I read this article in the New York Times the other day and immediately ordered Lara Feigel’s book, “The Love-Charm of Bombs.” It’s on its way and I can’t wait. Here’s why.
Feigel has written a novel about the impact of World War II – the London Blitz – on the works of five British authors (Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Yorke/Green, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel/Australian émigré). Normally this would be merely academically interesting, but as I read further, it became clear to me that Feigel has followed a path almost identical to the one that led me to write “The Tulip Eaters,” even though my novel is a thriller and hers has been dubbed a “new” or “group biography.”
A respected literary critic, Feigel started to write a non-fiction piece about war literature, but found that it was the lives of the writers themselves that fascinated her. She pored over archives of their letters and diaries, especially their love letters (apparently wartime bred affairs like rabbits) and eventually wove their stories into what I anticipate will be a riveting novel.
The themes Feigel stresses are identical to those I found so compelling during my own year spent immersed in the diaries of Dutch citizens written during World War II. As in her novel, my characters weren’t soldiers, just everyday people trying to survive the hell of war. It is about how that war forever changed them. In “The Tulip Eaters,” it’s also about how the legacy of those damaging, irrevocable experiences lived on to impact, sometimes tragically, the lives of future generations. Scars heal, but they never disappear. In my novel, the protagonist is the daughter of a woman who claims to have fought in the Dutch resistance and suffers terribly for the events that befell her mother during the Dutch occupation and the choices her mother made during those terrible years.
The Best Time of Your Life? The Worst? Both? Are You Nuts?
As terrifying and horrible as war is, a dark reality is that it can also be the most exciting, intense period for those who live it, particularly for the young. I know both my parents despised those five years, but they also knew that nothing would ever be that exciting again, that dangerous, that secret. I strongly suspect my mother never again felt that crazy high, the immediacy of living every moment, that internal combustion of terror and thrill. Feigel quotes Bowen’s perfect appellation: “the tideless present.”
The writers Feigel describes developed an incredible lust for life, some for recklessness, and another – Graham Greene – deep sadness when real life returned him to bipolar boredom and despair. How could normal life compare to bullets flying, bombs falling, the enemy careening overhead or – as in the Netherlands of my parents’ time – Nazis marching down your street or standing at your front door?
I try to imagine my parents at the age I went off to college. They started their adult lives by fighting in the resistance, hiding their Jewish friends in their houses, blowing up munitions depots, even working with the British Secret Service. I moved to Austin, learned about dorm life and studied the history they made.
Starting life the way they did, how could they ever regain a sense of what “normal” is – or was? Close your eyes and imagine the nerve-wracking craziness of a single wartime day. Then open them, stand up, wash the dishes and take out the garbage. Thank God, the war is over! But are you (ever) over it?
Oh, come on, that’s crazy, right? The war killed, maimed, tortured, starved, annihilated millions! All you every dreamed of all those years was for it to be over. Yes! Yes! But. But!
Passion. Sex. Affairs. Love in the time of War.
According to the review, Feigel was entranced by the sheer number of love affairs of her authors, as well as the passion wartime incited, and wrote about them in great detail. That got me thinking about a few things.
If you live in Nazi-occupied Holland or London during the Blitz, and really don’t know if you’ll get blown up, blown away, starve or die some other way, society’s marital rules must hardly be a priority. (I don’t care how civilized the British are!) You’d take what love, what passion you could get – whenever you could get it. “According to Feigel, women preparing for a night out during the blitz used to ask one another, saucily: “Is he someone you’d like to die with?” (Robert McCrum, The Observer, January 19, 2013) A question I’ve certainly never had to ask myself.
I try again to imagine my parents when the war broke out in the Netherlands in May 1940. One day life is normal. Five days later, Nazis walk your streets, your Queen and her Cabinet have shot off to London, and an ass-kissing German civil servant is running your country. Within a few years, your Jewish friends are starred, corralled and then begin to die and disappear. And love. What does love feel like when your world is literally turned upside down, when the enemy walks behind and all around you? How do you know if what you are feeling is passion, love, or merely stark terror? Does love arise solely out of the desperate human need not to be alone when there may not be a tomorrow? Is it a courageous act to love during wartime?
Anyway, I’m eager to read the novel. I’ll be back after I’ve read it and tell you what I think. I hope you do the same.