Life & Culture

Clumsy blast through literary history

Alun David is underwhelmed by a book about literary thinkers


Engineers of Human Souls: Four Writers who Changed Twentieth-Century Minds

By Simon Ings

The Bridge Street Press£25.00

Reviewed by Alun David

Simon Ings is a former culture editor of New Scientist. His published writings are unusually diverse, including science- fiction novels and non-fiction books on economics, augmented reality and the history of Soviet science.

In Engineers of Human Souls, he takes on literary history. The book offers biographical portraits of four writers who became deeply involved in 20th-century politics: Auguste-Maurice Barrès (French right-wing nationalist), Gabriele D’Annunzio (Italian proto-fascist), Maxim Gorky (Soviet defender of Stalin), and Ding Ling (Chinese adherent of Mao Tse Tung).

Although Barrès and D’Annunzio interacted with each other, these four lives were quite separate. They were also all crammed full of incident. The book sets itself the daunting task of covering a massive roster of actors and events in vastly different cultural and political contexts. How does Ings get on?

His approach is to blast through his material, narrating one thing after another. There are occasional digressions to fill in context, including a useful chapter on Mussolini and syndicalism, but overall, there is little pause for breath or explanation. If you’re not sure what revanchism is or where to find Fiume on the map, there’s always the internet.

The frenetic pace is matched by a slapdash approach to style and a striking impatience with the niceties of citation. Although Ings appears to think that literary style is important, his prose is typically larded with clichés, hackneyed expressions, and outlandish metaphors. Early on, he suggests that “the democratic idea… doubles as bubble-bath for intellectuals”. Readers must decide for themselves exactly how to parse that, or if it is worth the effort.

Still, it might yet have made for a stimulating read, if it weren’t for the poverty of analysis. For Jewish readers, the problem is particularly acute as it is manifested in his all-too-brief remarks on Barrès’s antisemitism. Ings does good service in reminding us how early 20th-century French nationalism was bound up with the outpouring of antisemitism released in the Dreyfus affair, but that’s all we get.

He states that Barrès’s animosity towards Jews was based on politics rather than religion or racial pseudo-science, but quite what that means on its own terms or for the history of French nationalism remains mysterious.

Engineers of Human Souls is a wild and ultimately unsatisfactory ride. There are nuggets of useful ore in there, but you’ll have to do a lot of wading to find them.

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