Magazine article The Spectator

'Dictator Literature: A History of Despots through Their Writing', by Daniel Kalder - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Dictator Literature: A History of Despots through Their Writing', by Daniel Kalder - Review

Article excerpt

'Reading makes the world better. It is how humans merge. How minds connect... Reading is love in action.' Those are the words of the bestselling author Matt Haig and though I wouldn't put it quite like that, I too feel that there is something inherently good about reading. Daniel Kalder has no such illusions. His latest book Dictator Literature (published in the US as The Infernal Library) looks at the dark side of the written word.

It's a study of what the great and not so great dictators of modern times read and wrote. In lesser hands this would be a romp (romp isn't quite the right word, is it?) through Mein Kampf, Lenin's What is to be Done? and Mao's Little Red Book, but Kalder is nothing if not thorough. He's read everything from Stalin's lyric poetry to Saddam's Hussein's romantic fiction. He comes to the conclusion that the horrors of fascism, Nazism and communism would have been impossible without books.

The Bolsheviks in particular were steeped in literature: Lenin took the title of What is to be Done? from an 1863 novel by Nikolay Chernyshevsky. Karl Radek, a fellow communist, wrote that Lenin was 'the first man who believed in what he wrote, not as something that would happen in 100 years but as a concrete thing'.

When Lenin died, Stalin not only took over Lenin's corpse but his writing too. He became the editor, publisher and explainer of Lenin's work -- 'like Saint Paul following in the footsteps of Jesus' as Kalder puts it. In contrast to Lenin's turgid prose, Stalin was 'clear and succinct, and good at summarising complex ideas for a middlebrow audience'.

Stalin, brought up in poverty in Georgia, only learnt to read thanks to the church. As Kalder writes: 'Teaching him to read was clearly an error of world-historical proportions.' Putting the lie to the myth that literature has a moral power, Stalin loved reading and discussing the Russian greats. In Soviet Russia, however, culture would serve the revolution. The resulting work should stand as a lesson in how literature always suffers when writers get too cosy with power. Kalder writes of 'Fyodor Gladkov, whose most famous novel was the thrillingly titled Cement, and Valentin Kataev whose most famous novel Time, Forward! …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.