Book Explores WWII British Literature, Culture


A Northern Michigan University associate professor published a scholarly book about British literature of World War II that looks at fictional British diplomats, officials and spies in books and films that respond to wartime Fascism and to the political instability of the postwar years.

In Diplomacy in Postwar British Literature and Culture, Caroline Zoe Krzakowski focuses on British writers and filmmakers working between 1935 and 1970 whose fiction, nonfiction and films tried to build cultural bridges between Britain and other countries such as the United States, Egypt and Romania, the former Yugoslavia. These cultural producers found new ways of telling stories about British identity and belonging during a time of political and societal shifts brought about by Britain's loss of its empire and the new prominence of the US in global affairs.

The book began as a doctoral dissertation at McGill University and was completed with funding and support from NMU. Krzakowski decided on this topic because her own life was affected by WWII. During the war, her family worked for the anti-Nazi Resistance in Poland, and her grandfather was killed in a concentration camp in Germany for his anti-fascist work. Her mother lived through the bombing of Warsaw as a child, and her father spent a year in a forced labor camp in Dessau, Germany. After the war, the family emigrated to Canada in the 1950s as postwar refugees.

“The aftermath of World War Two was still felt decades later, even after cities were rebuilt. Any armed conflict will leave wounds, both social and political; it's a kind of trauma for the whole society,” said Krzakowski. “I was really interested in exploring what the notion of political commitment meant for writers in this time, and this led me to the work of British writers who were writing both as private individuals and on behalf of their country.”

One chapter of her book looks at the spy fiction of John le Carré, whose novels weren't about heroic spies like James Bond. Le Carré shows instead how spies are used by their countries, left to their own devices and sometimes even betrayed. In another chapter on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, she argues his films, like Foreign Correspondent, work as a kind of diplomacy to convince the U.S. to join the war effort, and the characters in those films are like envoys who work on behalf of their country.

“I'm thinking about British national identity from a post-colonial perspective, which means I'm interested in how ideas about stories about national identity are also very violent and can lead to violence. I try to, as much as possible, always think about where writers are situated in terms of race, class and gender. So I look at the film Notorious with Ingrid Bergman as showing us a female character who works as a spy and who is somewhat sacrificed in that role.”

Krzakowski is working on a new project about horticulture and botany in British fiction, focusing on the English garden, principles of design, plant species and their ties with British colonialism.

Learn more about In Diplomacy in Postwar British Literature and Culture here.

Prepared By

Julia Seitz
Student Writer