Wandering in the ruins

Love-charm of bombsI’ve noted Lara Feigel‘s wonderful The love-charm of bombs before, and now there’s a short interview with her at the New York Times Arts blog here:

I was originally planning to write an academic study of war literature. But I kept finding that I was reading about the writers’ lives, rather than reading about their books, and especially about their passionate wartime love affairs. Once I had spent time in their archives and read their wartime letters and diaries, I started to think that it’s impossible fully to understand classic novels like Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair” or Bowen’s “The Heat of the Day” without knowing about their lives, and seeing these books as urgent messages, written to lovers, and written out of an extraordinary time. A lot of parallels and shared experiences were emerging in the research, so it seemed obvious to tell the stories simultaneously, threading them together as in a novel.

Lara explains that, although she was trained as a literary critic and historian,

I enjoyed the challenge of acquiring new kinds of knowledge in researching this book. I read a few military accounts of the war, but I learned a lot of the war news from reading contemporary diaries and newspapers. I wanted only to convey as much as well-informed people knew at the time. After all, my writers weren’t military experts, just people who found themselves living through a complicated and long-drawn-out war.

I know just what she means (and for more on another project in which Lara crosses established boundaries, see this meeting of minds between neuroscientists, artists, philosophers and analysts, which she co-organized with Lisa Apignanesi).  In a similar sort of way I’m a geographer ‘by training’, whatever that might mean, but I’m content with the description largely because it gives me the freedom to pursue ideas and issues wherever they take me, often far beyond the bounds of any recognisable or at any rate nominal ‘geography’ – except that I always remember Dick Chorley‘s frequently repeated injunction when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge: “To ask, ‘Is that Geography?’ is the most un-geographical of questions.”  So I think geography is a discipline in the Foucauldian sense – it works to produce disciplinary subjects through a network of formal institutions (including university departments) and journals, through a canon of texts, and through a systematic series of examinations – but that’s about it.  I don’t think this makes Geography any different from a host of other ‘disciplines’, needless to say: it’s a route of entry into a rich and constantly changing intellectual-practical world, and unlike Richard Hartshorne and others of his ilk I insist that there’s a lot to be said for deviating from the path (or rather Path) and acquiring those ‘new kinds of knowledge’ that Lara talks about.

With that sort of license comes responsibility, too, of course, but that doesn’t mean conformity.  I’ve always liked E.P. Thompson‘s image of himself, working for the first time on early eighteenth- rather than ninteenth-century Britain in Whigs and Hunters – his best book – as a parachutist landing in occupied territory (occupied not least by Jack Plumb), burying his silk under a tree and night after night moving stealthily through the surrounding landscape, gradually coming to know it better and better: but on his own terms.  Perhaps he was channelling his late brother Frank who parachuted into Bulgaria during the Second World War to provide support to the partisans and who was summarily executed for his pains.

PIETTE Imagination at warWhich brings me back to Lara.  Asked to recommend a book about literature during the Second World War, she suggests Adam Piette‘s Imagination at war: British fiction and poetry 1939-1945 (1995): ‘a wonderful account of the oddness of the literary responses to the Second World War.’  D.J. Taylor wasn’t so sure, though I found Adam’s discussion of the war in the desert very helpful in enlarging my own view of those campaigns for ‘The natures of war’.

I know the sequel better, The Literary Cold War, 1945 to Vietnam (2009), which includes an invigorating discussion of Graham Greene‘s The Quiet American amongst many other good things (a novel much on my mind of late).  Adam runs the Cultures of the Cold War network whose website opens with a rapid-fire quotation from E.L. Doctorow:  ‘The bomb first was our weapon. Then it became our diplomacy. Next it became our economy. Now it’s become our culture. We’ve become the people of the bomb.’ Unfortunately, it appears the website then ran out of energy (sic), though there’s a useful Bibliography.

For me, the book I most admire is Patrick Deer‘s Culture in Camouflage: war, empire and modern British literature (2009).  He paints on a larger canvas than Imagination at war – the book covers the period 1914-1945, and there are definite advantages in doing so – and he seems to have read everything and to have thought about it all in depth and detail.  I was first drawn to it by his chapters on the Second World War, but as I re-work “Gabriel’s Map” for what I think, hope and pray will be a second new book (really), provisionally called War material, I’ve plunged back into his earlier accounts of the First World War.  They are brimful of incisive readings and artful insights.

“Gabriel’s Map” is all about the dialectic between the scopic regime constructed through the topographic map, the aerial photograph and the field sketch on the Western Front (‘cartography’) and the sensuous, haptic and thoroughly embodied knowledge of the troops on – and in – the ground (‘corpography’).  Here’s Patrick:  ‘If the emblematic figure for the collapse of vision was No Man’s Land, it was the strategist’s map that came to represent the struggle to recapture oversight, to survey and order the mud, chaos and horror of battle.’ So I’m now thinking much more about the very idea of No Man’s Land and the multiple ways in which soldiers apprehended its gouged terrain.

