The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy

Image of The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy
Release Date: 
March 5, 2018
Henry Holt and Co.
Reviewed by: 

“The Infernal Library is truly an imaginative way of looking at history—and it’s by far better written than the words of the leaders Kalder focuses on.”

This is a magnificently original book. An unexplored theme, masterfully and entertainingly told. As you read it you are sure to be impressed by the depth and breadth of the author’s research, his eloquence, his pithy remarks, and his humor. It took him many years to write. 

The Infernal Library surveys the writings of the big dictators of the 20th century from Stalin to Hitler, from Mao to Gaddafi, nearly 30 in all. Each has been minutely researched. In the case of the chapter on Mao it is a tour de force.

“Since the days of the Roman Empire,” Kalder writes, “dictators have written books, but in the twentieth century there was a Krakatoa-like eruption of despotic verbiage, which continues flowing to this day.” The bestselling book of all time is Quotations from Chairman Mao tse-Tung.

It’s a strange thing but true that many dictators began their working lives as writers “which probably goes a long way towards explaining their megalomaniac conviction in the awesome significance of their own thoughts.”

Lenin was the father of 20th century dictator literature. He relied on the inspiration of Marx. Sitting in the comfort of his mother’s big house he translated The Communist Manifesto. Marx was then not well known; in 1883 only 11 people turned up at his funeral. Contrary to Lenin and Stalin’s books and articles, Marx and Engels (his co-writer) had written a mesmerizing piece of work. In contrast Das Capital was dense and over theoretical.

When he was exiled to Siberia by the Tsar Lenin read vociferously and wrote a 500-page book. The prose was tedious. The book failed to sell well.

Freed, he went to live in Switzerland where he wrote the highly influential book, What Is to Be Done? It made his reputation. His many barbs are directed not against capitalism or the Tsar but against other Marxists. His style is belligerent and intolerant. Moreover it’s elitist, arguing that the proletariat could not evolve into a revolutionary force by itself. Workers should submit to the guidance of ideologically pure radical intellectuals. (To be fair, Marx had been vague about the revolution.) Stalin, living in Georgia, read it and was inspired.

Lenin kept on writing for the rest of his life. Even once in power he thought that writers could alter reality.

Stalin, who inherited the crown, was also a prolific writer, even though he was the son of an illiterate, drunken father. He was attracted to Christianity, and his mother sent him to the seminary where he learned to read and write poetry. (“Teaching him to read,” writes the author “was clearly an error of world-historical proportions.”) He had a sophisticated taste in books and did well in the seminary. His poems soon began to be published and are rated by scholars as good.

Stalin also read Marx and Lenin. He lost his religious faith and started to contribute articles to a Marxist newspaper. He was a popularizer, avoiding jargon. He appeared to be a compassionate man, loving all oppressed people. He had empathy. In contrast Lenin, ensconced on his mother’s estate, turned his back on starving peasants, Stalin had not yet discovered his capacity for wickedness. “Unlike Lenin, Stalin had to practice before becoming a monster.”

Stalin was not a great thinker. After the Revolution he cranked out insubstantial articles for Pravda. Later, after Stalin’s death, he did write an important, accessible work, The Foundations of Leninism. He found time, even in the midst of war, to keep on writing. He downplayed Lenin’s expectation of a swift transition to a “super revolutionary” period. Stalin was also a man of culture who loved classical music and the theatre. (Read Julian Barnes’s novel, The Noise of Time, reviewed at NYJB, which describes the intimate relationship between Shostakovich and Stalin.

Hitler was also cultured. He was a friend of Wagner’s widow and went to the theater often. He liked Mendelsson, even though the composer was Jewish. Although he was turned down by the art school in Vienna his paintings are not as bad as some people say. He spent his time in prison reading books, even by Jewish writers. In Bavaria he began to move in literary circles. But when it came to writing Mein Kampf he over-wrote, and badly, too. His grammar was poor. He tried to pretend he was a great thinker. He wasn’t. He had trouble finding a publisher and it didn’t sell well. Even he admitted it wasn’t a good book. “Homeric in its crudity, in its liberating simplicity, it transcends epochs and borders, attaining a perverse immortality by its sheer, unrelenting evil,” writes Kalder. But he found he was a great orator and gave up writing.

Mao, who killed many more people than did Hitler or Stalin, was truly an intellectual, as Henry Kissinger who talked with him many times, has said. Before he got involved in politics he worked as a librarian.

In 1927 Mao wrote a semi-gripping book Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan. Then followed a quite good book, A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire. Unlike Lenin and Stalin he saw the peasantry as the force that would push forward a revolution. Later Mao would succumb to the labored prose of Marxist theory. His Cultural Revolution decimated all forms of artistic endeavor across China. Instead one billion copies of Quotations from Chairman Mao were circulated.

Next in this marvelous book Kalder writes about Mussolini, Franco, Salazar, Amin, Kemal, Nasser, Gaddafi, Ceausescu, Kim Il-sung, Hoxha, Brezhnev, Khomeini, Andropov, Castro (maximum verbiage: six-hour speeches!), and Saddam Hussein. All of them were prose writers, some poets, and all convinced themselves that however busy they were with running a country they had to take time off to compose words. 

The Infernal Library is truly an imaginative way of looking at history—and it’s by far better written than the words of the leaders Kalder focuses on. But it’s no wonder that it took years to write.