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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature / history


The Infernal Library
(Dictator Literature)

Daniel Kalder

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Infernal Library

Title: The Infernal Library
Author: Daniel Kalder
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2018
Length: 354 pages
Availability: The Infernal Library - US
Dictator Literature - UK
The Infernal Library - Canada
  • US title: The Infernal Library
  • UK title: Dictator Literature
  • US sub-title: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy
  • UK sub-title: A History of Despots Through Their Writing

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting historical survey, but a bit limited in discussion of the writing itself

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times B- 30/3/2018 Christopher Tayler
The Guardian . 25/4/2018 Will Self
New Statesman . 9/4/2018 L.Hughes-Hallett
The Spectator . 28/4/2018 Henry Jeffreys
Sunday Times . 8/4/2018 Roland White
The Telegraph B 11/4/2018 James Walton
The Times . 24/3/2018 Gerard DeGroot
The Washington Post . 14/3/2018 Ernest Hilbert

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)n offbeat history that works well as a source of pub quiz questions. (...) But the book soon runs into a problem: there are only so many amusing ways of pointing out that this or that text is either a ponderous exercise in Marxist-Leninist theory or a badly written and repetitive rightwing rant. (...) His coverage of the non-communist world is more patchy. (...) The British title is less misleading, and itís a good idea for a book, but I canít help wishing that Kalder had stuck to his Turkmenistan project, because his chapter on that country comes to life in a way that his library-bound chapters, sad to say, fail to do. " - Christopher Tayler, Financial Times

  • "I enjoyed this book a great deal -- not least because for a long text that is itself a series of summaries of many other still lengthier texts, itís actually a rather snappy read. (...) True, all writers do indeed have dictatorial inclinations -- how else can we rule effectively over our papery realms ? But as he points out, all good writing depends on accepting the inherently chancy nature of the world -- whereas all despotic governance, like all bad writing, is predicated on the exact opposite: a near-psychotic need to enforce hard-backed conformity." - Will Self, The Guardian

  • "Kalderís glancing references -- to Borges, Tertullian, Aldous Huxley -- hint at sophisticated reading. But the idiom in which he has chosen to present his findings is broadly comic. In the face of so much pomposity, so much wrong-headedness, so many broken communities and ruined cultures, so many people dead, what can you do -- he seems to be asking -- but crack some jokes ?" - Lucy Hughes-Hallett, New Statesman

  • "You might think therefore, that this book would have its longueurs, but Kalder has a gift for engagement. He is very funny, at times almost Jamesian (Clive that is) (.....) The spirit of dictator literature is now all around us: in opaque critical theory, in judging culture by political standards and the show trials of social media. After reading Dictator Literature you will never look at books with such a benevolent eye again." - Henry Jeffreys, The Spectator

  • "Faced with so much leaden prose, Kalder understandably wants to keep his own writing lively -- which can lead him to overdo the semi-comic chattiness. (...) Dictator Literature doesnít always solve the admittedly tricky problem of making an interesting book out of hundreds of punishingly dull ones -- particularly towards the end when what once seemed Kalderís impressive thoroughness begins to feel more like obsessive completism. (...) Nonetheless, as labours of mysterious love go, this one is certainly full of enough wonders, and startling individual facts, to compensate for any longueurs." - James Walton, The Telegraph

  • "In all, this is a mesmerizing study of books by despots great and small, from the familiar to the largely unknown. (...) Luckily, Kalder maintains a skeptical sense of humor throughout." - Ernest Hilbert, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In his Introduction Daniel Kalder notes that: dictators have written books "since the days of the Roman Empire", but in The Infernal Library (published in the UK as: Dictator Literature) he focuses on its contemporary manifestation, the "Krakatoa-like eruption of despotic verbiage" that came in the twentieth century (and, he notes, is still on-going). It's a bit of a shame that there isn't more from and about dictators of yore, but there's more than enough material to deal with from modern times.
       Kalder divides his book into three sections -- phases, he calls them --, with the first focusing on the quintet that form what he considers 'The Dictator's Canon': Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Mao. There's quite a variety to the amount, and kind, of output here, from the more or less one-hit wonders -- Hitler didn't publish much beyond Mein Kampf (though that was a two-installment job) -- to the ultra-prolific, like Lenin, whose Collected Works comes to 45 fat volumes in the Progress Publishers translated edition.
       With a chapter for each of the five, Kalder is good on providing quick biographical summary of each dictator and context for their writing, including the various dictators' own reading backgrounds and interests -- but there's only so much about the books they produced. Part of the problem is, of course, the sheer volume; another, that most of what they wrote was theoretical-practical (or what was meant to pass as such), not creative, and so generally dry and turgid: the occasional dabbling in drama and fiction (Mussolini) or poetry (Mao, in particular) is the exception.
       Faced with so much output, Kalder goes more for overview and career-context than actual literary analysis; the words themselves remain largely secondary (though as Kalder repeatedly notes, that's also in no small part because most of this stuff is simply close to unreadably bad in the first place). And Kalder is good at explaining how, for example, specifically Lenin used writing to advance his career and politics, wending its way to and through the Russian Revolution, the clearest example of a (would-be) dictator wielding a pen to lead him to the promised land.
       Mussolini is the one dictator Kalder credits with at least basic competency ("his writing was rarely, if ever, completely awful", something that Kalder can not say for practically any of his other examples), with the occasional piece of actually quite readable writing -- though with a fifty-four volume collected edition presumably also far too prolific. Mussolini also showed considerably greater range than the usual despot in what he wrote, and Kalder suggests that, for example, his My Diary 1915-1917 is a work of admirable introspection that "confronts experience honestly". As with Lenin, Kalder is able to follow Mussolini's changing attitudes and politics through his (much more varied) writing -- which includes examples of fiction and drama -- and Kalder even goes so far to suggest that: "history would have been much kinder to him" if he had died earlier, i.e. before he really mucked things up by partnering with Hitler. (There's quite a bit of such 'If only ...' musing in the book -- Kalder suggests Stalin is a perfect example of why: "illiteracy is not necessarily a bad thing", and how much better things might have turned out if they hadn't taught the little bugger to read ... --, most of which seems both obvious and entirely pointless to point out.)
       In the case of Hitler, the focus is almost entirely on Mein Kampf, a work Kalder finds stunningly bad: "his inadequacy reveals itself in the prose at a molecular level". The history of the reception of the work is interesting -- from party-favor curiosity to barely selling oddity to the widely translated work that every good German had to have a copy of -- as is also Kalder's summing up:

