Q & A: Phyllis Lassner, 2017 Special Issue Guest Editor
Can you talk a bit about the history of The Space Between as a society, and how you came to be involved?
PL – I wish I could talk about the origins of the Society, but the silly, snobby story is that I didn’t attend the first conference because it was being held in Reno, Nevada and although its theme of war and literature was exactly what I was interested in, I thought, “How could anything serious happen in Reno?” How wrong can you be?
I did attend the second conference and it was on the airport shuttle to New Paltz that I met Kristin Bluemel, who as you know served as Editor of The Space Between from 2004–2014. A little later we served as Co-Presidents and while I don’t know how effective we were, it was a great way to share our enthusiasm for the society. I also discovered other very smart, imaginative scholars who were eager to share ideas and enjoy each other’s company rather than look over your shoulder for a more job-worthy opportunity.
One shock to our system occurred at our conference, exactly eighteen years ago, when a participant made an announcement at our board meeting about the formation of the Modernist Studies Association and that their annual conferences would be held at the same time as ours had been. What’s interesting about this incident is that both groups have continued to thrive, but with each passing year, The Space Between marks its difference by encouraging new friendships and deepening our collegiality. No olde boy or olde girl cadres, no jockeying for power, no promises of inclusion while staying the canonical course. The Space Between enjoys new approaches, places, authors, and artists to expand our knowledge of cultural production in our time period.
How do you see the cultural and academic relationship between The Space Between Society and its journal and the fields of modern literature and culture? What kind of unique contribution do you see it making?
PL – This is a huge question, but I’ll give it a try based on my own experience. I think the small but intense character of the Society invites great discussion from a base of rigorous scholarship that in our shared interests in the period, goes very deep even as it broadens. We’ve expanded the disciplinary approaches to cultural production by absorbing scholarship in film, art, radio, photography and other media, each of which sheds new light on literary studies. There’s a wonderfully productive tension between the Society’s temporal limits and our expanding subjects and approaches. In my own case, when my obsession with World War II morphed into Holocaust Studies, I found understanding and support for my argument to include writing and art of the Holocaust that couldn’t be produced until after 1945. In both conferences and in the journal, there’s significant interest in history and the way it shakes up the study of cultural production, representing political crises and unafraid of dissenting views. Kristin [Bluemel]’s literary historical theory of “Intermodernism” is a case in point. Through her historical lens, we established the centrality of neglected, marginalized, and otherwise erased writers and artists who either chose not to conform to the codified norms of modernism or were denied entry into its hallowed canon. Defying or ignoring modernist trends, they politicized and propagandized their writing and art; some shifted the representation of consciousness from interior monologues to external objects, dialogue, and alien voices. In so doing, they created narrative and artistic experiments of their own.
Let’s shift gears and talk a bit more about your own scholarship. What have been your interests over the years, and what are you working on now? I’m thinking particularly of your series for Northwestern UP.
PL - My scholarship began with Elizabeth Bowen, who even in the late 1980s when feminist scholarship was blossoming, was rarely studied. I began by reading The Last September and couldn’t stop. The style that so many critics find mystifying gripped my imagination. The first time I read The House in Paris, I was floored by the character of Leopold, abandoned by his mother, as though we knew Anna Karenina from her son’s perspective. But who can forget Anna’s anguish, and through that lens I saw Leopold’s mother, Karen, paralyzed with ambivalence and yet absent and voiceless, a mirror image of her son and lover and a guide to the fraught mother-child relationships throughout Bowen’s fiction. Finally, it was Bowen’s passion for history that made her my subject. How prescient she was in 1934 to create a Paris whose psychological topography was already being invaded by Fascism and threatening characters like Max and Leopold whose partial Jewish identities marked them as unwanted, as aliens both in London and in Paris.
It was Bowen’s powerful engagement with World War II that sparked my hunch that other British women writers had to be writing the war. With no bibliographies to guide me, I sat on floors of musty second-hand bookshops and lending libraries everywhere I went, from Tel Aviv to Oxford and Wales. Some books were so dusty, I had to wash the moldy covers when I got them home. But I hit the jackpot. The marvelous range of writers I found led me to write British Women Writers of World War II and enough work for a lifetime and a half. Neglected writers like Storm Jameson and Phyllis Bottome amazed me with their innovative, anti-Fascist novels that unlike so many modernists, expressed sympathy for the imperiled Jews.
It was a short run from those politically courageous writers to my work in Holocaust Studies. After reading Primo Levi, Charlotte Delbo, and Tadeusz Borowski, two things struck me: their stunning narrative experiments and their absence from Modernist and World War II cultural studies. When I look at the table of contents for various “Companions” to modern culture to which I’ve contributed, my essays on Holocaust writing and film look a bit lonely.
When Northwestern University Press asked me if I’d like to create and edit a book series covering my scholarly interests, I leapt at the chance to create a dialogue between World War II and Holocaust Studies. So far so great, including Rachel Brenner’s study of non-Jewish Polish Holocaust writers, The Ethics of Witnessing, and Petra Rau’s collection, Long Shadows: The Second World War in British Literature and Film, which includes essays by Space Betweeners. To come full circle for me, we’re also publishing Allan Hepburn’s fourth volume of Bowen’s uncollected writing.
Your work on women writers in the space between has focused on cultural and literary responses to the ideologies of colonialism and fascism; you balance fine readings of genre and narrative form with political acuity, wit, and humanity. Your current pursuits in the area of spy fiction are no different. Can you share how you came to be interested in this particular area, and how you see it as integral to scholarship of the space between?
PL - I’ve always found spy fiction intriguing fun—doubling until you’re dizzy, murky motivation, identities, and gothicky settings. Most of all, history is the key player, whether it’s of the moment or a ghost from the past. I began to take spy fiction seriously when I discovered women writers of the genre on the dusty shelves alongside those of World War II. My book Espionage and Exile: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Spy Fiction and Film, has a chapter on women writers who I think have been largely ignored because their narrative experiments, especially with women protagonists, defy the genre’s conventions. In Pamela Frankau’s Colonel Blessington doubling and identity become gender-bending; in Helen MacInnes’s Above Suspicion a woman voices the dangers of Fascism; in Ann Bridge’s A Place to Stand, a woman brings attention to the plight of stateless refugees.
Overall, I think spy fiction is integral to the origins and development of The Space Between. Cropping up in so many media, from literature and film to TV and online, the genre knows no bounds. It can be pulp, polemical, propagandist, popular, middlebrow, or modernist, and combine all of the above as an example of intermodern entertainment.
Finally, you are planning a contribution to the study of spy fiction between the wars: a special issue of The Space Between. What would you like readers and potential contributors to know?
PL - My co-editors Will May and Clare Hanson and I are thrilled that the vehicle for continuing scholarly interest in spy fiction is The Space Between journal. Because of the genre’s inclusiveness across the brows, its fascinating opportunities for narrative experiment and investigation, we hope to encourage the Society’s members to join us in recognizing its relevance to their own different fields. For example, I could imagine a study of the 1997 PBS/Granada mini-series, The Painted Lady, starring Helen Mirren that combines espionage, the art and life of the seventeenth century painter Artemesia Gentileschi, feminist doubling and fashion as resistance, fraud as a semiotic subject, and the highs of middlebrow TV.