On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, Book Review wondered how the literature of conscience--a literature that includes such authors as Charles Dickens and Upton Sinclair, Honore Balzac and Emile Zola, to name only a few--has blossomed (or not) in our own time. We asked a number of writers to consider the following questions:
Which novel (or novels) prompted (or deepened) your own political awakening? How old were you when you read it and what effect did it have upon you? Do you think the novel today is able to embrace or sustain a deliberately political purpose consistent with a writer's aesthetic or artistic obligations? Which two or three political novels (past or present) do you regard as exemplary, and why?
A further thought: One definition of the political novel, regardless of an author's intention, is simply the extent to which a given work so offends the powers that be that it is suppressed or censored or banned. By this reckoning, it is the state that renders the final verdict on what is "political." Book Review therefore features throughout this symposium the opening paragraphs of novels that at one time or another have made this or that government unhappy. These examples (and many more besides) are to be found in the sobering volume, "100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature" by Nicholas J. Karolides, Margaret Bald and Dawn B. Sova (Checkmark Books: 420 pp., $18.95).
Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped," which I read at the age of 11, made a profound impression: I am still waiting for Bonnie Prince Charlie to light the Scottish heather ablaze and reclaim his hereditary kingdom. To put the matter less frivolously, novels, like other forms of imaginative literature, of course made deep, various, at times contradictory impressions upon me but not for the most part those novels which proclaimed themselves as "political." Stendhal and Balzac instructed me on political matters, but because they saw politics as an important aspect of life, though not its organizing principle. Proust's subtle, intricate exploration of the impact of the Dreyfus affair upon his society is matchless but takes its place beside love, art, and erotic passion in that greatest of modern novels.
There is a short poem by Yeats called "On Being Asked For a War Poem" which every writer tempted to write a political novel should tape above the desk:
I think it better that in times
A poet's mouth should be silent,
for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right:
He has enough of meddling
who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter's night.
By one of those ironies with which History ceaselessly busies itself, he would have occasion, later that same year, to write "Easter 1916," his great if ambiguous tribute to the young men executed in Dublin for their roles in a Dublin rebellion that was fought to set statesmen right. Its final lines would be remembered by many.
I write it out in a verse --
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
He may have come to regret that his fellow countrymen had not studied the entire poem, with its shifts of feeling, its deliberate uncertainties and hesitations. That is one of art's many problems. A poem or novel is released to walk out on its own, and sometimes it walks into unexpected places, gets into mischief of its own making. Art creates its own politics, forges its own alliances.
But in any event, we do not have in this country a strong tradition of the political novel, unlike the British, who can look back to Disraeli and Trollope. We have hundreds of novels about Washington to be read on the plane, all of them seemingly written by Allen Drury. But our true tradition of great prose about politics exists for us in other forms as essays, inspired journalism, journals, memoirs, sketches. It is the tradition of Ambrose Bierce, George Washington Cable, Peter Finley Dunne, H.L. Mencken, Murray Kempton. Of Mark Twain and Henry James and Norman Mailer, writing not as novelists, but as observers of the American scene and as shapers of what they have observed. It is not fiction, but merely prose, lit by intelligence and by the fierce fires of the imagination.
Our serious works of political fiction are curiously and surprisingly few. There is "Democracy" by Henry Adams, but he was not a natural writer of fiction, and condescends to the form even as he uses it. There is Edwin O'Connor's lovely, witty and lachrymose "The Last Hurrah." At least two novels by Gore Vidal, "Burr" and the undervalued "1876." Lionel Trilling's "The Middle of the Journey" brings a subtle intelligence to bear upon what for his generation were matters of urgent political concern. Too deliberate a novel for the present generation, perhaps, but none the worse for that. John Dos Passos' "U.S.A.," all three volumes of it, is a neglected masterwork, an astonishing display of subjects and styles and of rhetorical ingenuities. Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" addresses grave and menacing political issues, confronts private and public morality and yet creates its world, a solid, human, satisfying world, rich with wit and the taste of life.
But mentioning Warren reminds me of another Southerner, William Faulkner, many of whose novels are political, if that word is stretched to its uttermost. Perhaps the list is longer than I had at first supposed.
