Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

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

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

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

Article excerpt

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

by Mia Spiro

Northwestern University Press, 2013. 308 pages

Migrant Modernism: Postwar London and the West Indian Novel

by J. Dillon Brown

University of Virginia Press, 2013. 246 pages

Both Mia Spiro's Anti-Nazi Modernism: The Challenges of Resistance in 1930s Fiction and J. Dillon Brown's Migrant Modernism: Postwar London and the West Indian Novel examine the ways that modernist writing can have important political effects and interests. Although the political goals of Spiro's writers (Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and Christopher Isherwood) in the 1930s are distinct from Brown's West Indian writers (Edgar Mittleholzer, George Lamming, Sam Selvon, and Roger Mais) in the 1950s, both Spiro and Brown effectively suggest that difficult, experimental prose may encourage complex critiques of stereotypes and the normative social order. Spiro and Brown demonstrate that the political nuances of modernist work become legible when the larger historical context is considered.

Spiro's Anti-Nazi Modernism offers readings of Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin (1939), Barnes's Nightwood (1937), and Woolf's Between the Acts (1941). Spiro argues in her introduction that "these three novels deploy an anti-Nazi aesthetic and warn their readers against [Nazism's] allure in strikingly complementary ways" (10). Calling the three novels "'anti-spectacle' narratives" (7), she shows the ways they call into question the appeal of conformity and propaganda and in this way "challenge the illusion of harmony and unity in Nazi ideology" (10). Early in the book, however, Spiro's strong characterization of Woolf, Barnes, and Isherwood as producing "anti-Nazi" texts is tempered by her own probing questions, most notably: "Can experimental fiction function as a meaningful mode of resistance if it risks excluding those readers who do not understand its message?" (4) and "When do novelists, in uncovering oppressive ideologies, become complicit in the prejudices they are targeting?" (5) As the book progresses, the second question becomes more urgent, as Spiro shows all three writers to include offensive stereotypes in their representations of Jews, women, and homosexuals, the three oppressed groups Spiro discusses.

Spiro's first chapter, "Spectacular Nazism and Subversive Performance," is an historical survey of the role of Nazi propaganda. Here, Spiro asks questions about the efficacy of using difficult, experimental fiction for the purposes of political resistance. She does not come to a conclusion about this vexed problem, and the reader may wish that she had more clearly explained what successful resistance novels would or should look like. It is a strength of the book that Spiro does not insist on the radical, political message of the novels she discusses, uncritically squeezing interpretations out of each novel to fit her anti-Nazi thesis. Rather, she allows for conflicting interpretations of each book, and clearly explicates the troubling stereotypes that undermine their anti-Nazi messages. However, the many questions Spiro raises over the course of the book finally make the reader wonder if a more tentative title might have been appropriate (perhaps Anti-Nazi Modernism?).

In Chapter Two, "Vamps, Tramps, and Nazis: Representations of Spectacular Female Characters," Spiro argues that the women in Woolf, Barnes, and Isherwood's fiction disrupt Nazi ideals of femininity. However, these characters are far from role models, suggesting that their creators continue to feel a profound, lingering ambivalence about the Modern Woman. Spiro is surely right that Mrs. Manresa's materialism, superficiality, and promiscuity in Woolf's Between the Acts challenge patriarchal norms. As Spiro observes, Manresa "is one of the few independent female characters with agency and autonomy who is willing and able to make decisions about how to use her body" (102). …

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