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Espionage and Exile

Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Spy Fiction and Film


Phyllis Lassner


Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016

Hardcover. vii+245 p. ISBN 978-1474401104. £70


Reviewed by Judy Suh

Duquesne University (Pennsylvania)



Espionage and Exile is the latest monograph by Phyllis Lassner, the author of Elizabeth Bowen : A Study of the Novels, The Short Fiction of Elizabeth Bowen, British Women Writers of World War II : Battlegrounds of their Own, Colonial Strangers : Women Writing the End of the British Empire, Anglo-Jewish Women Writing the Holocaust, and many important critical essays. A frequently cited authority on mid-century British literature and politics, she has recovered many women and minority political writers in Britain to enrich our perception of modern British culture, especially in its diverse responses to inter-war fascism and World War II.

Lassner has also contributed greatly to the study of “intermodernism,” a critical body of works described by Kristin Bluemel in Intermodernism : Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain as one created by authors outside of high modernist networks and marked by their distinctive attention to politics. One of the many achievements of Lassner’s oeuvre so far has been to highlight the political literary strategies of authors renowned and obscure across a range of styles and media. This newest book also presents authors who are “most productively situated within intermodernism” and “who exploit but critique narrative techniques associated with modernism, realism and speculative fiction by foregrounding historical and political analysis” [4]. Espionage and Exile, which links the concerns and strategies of six spy fiction and film authors from the 1930s to the 1960s, adds several important dimensions to this vital critical agenda.

The authors who constitute the study—Eric Ambler, Pamela Frankau, Helen MacInnes, Ann Bridge, Leslie Howard, and John Le Carré—are tied together by Lassner in many ways. Most overtly, they all inhabit the genre of spy fiction and use it as a form of political art: “Men and women characters in all the novels studied in this book share the power of making strategic and ethical choices that change the twentieth-century fictional landscape from narrative adventure to political theatre” [12]. For each author, this entails the revision of the adventure plots, strong resolutions, and action-oriented characters established in Britain by nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century spy fiction writers such as E. Phillips Oppenheim, William Le Queux, and John Buchan. Against some critics’ assumptions that spy fiction’s concern with politics is merely a pretext or background for complicated adventure plots, Lassner observes that the works in question all have a “narrative focus” that “interweaves espionage and exile as political art” [4]. Moreover, the prevalent inclusion of Jewish refugees in British spy fiction from the 1930s to 1960s and the emphasis on the estranged condition of exile that likewise informs spy characters create a rich set of ethical and political questions regarding human rights, nationalism, gender, and race.

These authors also share a sense of the inadequacy of [detached] modernism as well as realism in approaching unimaginable experiences of war, the terror of fascism, and the shadowy qualities of the secrets worlds of espionage. Lassner foregrounds many instances of Expressionist mise-en-scène in mood, setting, and visual description that strategically call attention to the limits of representation and the ethical morass created by these experiences. Their uses of Expressionism communicate urgent warnings to audiences regarding fascism and its consequences for Britain and other liberal democracies. The authors engage their readers and spectators in discomforting affects including anxiety, fear, and dread to raise alarms about fascism before, during, and after the war. Their warnings challenge in particular prevalent attitudes towards fascist threat such as ambivalence and hesitancy, attitudes whose passivity becomes dangerously complicit as fascism accedes to power. Lassner argues convincingly that some of the most cogent anti-fascist cultural production in Britain was deeply invested in cultivating cosmopolitan feelings of anxiety, shock, and empathy.

The study is organized somewhat chronologically, beginning with the chapter “Eric Ambler and the 1930s,” which explores the analytical and aesthetic richness of Ambler’s novels. Lassner describes their urgent stand against fascism, the official British policy of appeasement, and the casual antisemitism that enabled many to turn a blind eye towards the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany. She provides ample historical background to help readers understand Ambler’s formal strategies, including discussions of relevant Nazi laws and policies, and the complicit support of corporate power. The chapter also analyzes the tradition of the spy thriller in Britain so that Ambler’s parody of generic conventions and inhabitation of Gothic Expressionism, a variant of which had emerged in interwar Germany in part to capture the distorting effects of “the new norm of strangulating fascist capitalism” [39], makes them appear as meaningful political and aesthetic strategies. These destabilizing narrative strategies defy conventional spy thrillers’ crude megalomaniacal villains and simplistically drawn protagonists who effect masterful resolutions through individual action. As counters, Ambler provides myriad stateless characters who disturb the sense of a “stable homogeneous Britain standing resolute against feckless Europe” [28]. Consequently, in his novels, “British subjectivity… guarantees neither moral certainty nor protection, and as grouped with non-British refugees, reminds us of their tenuous political and narrative positions” [56].

The second chapter, “Double Agency : Women Writers of Espionage Fiction,” features the authors Pamela Frankau, Helen MacInnes and Ann Bridge, who dramatize the process of politicization and developing political consciousness of women between the 1930s and the Cold War. Often featuring refugee or women spies who are novices or amateurs in the secret world of espionage, their novels worry the lines between politics and “the domestic sphere and their private roles” [70], and “interrogate women’s domestic and political relationships to the meanings of citizenship and activism” [81]. The protagonist in Frankau’s The Devil We Know [1939], Philip Meyer, is a Jewish refugee who undergoes a “moral and psychological awakening from being a self-loathing refugee to becoming a secret agent” as he attempts to “rescue his disabled brother from Germany” [71]. Through this narrative, Frankau queries the conditions of immigration for Jewish refugees in Britain: “The quotidian for Jewish characters is to be suspected of dual, sometimes conflicting loyalties, and therefore they occupy a liminal status that rarely heals or undoes misunderstanding and mistrust” [73]. Frankau takes a concerted risk in animating a stereotype of Jewish self-loathing in the character of Philip Meyer, but the ultimate goal here is to “subvert” this stereotype [75]. Irony also informs her 1968 novel, Colonel Blessington, in which the title character’s duplicities and shifting gender identifications destabilize “any linear progress or stable, confirmed discovery in the narrative structure” [110]. In these works, Frankau poses the dangers of anti-Semitism in order to trouble British self-complacency.

