- On Lassner's Espionage and Exile: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Spy Fiction and Film
This important book is testament to a growing—and welcome—tendency to analyze the espionage genre as a political phenomenon. In Espionage and Exile: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Spy Fiction and Film, Phyllis Lassner does not view spy fiction and film as disposable entertainment, as "mass culture," or through the filter of genre (in all of which history tends to disappear), but as widely disseminated products, reflectors, and even shapers of history and politics. In her words: "these fictions construct a multivocal form of cultural production that commingles propaganda, popular entertainment and cultural history" (3). Lassner's central argument is original, productive, and persuasive, if not always easily grasped: how espionage fiction intersects with Jewish experience from the 1930s to the 1960s—what Lassner calls "exile as a political condition and a state of being and identity" (3) versus the "'fixed' dominant position of totalitarian nationalism" (8).
Lassner's incorporation of cinema alongside literary fiction reflects not token interdisciplinarianism but a sure grasp of the reality of how spy stories are consumed. The hybrid literary-cinematic legacy of James Bond has become paradigmatic, with filmed versions of John le Carré's work, from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas [End Page 116] Alfredson, France, UK, Germany, 2011) to The Night Manager (Susanne Bier, UK, BBC, 2016), disseminating—and, yes, sometimes distorting—their literary originals. Using the contemporary TV series The Americans (USA, FX Network, 2013–)—inspired by real-life Soviet "sleeper" agents in Cold War America—as a jumping-off point, Lassner emphasizes how exile is the lived reality of secret agents but also, more audaciously, argues that such separation from nation-states also creates distance from national ideologies. Thus Lassner argues that spies and Jews occupy a shared liminal political space in espionage fiction.
Lassner's approach is highly effective in reframing the 1930s novels of Eric Ambler, wherein the recurring figures of the stateless, the exiled, and the persecuted—conventionally critically figured as "amateurs" or "innocents"—now function as cyphers for the Jew amid the upheavals of asylum-less 1930s Europe. Lassner shows how, far from being sublimated British state propaganda, Ambler's fiction argued fervently against the British state's appeasement of Germany. German expressionist cinema (referenced throughout the book) and Ambler's work is particularly effective: Crepuscular imagery and gothic architecture capture a paranoia, an existential malaise, as filmmakers and novelist look over their shoulders at the materializing specter of fascism. Also somewhat shadowy in Lassner's analysis, however, is Ambler's Popular Front politics, however, in which communism was a key component.
A chapter on women espionage fiction writers Pamela Frankau, Ann Bridge, and Helen MacInnes is also important, given these writers' critical neglect in the male-dominated world of spy fiction. Here the Jewish connection is intrinsic rather than metaphoric, and Lassner convincingly argues that exile, by displacing women from domestic gender roles, also uncouples national-patriarchal ideology. The heroines in Bridge's A Place to Stand (1953) and MacInnes's While We Still Live (1944) become Polish refugees in solidarity, while MacInnes's Above Suspicion (1941) uses the city of Nuremberg to obliquely highlight the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany. Here Lassner includes a quite brilliant analysis of the paradoxical notion of "visible absence."
British-born, of Hungarian-Jewish descent, Leslie Howard (né Steiner) was a Hollywood star (Of Human Bondage [John Cromwell, USA, 1934]; The Scarlet Pimpernel [Harold Young, UK, 1934], Gone with the Wind [Victor Fleming, George Cukor, USA, 1939]) who left the United States at the height of his fame to assist the UK's war effort. Howard first made propaganda broadcasts, and then, from 1941, acted in—and directed—the key British war films Pimpernel [End Page 117] Smith (1941) and The First of the Few (or Spitfire; 1942). Lassner argues that where "official Allied war aims to defeat Nazism did not include...