To my list of admirable political stylists, I would add the Midwestern congressman who quit after one term and went home, explaining that: "When they are talking, they are lying; when they are not talking, they are stealing." Now there is the great and almost vanished tradition of Bierce, Twain and Mencken.
Thomas Flanagan is the author of, among other works, "The Year of the French" and "The Tenants of Time."
History, says Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. No, it is politics, the nightmare, from which we can be awakened (if we're fortunate) by an immersion in the complexities and concreteness of history.
Ultimately, the political novel is a historical novel--that is, a novel that either tells a truth about or misrepresents a piece of history, that either deepens our understanding or confirms lies and cliches.
Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is a political novel; a shallow, misleading one. Victor Serge's "The Case of Comrade Tulayev" is a political novel which obliges us to confront appalling truths.
If you start with the concept of the truth, then fiction takes its place among other kinds of instructive testimonies. Victor Serge's novel is one such document about the horrors of theBolshevik system. So are the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam and Eugenia Ginzburg, and the work of epic history-writing and history-making by Solzhenitsyn.
The novels I read in early childhood that prompted a moral awakening which informed later political sympathies and choices were, first of all, "Les Miserables" and "The Count of Monte Cristo." I was stirred into sympathy and indignation by their chronicles of poverty, of injustice. A few years later, there was Richard Wright's "Native Son," which awakened me to racism; and soon after that, at the age of 13, Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," which made me a conscious foe of capital punishment. But surely many who have read and admired Dreiser's novel did not draw that conclusion.
Novels are always an education--or miseducation--of the heart and mind. They can be a goad to conscience; or they can contribute to the numbing of the moral sense. Novels make worlds, and instruct us what the world is like. One of the reasons politics is such a cavalcade of folly is that it reposes on--and actively promotes--grotesque misunderstandings and misrepresentations of how societies actually work and who suffers and who rules.
The political novel has a bad reputation in that it is thought to signify the enslavement of the novel to a reductive purpose. But a great novel can be, often is, about history. And a great novel is never a tract.
Virtually every ambitious novel is at least implicitly political, and most are explicitly so. Novels create sympathies, arouse indignations, nourish understanding. They instruct us not to be reductive. Think of Nadine Gordimer's "Burger's Daughter" and J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace." They can be hot: think of Caryl Phillips' "Crossing the River"--or astringent: think of Joan Didion's "Democracy."
I can't separate my politics from my capacities for sympathy and for indignation. Insofar as novels affect these capacities--and they do--I am changed by the novels I read. I was changed by reading Henry James' "The Princess Casamassima." I was changed by reading Alfred Doblin's "Berlin Alexanderplatz" (and, later, by seeing Fassbinder's wonderfully long film of the novel).
Recent novels that seem exemplary to me, not least for what they tell us about the world, and about history? For starters, these three, all from the charnel-house of Central Europe: Danilo Kis' "Hourglass," Imre Kertesz's "Fateless," and Peter Nadas' "A Book of Memories."
The dead cry out. Sufferings demand to be remembered. The world deserves to be seen as a complex place. Our present has many genealogies. Novels tell us stories that illustrate these moral genealogies. We are commanded to understand, understand more concretely. We are commanded to weep.
Susan Sontag is the author of numerous works of nonfiction and fiction, including most recently her novel "In America," published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
What was the first "political" book I ever read? I'm tempted to say the Bible: it's hard to encounter the books of Kings and Chronicles, with their dynastic struggles and their piles of losers' cut-off heads, without getting a sense of the hard edges of realpolitik. I'm tempted also to say "The Wind in the Willows": it did not escape me that Toad is treated more respectfully in his dinner jacket than in his poor-washerwoman disguise. Then there were Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" and Orwell's "Animal Farm" and Dickens' "Oliver Twist," and the dark satire of Walt Kelly's Pogo comics during the McCarthy era. But what sinks into you from your early reading is not the answers: rather it's the questions. "Why do the wicked prosper?" asks the philosopher. The political novel is more likely to ask, "How do the wicked prosper?"