     Mein Kampf is staggeringly incompetent. Without the benefit of hindsight, why would anyone have received this literary atrocity as a warning ? This is the danger of dictator books: they hide in plain sight, and their sheer awfulness makes it impossible to believe their power to infiltrate and transform brains until it is much too late.
       Mao was another prolific dictator, but best-known for the conveniently pocket-sized compendium, the best selling piece of dictator literature ever, his 'little red book', Quotations from Chairman Mao. Kalder acknowledges: "It contains some of Mao's greatest lines" but on the (small) whole, finds it: "is strikingly flat". But at least it's short.
       Meanwhile, Mao also had something of a reputation as a poet -- something Kalder doesn't get at all ("Life is short and there are many, far better poets out there. Let us read them instead", he suggests -- a striking dismissal from a reader who was willing to wade through thousands of pages of the driest political writing). But at least Kalder does take a closer look at some of this.
       [Note that, while Mao is correctly found, under 'M', in the Index, in the bibliography his works are confusingly listed under 'Z' ("Zedong, Mao") -- all nine of them. And, for what it's worth, the poetry collection Kalder relies on is cited as: "The Poems of Mao Zedong, Harper & Row, New York, 1972", but of course that Harper & Row edition was published as "The Poems of Mao Tse-Tung"; it is only the 2010 new edition (from the University of California Press) that has updated from Wade-Giles to Pinyin.]
       Moving on to other dictators, Kalder finds that writing continues to be part of the standard modern dictator repertoire. Approaches differ: António Salazar's works: "are interesting primarily for how hard the author strives not to generate excitement", while Turkmenbashi's The Rukhnama -- a book Kalder describes as so awful that it took him three years to finish -- was the centerpiece of his personal cult and made required school reading. Old-style excess continues, especially in the Communist-influenced block -- Enver Hoxha is a prime example. [I still remember visiting wonderfully absurd The Albanian Shop, on Betterton Street, on each trip to London in the late-1980s, in the hopes of finding some Albanian literature in translation -- but it was pretty much wall-to-wall Hoxha's collected works.] There are examples of (would-be) 'creative writing, from Franco's 1942 novel, Raza -- also made into a film --, to Saddam Hussein's fantastical Zabiba and the King.
       The works of fiction might be the most intriguing, but it's hard-to-categorize works such as The Rukhnama and Muammar Gaddafi's The Green Book ("exceedingly awful, even by the supremely low standards of dictator literature") that Kalder has the most fun with. Of course, this wallow in awfulness, with only the rarest of bright spots, can make for a tough slog, and Kalder understandably seems to get worn down, too. Near-contemporary variations -- as always, the former Soviet Union remains prime territory, right down to Vladimir Putin (whose book on judo: "stressed his credentials as a vigorous yet highly disciplined man of action") -- show the genre is alive and well (after a fashion), too .....
       Kalder does make the good point that as easy as it is to ridicule much of this -- much as one does the obligatory books American presidential candidates publish in election season -- one ignores the often revealing contents at one's own peril. Hitler's Mein Kampf should have been a bit of a warning and, Kalder notes, it might have been worthwhile to: "have at least assigned a junior lackey to take a quick look at Khomeini's writings as the cleric's influence was surging in the late 1970s" -- and, for example, scholar Richard Falk "should definitely have known better" than his infamous op-ed in The New York Times suggests.
       The Infernal Library offers quite good quick biographical sketches of many dictators, especially Kalder's canonical five, and their dictatorial bent and doings, but for a book about writing it doesn't dive nearly deep enough into the texts themselves. The treatment is uneven, and while Kalder is fairly good in establishing context -- career- and politics-wise -- for some of the major works, the overall analysis is limited. Certainly, much of this writing was little more than waste-paper, its defining feature little more than its sheer verbosity -- and yet there surely is much more to be said about much of it.
       There's enough interesting history here, and enough wild examples of both dictatorial writing (at least in summary) and action to make The Infernal Library an engaging read -- but there's so much left to explore. But at least Kalder points to much of it -- and intrepid readers can find much of this awful writing quite readily online .....

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 April 2018

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The Infernal Library: Reviews: Daniel Kalder: Other books by Daniel Kalder under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Daniel Kalder was born in Scotland in 1974.

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© 2018 the complete review

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