More on all that very soon, but here I just want to say that Culture in camouflage is gloriously intellectually promiscuous and also a rattling good read.  If you want to explore the idea of ‘war culture’ I’d recommend starting here, and returning to it again and again.  But pack Lara’s book for the journey because she also has much to show us not only about how to travel but also how to write.

The sensual history of destruction

I’ve been in Paris this week, first for a presentation to Michel Wieviorka‘s seminar at the École des Hautes Études on Wednesday morning and then for a different presentation to Pauline Guinard‘s seminar at the École Normale Supérieure on Wednesday evening.  I hope this explains my silence!  Lots of good questions at both, and also lively conversations about the French intervention in Mali — which made today a good day to visit the Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides.

An astonishing building, but I was disappointed at the exhibitions – too many uniforms and muskets and (especially when compared to the Imperial War Museum in London, even before its current reconstruction) remarkably little on the politics and culture of war (though there were some good three-screen videos).  Given my current preoccupation with the First World War, I expected much more from what turned out to be a lifeless series of galleries; appropriate, you might think, but I left with very few impressions of how so many French soldiers managed to survive the trenches and the barrages.  It was a far cry from the new history, anthropology and archaeology of the battlefield that has done so much to recover its raw physicality, its sensuality and even its intimacy.

FEIGEL Love-charm of bombs (UK edition)So I returned to the hotel to start Lara Feigel‘s The love-charm of bombs: restless lives in the Second World War (Bloomsbury, 2013) which I picked up at Foyle’s on my way through London (and still the best bookshop in the world).  When people ask me to recommend books that convey the experience of being bombed, my selections always include the opening chapter of Randall Hansen‘s The fire and the fury: the Allied bombing of Germany 1942-1945, where he uses eyewitness accounts to conjure up ‘The day Hamburg died’ with extraordinary power and economy – there is now a rich literature on this in German and in English, most notably Keith Lowe‘s brilliant Inferno: the devastation of Hamburg 1943 – and the central chapters of Sarah Waters‘s stunning novel The Night-Watch.  But I think I may have to add Feigel to the list because The love-charm of bombs traffics in that difficult but vital space between the documentary (Hansen) and the imaginative (Waters).

I say ‘may’ only because I’ve just started.  But Part I, ‘One night in the lives of five writers, 26 September 1940’, uses the work and lives of five writers – Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilda Spiel and Henry Yorke (‘Henry Greene’) – to address, in a remarkably fresh and compelling fashion, the relation between aesthetics and violence.  Feigel does this not in a conventional philosophical fashion, but by engaging directly with the ways in which, for these (and presumably other) writers, there was something thrilling, exhilarating and even sublime about the spectacle of military violence transforming the capital during the Blitz.  This was far more visceral than voyeurism, though Feigel is very, very good on the visuals (and would surely have been even better had she included the work of artists and photographers), because these men and women were profoundly, physically involved in the Blitz as air raid wardens, ambulance drivers, and auxiliary firemen.  The title comes from Graham Greene:

‘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.’

FEIGEL The love-charm of bombsFeigel gives the events of that one night a peculiar intensity by beginning with what she calls a ‘newsreel’, a quick and lively summary of the Blitz, and then, as darkness falls, moving in sections from 7 p.m. (Blackout) through 10 p.m. (Fire) and 1 a.m. (Rescue) until 6 a.m., the All Clear, and the blessed arrival (for some, at least) of a new day.  It’s something of a conceit: the five writers were not dutiful scribes each at their separate desks on 26 September , so to bring them into view on this artfully re-imagined night Feigel darts back from their loosely collective present into their pasts, placing them in myriad networks of other writers and friends, inserting them into the narrative arc of the falling bombs, and freely using their writings so that they issue forth as something far more than the usual silhouettes glimpsed against the light of burning buildings.  And their involvements are profoundly sensuous: as the cover of the American edition (right) shows far better than the English edition above, and as the title intimates, even as they were unmoored from their familiar haunts and their old lives, they also sensed (and often seized) new possibilities for love as well as loss.

This is a very different ground to that crunched over by Patrick Deer in the equally brilliant Culture in camouflage: war, empire and modern British literature (still one of my favourite books about this or any other period) or Leo Mellor‘s Reading the ruins: modernism, bomb-sites and British culture (which I found remarkably austere), because its sense of culture is more sensuous, even sensual, because it addresses the erotics of surviving military violence in such an honest way, and – probably another way of saying the same two things – because it’s so close in spirit to Sarah Waters.

It’s also much closer to the way in which the humanities have recovered the Western Front.  In fact, Feigel insist that ‘these writers, firefighting, ambulance-driving, patrolling the streets,were the successors of the soldier poets of the First World War, and their story remains to be told.’  There are of course difficulties in privileging the privileged, and some of the most arresting memorials about life in the trenches were produced not by the gentlemen-officers but by the ordinary soldiers: but as Feigel shows, there are also riches to be recovered by picking their pocket-books.