The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Anti-Nazi Modernism: The Challenges of Resistance in 1930s Fiction

Anti-Nazi Modernism: The Challenges of Resistance in 1930s Fiction. By Mia Spiro. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013. 320 pp. $45.00 paper.

Reviewed by Judy Suh, Duquesne University

Anti-Nazi Modernism is a welcome addition to the body of critical works that elucidate the traffic between fiction and politics during the interwar period and beyond. Somewhat mistitled, insofar as it is centered primarily on three novels—Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood—and not “modernism” as such, the book nonetheless presents a set of finely tuned analyses. Each of the four chapters gives us an overarching object of critical inquiry—the Nazi use of spectacle, misogyny, antisemitism, and homophobia—then proceeds to detail each novel’s interaction with that object. 

The goal is to clarify how Woolf, Isherwood, and Barnes challenged Nazism, and equally crucial, where they reached their limits in so doing. While these novelists have been the subject of many studies of literature and anti-fascism, Spiro’s original approach thoroughly explores the troubling moments of resemblance between their literary strategies of representation and Nazi codings. Arguing that at times, “Woolf, Barnes, and Isherwood support a discourse of exclusion” (245), she provocatively explores how their ambiguous representations of Jews, women, and homosexuality may sit on the cusp of complicity with fascist representations of “others.” Spiro’s critiques are timely, widening the existing critical debates to question the privileged place of Anglo late modernism in cultural representations of devastating problems that persist on a global level, albeit in modified form. 

The first chapter, “Spectacular Nazism and Subversive Performances,” explores the Nazi reliance on spectacle, new visual media, and mass rallies in their attempt to create the desire for and illusion of a unified and harmonious nation. Woolf, Isherwood, and Barnes disrupt the attempts at immediacy between the spectacle and spectator through the process of “novelization.” Taking a cue from Bakhtin, Spiro pinpoints here what is distinct about reading fiction as opposed to viewing a spectacle. The nationalist propaganda created by spectacles such as the pageant, film, or the circus (those that appear as objects of critique in the novels) depended on the “illusion of a cohesive, undivided community” (30). In order to disrupt this illusion, the novels submit the spectacle to mediation and spur its demise. By valuing “ambiguity and uncertainty above the illusion and appeal of absolute harmony and unity that Nazism promotes” (244-45), the dialogizing and heteroglossia enacted by their novels enable multi-voiced communities to emerge. For instance, Between the Acts includes “various voices, opinions, and points of view” (40) in its representation of the pageant-play, which in other hands became a means to rouse univocal patriotism.

Chapter Two, “Vamps, Tramps, and Nazis: Representations of Spectacular Female Characters,” features Nazi gender ideology and its pathologization of the “modern woman.” This figure accrues negative moral and political judgment in the Weimar era eventually to be scapegoated along with Jews and Marxists by the Nazis. The ambiguity of the novelists’ strategies, which concerns the study throughout, is pronounced in this chapter, especially with regard to the characters Mrs. Manresa in Between the Acts and Natalia Landauer in Goodbye to Berlin. The presentation of Mrs. Manresa is especially impressive. On one hand, Spiro pinpoints how she embodies the vampirism and excess attributed to her by the prevailing Nazi discourse; on the other, she evinces a new form of performative agency that subverts women’s status as objects of the (male) gaze. Spiro’s illumination of Manresa’s cultural and historical resonances constructs an exciting critical debate around this character, who is relegated to obscurity in many discussions of Woolf’s novel. 

The third chapter, “Seeing Jewish or Seeing ‘the Jew’?: The Spectral Jewish Other” relies on Zygmunt Bauman’s definition of “allosemitism”—the projection of difference and otherness onto Jews, whether positively or negatively evaluated—in order to pin down the species of ambiguity that attends the novelists’ characterizations of Jews. The framework that results from moving the operative term from antisemitism to allosemitism enables us to perceive the profound and dangerous ambivalence of Woolf’s and Isherwood’s Jewish characters, and is particularly revealing in the analysis of Nightwood. Spiro usefully identifies the limits of Barnes’s mobilization of “the Jew” as a symbol of displacement, indeterminacy, and crisis. Barnes’s character Felix, for instance, contributes much to the novel’s ironic critique of essentialism and Nazi theories of race. Through Felix, Barnes troubles attempts to mask Europe’s history of Jewish persecution. Yet the analysis also carefully demonstrates how the characters of Felix and Guido redouble the destructive abstraction that accompanies the “erasure of a Jewish living culture” (161). 

The last chapter, “Eventually We’re All Queer: Fascism, Nazism, and Homosexuality,” examines the novelists’ investments in the anti-fascist strategy of queering their texts. The central question posed here is whether the novels’ evasive representations of homosexuality “resist or collude with banishing homosexuality (and homosexuals) from the public sphere altogether or risk being so obscure that it evades meaning completely” (210). The chapter brings together social history, the history of sexology, literary history, and queer theory to provide a solid background to inquire into the novels’ strategies of resistance. Through camp, Isherwood demonstrates the perversion of homophobic Nazi “romantic, kitsch sentimentality” (217). From a different approach, Barnes distinguishes between “erotic fantasy and Nazi violence” (220), dismantling the all-too-common conflation of Nazism and homosexuality. Especially clarifying in this chapter is Spiro’s assessment of the risks taken in Barnes’s anti-fascist strategies. She weighs the strengths of Barnes’s erotics of transgression and critique of medical discourse against Nightwood’s invocation of Nazi dramaturgy. 

Spiro spotlights Nazism more strongly than other critical works concerning modernism and fascism. The book brings to light a stunningly wide range of historical and theoretical sources from the 1930s to the present in order to draw a comprehensive map of discourses of exclusion deployed by Nazis. Spiro’s juxtaposition of these writers with contemporary continental political science in a comparative framework, including German-Jewish observers of Nazism, is original and compelling, and it puts into critical practice the challenge to nationalism’s insularity, a concern that the author shares with the novelists she has explored. The book excels too in the original and illuminating analyses of deeply complex, but mostly overlooked, characters. At its best, the book embodies the skepticism that emerges by its own lights as the most important quality of critical reading. As Spiro puts it in her conclusion, antifascist writing is “only truly resistant if it is matched with a reader who can be enlightened and transformed by an understanding of the social plots we live by” (246). 

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