can transmute adultery into great literature (Sebastian Shakespeare, Tatler)

Another brilliantly researched story, this time of life and love from London to Vienna, as five famous writers dodged the falling bombs (Daily Telegraph)

Book Description

A powerful chronicle of wartime London as experienced by five writers - driving ambulances, fighting fires and falling passionately in love

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars (3.5 stars) Love, war and literature 17 Mar 2014
By Roman Clodia TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The idea of this book really appealed to me: restless writers and passionate love affairs against the background of the Blitz. The actual execution, however, didn’t live up to the promise.

Part of the problem is that this is a very loose narrative and one which perhaps needs to have its parameters tightened. Feigel takes a core group of four writers: Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Henry Green, and Rose Macaulay, and traces their lives and loves during the war years. But she unsettles this pattern by adding in a fifth, Hilde Spiel, an Austrian writer who just doesn’t fit with the other four who are all part of the same expanded literary group. And, on top of that, about a third of the book takes place after the end of the war and into the 1950s so doesn’t fit the title at all.

I did enjoy reading parts of this: but the problem with ensemble biographies is that, inevitably, not all the characters are equally interesting. I wanted to know more about Elizabeth Bowen, less about Henry Green and Rose Macaulay. I also could have done without the simplistic readings of these authors’ books and short stories: Feigel uses them in a naive and fairly crude manner to fill out the lives of the writers... as if fiction is mere autobiography with the names changed.

So, I don’t want to sound completely negative as there’s a good organising idea here, and, in parts, a sound evocation of the way in which the tensions of war heightened the erotic emotions. If Feigel had stuck to this rather than throwing in everything else she could find, this would have been a better read: 3.5 stars.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Original, inspiring and informative 3 Mar 2014
By nigeyb
Format:Paperback
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.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars London, Literature and WW2 22 Jan 2013
Format:Hardcover
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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars "Let Cartiers and the Ritz be restored to their former glories..."
Rose Macauley, Henry Yorke (writing as Henry Green), Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen and the somewhat more obscure writer Hilde Spiel, an Austrian refugee, are the subjects of this... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Eileen Shaw
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping book
I love the authors/esses that Lara Feigel is writing about and have read several of their novels. This book brings to life their lives during WWII, what they did, how they coped... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Roz Jones
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting tales of Bloomsbury folk
Fascinating to discover these tales of privileged and promiscuous love; I'd forgotten that people with this kind of heightened sensitivity lived through the same stuff as the rest... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Peter Ceresole
1.0 out of 5 stars wished I had not bothered
Read good reviews but gave up half way through as I realised that I disliked almost all the people I was reading about. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Kathleen Bednarczyk
2.0 out of 5 stars False pretences?
Well, for the first part of the book there was sufficient to keep my interest. There was a war going on and some of the writers featured did,indeed become affected by it. Read more
Published 17 months ago by John Wilson
2.0 out of 5 stars It reads like a dissertation that should have been rewritten !
The facts of life during WW2 fascinate in their detail....but the continuous references to the titles of the published works of the 5 authors were "indigestible" and... Read more
Published 17 months ago by MAVIS M HAGGAR
5.0 out of 5 stars The Love-charm of bombs
Half-way through. A fascinating account of literary figures of the time during the London blitz, which I, too, lived through as a child. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Timbo
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read but do set aside a good chunk of reading time to get...
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learnt a huge amount about the Blitz as well as the contemporary literary scene in the UK during the Second World War. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Cheryl A Stewart
4.0 out of 5 stars Great read
My WIFE could not put it down, as she was born in London and experiaced the bombing.Also going tto the shelters.
Published 19 months ago by Rog
3.0 out of 5 stars Only quite enjoyed it
How people coped with the bombing, both physically and emotionally, has always fascinated me and I thought I was really going to enjoy this book. Read more
Published 19 months ago by anne harries
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