What do we mean by "political novel?" Surely there are two sorts: those about the Machiavellian workings of a specific time and place, like Disraeli's "Sybil" and Ward Just's Washington novels and those that examine more generally the nature of power and social hierarchy, and who leads and who perforce must follow, and who can get away with doing what, and to whom. My window into the first sort was Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon"; the second sort was introduced to me by Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World"; and Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-four" was a disturbing combination of the two. I read all of them as a teenager in the '50s, and I still bear their tooth marks. Above all, they left me with a belief that the realm of "politics" was not necessarily outside the perimeters of "art."
Margaret Atwood is the author of more than a dozen novels, including "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Alias Grace." Her new novel, "The Blind Assassin," will be published in September by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.
My father and grandfather were small-town newspaper publishers and my great grandfather had been mayor of Chicago, so I came upon politics at an early age. Politics was what my family talked about at dinner, so it was natural that I thought I knew how things worked. They worked the way my father and grandfather said they worked, and then suddenly the wider world was at hand. I believed that conscience or its lack was the foundation of the political sphere, but that knowledge came first. This is more than 40 years ago. I turned to Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s "The Crisis of the Old Order," and something in that splendid book led me to Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" and the Cowperwood novels. Dreiser's great subject was modern industrial society--"merciless," Alfred Kazin called it--and how the ambitious succeeded and the price they paid, and the shape of the wreckage they left behind. Dreiser seemed to know everything about cities, how the streets were cleaned, how the police were paid off, how the taxes were collected, how the mayor was elected--and how Frank Cowperwood came to hold streetcar franchises. Dreiser's language was as unruly and torrential as a river in flood, and the reader is swept along helter-skelter. Cowperwood is beneficiary of the system and finally destroyed by it, at the end a man "bereft of illusion" and whose heart was "long since wearied by experience." He is one of the great characters of 20th century American fiction. Hemingway and his knowledge of infantry tactics, Melville and his understanding of the rhythms of the sea; these two, with Dreiser, are master mechanics. Before you can know what the engine does, what its essence is, first you must know how it works.
Ward Just is the author of many novels, including "A Dangerous Friend."
Politics, for me, is about the art of being human, and the writer is of all creatures among the best suited to looking past ideologies and labels to what anchors (and outlasts) them. I can still remember, vividly, reading Graham Greene's "The Comedians," palpitatingly, by the light of a small candle in a tiny guest house in Bhutan in the dead of wintmer many years ago (both electricity and heating happily nonexistent). I had never encountered so stirring a call to commitment, the more moving because it came from someone who was clearly a connoisseur of doubt, and the more persuasive because it came through a narrator who delighted in needling the innocence of do-gooders. The ostensible subject of Greene's grieving outrage was the Haiti of "Papa Doc" Duvalier around 1960; but the real target of his impatience, I felt, was less the petty tyrant than a character urbane and worldy-wise enough to stand, in amusement, along the sidelines (Greene's alter ego protagonist, Brown). Political quibbles and local hooligans matter less, the novel told me, than the simple extension of a caring hand.
I wrote a letter to Greene, on the only piece of crumpled paper I could find as the candle wore down and the silence and the darkness deepened. But I would have written much more to him, a few years later, when I found "The Comedians" to be the best guide to a Haiti 30 years beyond Duvalier's rule and yet as riddled with soi-disant saviors as ever. And I would have written a book to him after his call to arms accompanied me to Managua, to Havana, to Hanoi and all the other places where one government sends in secret funds to topple a so-called dictator, another government sends in covert arms and supplies to prop up its enemy's enemy, and all the visitor sees are people in the street who want food on the table and peace and safety for their children. It is a notable feature of Greene's kind rigor that he is most pitiless on his own delusions and betrayals--he never gives himself the benefit of his eloquent (and habitual) doubt--and that he saw so far beyond all parties and agendas that he was decried by socialists and conservatives, Catholics and agnostics; even the dedication to "The Comedians"--it goes on for more than a page--shakes with such indignation on behalf of the humanity that is effaced by government slogans and academic gestures that it could be taken as a prayer.
