Book Review

Fictionalising Fascism

don't be stupid, be a smarty / read fiction 'bout the nazi party

Dunno why (misery, boredom, fatigue, excess of energy etc) but I decided to read a small stack of novels about fascism. Christ.

The Iron Heel by Jack London

Last year I read the prescient Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here, and it turns out that wasn’t the first “fascism in America” alternative present/fantasy written by a popular and acclaimed American writer in the first half of the 20th century. No, because alcoholic brocialist adventurer, autodidact and best-selling novelist, Jack London had already done it, releasing the powerful and structurally impressive The Iron Heel in 1906.

The majority of the novel is presented as memoir/autobiography written by a socialist revolutionary, a young woman who was the daughter of a liberal Berkeley professor whose salon invited thought leaders from across the political spectrum, leading himself, his daughter and a prominent local bishop to be kicked out of polite society after a firebrand socialist convinces them of the iniquities and contradictions of capitalism.

It’s a didactic text, the first half about the gradual conversion to anticapitalism of the narrator, who I imagine was London’s presumed audience (middle class, literary, open-minded), and it presents the same ideas and information that right wing/centrist media continues to sideline today.

London and his charming, laddish, socialist avatar in the novel are right: if you consider the structure of society with any consideration of basic ethics, there is no justification for capitalism.

As socialism grows in the America of the novel, so too does the violent side of capitalism: fascism rises to crush and crush and crush and the text ends abruptly, mid sentence, as if our narrator – writing decades after the events of the novel when a leader of the underground resistance – has finally been caught up with by the authorities. But – very like the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale (the novel) – London’s novel includes occasional asides and annotations from THE FUTURE.

Fascism persisted for hundreds of years, but then a successful socialist revolution did happen, leading the world to a full embrace of fully automated luxury communism, so there is a happy ending here. Of sorts.

Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford

I read a little anthology of three of Mitford’s novels many years ago, quite possibly even before existed (imagine that, ey! I expressed myself nowhere except to strangers (and people I wished were strangers) dead-eyed across tables at five in the morning, oh and also in the unpublishable “novel” I wrote), and tho I enjoyed all three novels, I didn’t feel any wild clamouring to read any more.

Three novels by Nancy Mitford is probably enough, as either I was too naive to notice the poor quality of the writing back in the day when I was a foolish, floppy-haired, naif, or – perhaps more likely given her reputation – there was a serious improvement in Mitford’s writing on a sentence-by-sentence level between this, her third (!) novel (published 1935) and her two later, canonical, texts (The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949)).

Mitford didn’t allow Wigs on the Green to be republished during her lifetime, and tho the various explanations offered by Mitford’s Hitler-loving sister’s daughter-in-law, Charlotte Mosley, in the introduction (I wonder how she got that job?) include Mitford feeling remorse at a) the way she lampooned her Nazi-loving sisters and b) the way she used rising fascism as a backdrop for a knockabout posh-people-farce-type-romp, it’s probably far more likely that Mitford instead repressed it because she knew it wasn’t good.

Yes, Wigs on the Green is often very funny and there are genuinely some raucous, proper A-grade gags in here (I won’t quote them out of context), but the dialogue is ropey, the characters all blend into each other with the only distinctions between them being names and marital status, rather than anything more fundamental.

It’s frothy, far too kind to posh English Hitler stans of the 1930s, and woefully naive about the real world repercussions of white supremacy and the normalisation of violence in political discourse.

It did make me laugh hard a few times, but it’s not a great novel, and it’s a woeful exploration of fascism.

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

This is a famous book, one I’ve intended to read for years but not with any excitement. Bunged it in with the two novels above because I thought it might be slightly similar and also I worried I wouldn’t have much to say about it.

I don’t. I didn’t like it.

Translated by Ralph Manheim and first published as Die Blechtrommel in 1959, it’s a narrative told by a short man sat in a psychiatric hospital early in the 1950s. He didn’t grow between his third birthday and his twenty- third, and then he only – but rapidly – grew about 13 inches (about 32cm in normal units) and stopped being able to break glass with his voice, which he had been able to do before. He gets involved in a “freak show” type circus during WW2 and then becomes a famous jazz percussionist. The text leaps between – often in the middle of a sentence – first and third person (his name is Oskar) and tho this is a pleasing device to show dissociation/collapse (reminiscent, of course, of the central section of White Lines, Black Truffles, my unpublishable 2012 Catholic cocaine novel), it’s not enough to make 600 tightly printed pages much fun.

Lots of the chapters feel like short stories, and though some of these felt memorable at the time, the only vignette that remains with me now (it’s March 9th! hello hello from the past!) is the section about a popular bar that only provides its guests with raw onions, knives and chopping boards so they can start themselves off crying to allow for a thorough physical and emotional catharsis. I read this bit a couple of hours ago, so it is its proximity rather than its strength of imagery that has stayed with me the most. I enjoyed other chapters I read over the last week and a half as I read them but-


Not much more to add.

See you again soon maybe. is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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