Lassner links this warning to the alarm raised by Helen MacInnes’s Above Suspicion (1941) where, by contrast, the figure of the Jew “appears only obliquely, a figure of dissolution representing historical abandonment and a rupture in both the adventure plot and canonical modernist fiction” [87]. She describes MacInnes’ complex inscription of the perilous conditions for Jews in Central Europe as well as the danger of indifference to the rise of fascism focalized through the perceptions of British women spy characters. Ann Bridge’s A Place to Stand [1953] also emphasizes the necessity of psychological shock to political understanding” [94]. Her protagonist, Hope Kirkland, is the daughter of a rich American industrialist living in Hungary who in defiance of her family’s isolationist stance joins the resistance, immersing herself in a Polish refugee family’s very different living conditions and joining in their work for the Polish underground. Bridge, like MacInnes and Frankau, “depict[s] the self-serving indifference and complicity of outsiders and onlookers” to the rise of Nazi terror [94].  

Lassner describes the uneasiness produced by all three women writers, a discomfort that extends well into the postwar period: “Together the three writers… express 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]. The suspicion that the war has not vanquished fascism reappears critically in the last chapter as well, which deals directly with Cold War politics and affect.

One of the key observations that emerges in Espionage and Exile—the concern of British spy thrillers to find political vantage points beyond Britain—finds an unexpected home in British propaganda film during World War II. The third chapter, “Leslie Howard : Propaganda Artist” explores Howard’s anti-fascist radio broadcasts and films. Lassner builds a view of a distinctive cosmopolitan focus in British pop culture created in part by filmmakers whose immigrant histories and backgrounds led to a “transnational vision” [131] that sought to “activate empathy” [131] for those victimized by Nazism. In this chapter, Lassner performs a much-needed critical task for twentieth-century British cultural studies, which is to continue linking literary production to radio and film production. She also calls attention to how Howard, commissioned by the government to create war propaganda, addressed a range of transatlantic spectators through an “interweave of narrative traditions” in middlebrow and popular culture. In her analyses of Pimpernel Smith [1941] and 49th Parallel [1941], Lassner shows how Howard sought to create audiences invested in multicultural nationhood, in part by depicting their existence and democratic promise onscreen. She also analyzes how Howard’s acting persona in its combination of self-irony and sincerity worked to move transatlantic and domestic audiences.

The last chapter, “John le Carré’s Never-ending War of Exile,” is the book’s finest and most illuminating. The anti-fascist narrative elements at issue throughout the chapters are shown as profoundly relevant in the postwar period. The most well-known of the authors discussed in Espionage and Exile, le Carré, is analyzed as a writer who is deeply versed in the political import of the genre across the century. His novels, according to Lassner, fit the pattern set in the inter-war period, repeatedly linking the figure of the spy with “exiled survivors” [167], and using the genre to dramatize some of the most important ethical dilemmas of the twentieth century. His novels hold up a dark mirror to the most famous of Cold War British spy novelists, Ian Fleming. In contrast to Fleming’s spectacular protagonist James Bond, George Smiley is “the anti-mythic, besieged and unheralded Cold warrior on behalf of a post-imperial nation struggling to revive faith in its significance” [175]. Other agents, such as Elsa Fennan in Call for the Dead [1961] also carry on the questions posed by uncanny Jewish refugee characters in previous British spy fiction: “Perennial outliers, le Carré’s Jews and espionage agents question the nature of liberal ideologies as well as citizenship and its stability as documentary evidence of belonging, integration, State legitimacy and protection” [188]. Historically questioning the extent of the Allied victory in World War II, le Carré “exposes how the terrors of Nazism did not end with the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945, but linger in the make-up and machinations of East German Communism” [177], carrying on the “genre’s self-critical capability” [206].

Perhaps it would have helped the book’s philosophical inquiry to weave in some thinkers and literary critics who have also deeply contemplated the important questions posed by Espionage and Exile regarding statelessness, human rights, and incommensurability. Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt are often brought in to enrich the analyses, but the conversation might have benefitted by the further inclusion of Giorgio Agamben, Adorno and Horkheimer, and Lionel Trilling. In any case, the book has many outstanding strengths. While the phenomena of film noir and expressionism in British cultural production have been frequently discussed, Lassner brings to the table a rich ethical sense and set of political analytical tools. The book’s biggest strength is in the astounding discovery of patterns only possible with an intense scholarly knowledge of modern literary history and critical generosity in the approach to genre fiction. In creating many significant links between film and literature, Lassner’s contribution also provides new critical avenues for literary critics, especially in the discussion of genre narratives and pop culture.

Lassner convincingly traces in British espionage fiction an “urge to provide counter-narratives to the casual prejudices, willful ignorance and silences that constituted official and general responses to political and racialized victims of exile in their times and that reverberate today” [221]. This is a timely critical work in an age of resurgent fascist nationalisms. Scholars and students of modern British fiction and film will benefit from the ethical lines of questioning strongly established by Lassner throughout her oeuvre and which continue in this book.



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