Greene became my political hero because he took the time and trouble to see the world, in all its nuance and particularity and confoundedness, and then summoned the conviction and wholeheartedness to challenge his own positions (or lack of them), and to affirm a kind of love. The ability of novelists to stir consciences and awaken hearts to realities far from their homes seems as valuable today as ever--more so, perhaps, as more and more people attend to screens more readily than to the streets outside. For that spirit of witness and compassion--seeing the overlooked and giving them a voice--I feel a similar debt of gratitude to Rohinton Mistry, whose magisterial novel "A Fine Balance" invests the slums of Bombay with the dignity and poignancy of Hugo or Hardy, and to James Nachtwey, the fearless photographer whose reports from the parts of the globe not on the World Wide Bubble (Rwanda, Afghanistan, inner-city America), though novels only in the sense of narratives of vision, make his "Inferno" the first great testament of the 21st century.
Pico Iyer is the author of, most recently, "The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home."
One novel--novella, really--towers above all others: Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," which brought down the Soviet empire and drove a stake through the heart of communism. It was the 20th century's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Incidentally, I defy you to name a single novel by Balzac or Zola that could properly be described as part of "the literature of conscience."
Tom Wolfe is the author of a dozen books, among them such works as "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and "The Right Stuff." His two novels are "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and "A Man in Full."
A "literature of conscience" is a public literature. Morals imply society. Today, literature is private; it dissects the individual. The 19th century novel grappled with the economic, political, and moral issues of the time--in England, Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot at the head of a host of gifted women, one of whom made her hero a Communist; in France, Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, the Goncourt brothers--in fact, everywhere, writers were bent on public instruction. Even the poets wrote public poetry. Where is our modern Victor Hugo or Tennyson versifying war and peace, evolution, religious doubt, and sexual relations?
The shift away from the social itself came from a social change. As the great century of the novel ended, writers felt overwhelmed by the rise of the masses. The novel turned impassive. Arnold Bennett, Galsworthy, Huysmans, Andre Gide, the early Thomas Mann and the late Thomas Hardy did not preach, they reported; only H.G. Wells was sanguine. To them and the poets, society was the enemy, the debaser or destroyer of the individual.
The next step was to look into the soul and fill it with all the egotism, resentment, selfishness, lust, cruelty, and assorted sexual aberrations that a lively imagination could invent to record inner dismay, titillate the reader and compete within the industry. When the dregs have been fully analyzed, perhaps the gaze will once again look outward with a clear eye and see public and private in equipoise.
*Jacques Barzun is the author, most recently, of "From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present."
One begins, of course, with Balzac's "Human Comedy" and especially "Lost Illusions" in which the Abbe Herrera instructs Lucien de Rubempre on the ways to achieve and sustain power in Parisian post-Napoleonic society. This social-climber's manual brilliantly associates political power to status, ambition, deceit. I grew up during World War II, so I had a positive vision of politics as not only the art of the possible, but the art of the good--Franklin Roosevelt in the United States; Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico. But alongside, politics appeared as the locus of utmost evil: Hitler and Stalin. Balzac was for me a good seasoner between too many illusions and lost illusions.
No subject is lost on a writer of talent. Stendhal's "The Charterhouse of Parma," Malraux's "Man's Fate," Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men," Mart 3/8n Luis Guzman's "La Sombra del Caudillo" and Mario Vargas Llosa's "Conversation in the Cathedral" are all examples of a highly successful treatment of the political in fiction. Of course, in a deepersense, all novels are political because they take place in, address and define the polis, the city.
In Latin America, for a long time, the writer felt the obligation to take a political stand and speak for those who had no voice. Today, as political democracy has flourished and civil society has organized itself, the writer as spokesman is far less important. The society speaks for itself and the writer is a citizen with obligations no greater than those of the citizenry at large. He or she can, of course, have a political position, often an extremely outspoken one. But this no longer carries with it a mandate which you cannot sin against: Sartre's mandatory engagement. What we have learned is that a writer fulfills a social function bywriting--that is, by keeping alive language and imagination. When these are lost, society loses its way. Thomas Mann, Osip Mandelstam, Simone Weil: They bore witness in a tragic Europe, as did Arthur Miller in the McCarthy era. So if the writer is perfectly free to pursue his or her literary goals without political agendas, he or she is contributing to the health of the political arena by the very act of writing. But he or she must be ready to take a political stand when witch-hunting, book burning, chauvinism, xenophobia, ethnic cleansing and the shadow of tyranny menace the society and, within the society, literature.
