- Reading the Ruins: Modernism, Bombsites and British Culture by Leo Mellor
Considering artistic renderings of the Blitz in the Second World War, Stephen Spender noted, "The background to this war, corresponding to the Western Front in the last war, is the bombed city" (2). This observation, recorded in the introduction to Leo Mellor's illuminating study of the ruins and fragments of the British Home Front, suggests the shifting contours of British culture and the British city under the threat and actualization of aerial bombardment. The decades immediately prior to 1939 were troubled with anxieties of war and specifically of bombardment and mass destruction on the home front; these fears, articulated in the art and literature of the day, were realized when war finally broke out. Multiple cultural productions, from fiction to film to photography, interpreted and responded to both the physical and the cultural zones of destruction. Beginning with the prewar rumblings and navigating through the flames and rubble—and later the efflorescence—of the blitzed city, Mellor considers how the British artistic and literary imagination engaged with World War II bombsites. In the process, he becomes a part of wider critical attempts to reevaluate the often-neglected literature of the Second World War and to situate this literature within modernism. For Mellor, [End Page 218] British writing of the wartime years and earlier works of modernism are united by fragments: literature of the 1920s and 1930s is filled with ruins, which act as a prolepsis for later texts dealing with actual scenes of devastation. Ruins, imagined and embodied, haunted and continue to haunt British culture.
In his first chapter Mellor explores the feelings of alarm and vulnerability attending the portents of war in literature from the early years of the century up until 1939. He briefly discusses imagined and predictive bombings in texts from the 1880s and 1890s as well as in H. G. Wells's The War in the Air (1908), setting these against the Zeppelin raids of the First World War. The main focus in this chapter, however, is on works from the interwar period: popular fiction about aerial assault of the city by authors such as William le Queux, responses to bombings during the Spanish Civil War, and literature of what Mellor calls "the long 1939," written on the brink of war and registering a sense of immediacy and fatalism. Mellor references many texts, both familiar ones by Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, and Louis MacNeice, among others, and often-overlooked ones, including George Barker's Elegy on Spain and Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square; he is strongest in his close readings of the latter two, notably Barker's poem, which he analyzes in conjunction with the Republican poster from the Spanish Civil War that inspired it.
Mellor ends his first chapter with the comment that "The arc from the imagined bombsites of the 1890s now arrives in the actuality of Londoners' lives" (46). He turns from literature written on the brink of war to texts composed in the incendiary environment of the metropolis. The second chapter is devoted to reading the elemental force of fire in these works. Mellor begins with a particularly thorough consideration of the disorientations of time, space, and body in the short stories by the fireman-writer William Samson and then discusses works by MacNeice, Henry Green, Dylan Thomas, and T. S. Eliot, suggesting that in many of these texts, the conflagration offers an opportunity for purging and redemption.
The blitzed city, where buses suspend from trees and destroyed buildings look like Grecian temples, is a surreal city, and in the third chapter, Mellor examines the impact of Surrealism on artistic works of the Second World War. In this central and most compelling chapter, Mellor asserts that Surrealism in the 1930s was proleptic of the uncanny and implausible scenes of bombed London, arguing that, contrary to the claims of traditional histories of Surrealism, the movement did not decline during World War II but provided a rich source of inspiration, a way of understanding and portraying the fragments of wartime conditions...