The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Espionage and Exile: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Spy Fiction and Film

Espionage and Exile: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Spy Fiction and Film. By Phyllis Lassner. Edinburgh University Press, 2016. vii + 245 pp. $120.00 (cloth).

Reviewed by Robin Feenstra, Dawson College

Phyllis Lassner’s latest book is superb, and for those familiar with her scholarship it should read like a culmination of the dominant themes (gender, space and place, dislocation, exile) and subject matter (World War II, women writers, intermodernism, the Holocaust, anti-Fascism) that define the very best of her work. Espionage and Exile examines British spy fiction from the 1930s to the Cold War, and two wartime espionage films from actor and producer Leslie Howard. On Lassner’s watch, these spy thrillers do not conform to the genre’s conventional gender biases, its construction of the hyper-villain and super-spy, or its overcooked conclusions, but rather form a political art, at times openly propagandistic, that challenges viewers and “readers intellectually and politically while entertaining them” (6).

Exile, which lies at the heart of the secret world of espionage, is the conceptual and critical driving force of the analysis. For Lassner, what ties together her chosen writers and filmmaker—Eric Ambler, Pamela Frankau, Helen MacInnes, Ann Bridge, Leslie Howard, John Le Carré—is their representation of exile (spies, Jews, and other refugees), their empathy for the persecuted, their critical questioning of “the secrets that imperil both citizens and victims of international conflict” (3), and their warnings “about the violence inherent to Fascism, Nazism and Communism and the contradictory responses of the liberal democracies” (3). In these works, the spy and the stateless refugee are linked by suspicion, secrets, imperilment, abnegated or denied citizenship, and suspension and dislocation; ultimately, nothing “secures them or generates sympathy within the text. As not so free floating signifiers, they cannot be assigned coherent or stable meaning” (9).

The chapters are well-balanced and proceed chronologically from the 1930s to the Cold War and capture “a trajectory of political anxiety” (10). The first focuses on how Eric Ambler’s 1930s thrillers—The Dark Frontier, Background to Danger, Epitaph for a Spy, Cause for Alarm, A Coffin for Dimitrios—suspend the genre’s readymade resolutions and instead “present the fate of modern Europe as a threatening global problem and challenge” (18). Lassner articulates Ambler’s political aesthetic through her analysis of his Gothic Expressionist style, shifting his sinister realism into a more dystopian register, and countering claims of neutralism in his spy novels: “Ambler created literary images of claustrophobic, labyrinthine spaces to represent the present as portending an oppressively uncertain political future” (17). In Lassner’s assessment, Ambler’s thrillers encourage his readers “to recognize Fascism’s enveloping dangers” (24) through the development of his protagonists’ political consciousness and the testimony of exiled characters. “Instead of escapist intrigue,” Lassner successfully argues, “Ambler creates the thriller as anti-Fascist propaganda” (53).

The second chapter focuses on three neglected British women writers of spy fiction who trouble and revise the genre’s gendered conventions. Frankau, MacInnes, and Bridge promote their female characters as “historical subject, spy and exile,” who motivate and activate the plot and are not simply “ornamental sidekicks, villainous or dispensable sex objects” (11). These writers all become, according to Lassner, propaganda artists, much like Ambler and Leslie Howard, in service to the defeat of Fascism and Nazism. Lassner aligns Frankau’s The Devil We Know with Ambler’s 1930s thrillers for using the conventions of spy fiction to disseminate intelligence about Europe’s persecuted Others (79). She reads Frances in MacInnes’ Above Suspicion as the persistent voice of the critical outsider and performing the “work of political analysis and critical propaganda” (83), and lauds MacInnes and the other writers in her study for encouraging “their audiences to identify with protagonists who like themselves gain political consciousness as a pathway to resistance” (88). In her examination of Ann Bridge’s A Place to Stand, Lassner focuses on Hope Kirkland’s journey through espionage to political empathy for the victims of European Fascism, yet unsettles any reassuring conclusions by reading her character as, ultimately, still in a state of irresolvable exile (101). The chapter conclusion, which follows an analysis of Frankau’s intriguing post-war Colonel Blessington, is provocative for turning the critical lens back on the policies of western democracies: “Together the three fears that the equalities promised by Allied victory may never be safe from the lures of anti-democratic supremacy. Their espionage parables question whether the disguised presence of Fascist power isn’t the double agent, the mole deep in the myth of a victorious democracy” (112-13).

Lassner’s next chapter analyzes Leslie Howard as a propaganda artist through his radio broadcasts and film work, especially 1941’s Pimpernel Smith and 49th Parallel. These “anti-Nazi propaganda films were designed to be entertainments, combining comedy with politically inflected suspense” (120), and hinged upon Howard’s belief in an inclusive and empathetic democracy and in “the assumption of shared values based on a romantic political sense of conjoined destiny” (121) with his North American viewers. Though film does not receive quite the same attention as novels do in the book, Lassner’s analysis in this chapter is sophisticated yet sensitive to each film’s comedic and political designs, and her focus on the all-important train scenes points the reader back to Ambler’s use of them in the first chapter (to confront Fascism and to transport stories of oppression from Europe) while noting with horror their haunting historical significance as technologies of extermination.

Lassner’s final chapter uncovers the “unhealed wounds of World War II” (166) that lie beneath the surface of le Carré’s Cold War thrillers; a never-ending war, as the chapter title suggests. According to Lassner, le Carré’s fallible and unspectacular spies George Smiley of Call for the Dead and Alec Leamas of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold are “perennial outsiders” (170) and in perpetual exile from the nation they serve. Though le Carré’s world is more gray than black, in keeping with Lassner’s overarching analysis of space and setting, it is nevertheless unstable, dislocating, and traumatized. Lassner’s close reading of Elsa Fennan’s character in Call for the Dead squarely places the wartime past in the Cold War present, and calls upon Elizabeth Bowen’s wartime fiction to help understand Elsa as a “dispossessed victim of twentieth-century wars that leave these women haunting the very ideas of home and homeland and their traditional promises of protection” (189). Lassner uses le Carré’s complex fictions and complicated representations of character to begin drawing some of her study’s broader conclusions about espionage, exile, spies and Jews, and the ways we read twentieth-century fiction. “Despite subjecting his Jewish characters to perpetual exile, le Carré’s depictions do not isolate them politically or epistemologically”; rather, he “humanizes them with even more complexity,” bringing them, as Lassner argues the impassioned exchange at the end of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold does for Leamas and Liz, “out of the cold of indifference” (209).

Lassner’s conclusions are both judicious and powerful, and leave the reader with a sense that both the author and her subjects have resisted turning away from what might at first seem inconsequential, unworthy, or of a lesser character. Just as the inclusion of Jewish characters in British spy fiction of the period “ruptures the stable narrative of citizenship” (186), so Lassner’s study of espionage and exile pushes the genre beyond its conventional borders to decode the ways in which these spy thrillers “bear witness to totalitarian oppression and question the liberal mandates of the democratic West” (219).

Espionage and Exile comes with very few production errors, and readers should not skip over the endnotes as Lassner encodes them with some razor sharp points. Additionally, the book is adorned with drawings by Ava Kadishson Schieber, images that serve as a valuable intertext and that “express the intertwined, contradictory and multiple identities and relationships produced by an experience of exile” (vii). As we read, the drawings become slightly less abstract and deepen their haunting figuration of exile and alienation, the last of which bears an unmistakable humanity that confronts our attention as much as it does our empathy.

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