Carlos Fuentes, Mexico's most celebrated novelist and critic, is the author of numerous novels, including "The Death of Artemio Cruz," "The Old Gringo" and "Christopher Unborn." His new novel, "The Years With Laura Diaz," will be published in late October by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
I'd answer the first of these questions by saying that I believe that all novels are political, in that all novels deal with the construction and regulation of human communities. The question therefore becomes taxonomic: What kind of politics does a particular novel exhibit? Anne Tyler, for example, though primarily a domestic observer, is "political" in that her novels are mainly supportive of and affirmative of the status quo. Furthermore, books that are not political in the way that "The Jungle" is, or "The Grapes of Wrath" is, can nevertheless be politically engaged, if they are indicative of dissent, which for me is anyway more emotionally powerful, more affecting, more politically transformative than a novel that simply exhibits a "political" milieu, a union meeting, a contested election, a fat cat milling on the convention floor.
The books that were politically important for me, therefore, were the books that indicated this broadly stated dissent--whether emotionally, intellectually, formally, aesthetically--and they were books like "The Crying of Lot 49" or "Gravity's Rainbow" by Thomas Pynchon or "Naked Lunch" by William S. Burroughs or "The Public Burning" by Robert Coover or "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison or "Native Son" by Richard Wright. These are all books that I first read in my teens and they were powerfully formative of my own political development--in that they differed from and resisted the United States of America as articulated by pollsters and tabloids and mainstream party politics. These books are not politically manifest in that they propose a conventional political alternative (Vote Green! Throw the Bums Out!), but they are political in that they disagree with the culture as it is--a rapacious culture, a narcissistic culture, an unjust culture--and this articulation of dissent, indeed, was enough for me to go on. Ellison and Pynchon and Burroughs and their ilk made me want to get a senator and grab him by the lapels and give him an earful. This is something I still would like to do.
Since I believe all novels are political, I certainly believe that it is possible for a novelist to admix deliberate political purpose and aesthetics, although there is certainly the danger, in the process, of making art that is tendentious, or allegorical, and therefore not terribly artistically interesting. A more complex question might be to ask whether there still exists a market for a literature that dissents, or whether, in some fashion, by refusing to demand better, by rushing to affirm and accept, does not erroneously (and myopically) support a political system that is no longer as effectively democratic as it once was intended to be.
There are still great contemporary novels of dissent, however, and I think of Don DeLillo's "White Noise" and "Underworld," Donald Antrim's splendidly outraged "Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World," Russell Banks' magnificent novel about race, "Continental Drift," as well as some of the recent novels and short stories that make identity politics a part of their project by writers as diverse as Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, and Grace Paley. There's a lot of work left to do in the novel, with respect to American politics. Part of the work may be to awaken, however possible, the slumbering beast of resistance.
Rick Moody is the author of several novels, including "The Ice Storm," "Garden State" and "Purple America."
In 1963, when I was 16 years old, I picked up a picket sign that vowed "Even in San Diego . . . We Shall Overcome." Although our chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality had only a few score members, I was aware that I had joined something morally enormous: the Movement. Its sustaining force was the courage of the Black South, and every Friday evening we gathered at the Jewish Community Center to listen to grim phone reports from Mississippi, where the federal government was refusing to stop a reign of terror against local activists. It was difficult for a teenager indoctrinated in the unquestioning culture of Cold War patriotism to fully absorb the civics lesson being taught by the Kennedy administration's daily betrayal of the civil rights struggle.
Fortunately, in the basement of Wahrenbocks' Bookstore in downtown San Diego, next to the segregated Bank of America branch that we picketed for an entire year, I discovered the novels and essays of James Baldwin. Even from his exile in Paris, no writer was more connected to the urgency of what some were already beginning to characterize as a "revolution." His books("Negro-Communist-homosexual propaganda") were entirely proscribed at my all-white high school, so it became a badge of honor to keep a copy of "Another Country" prominently in hand at all times. He was my favorite teacher. The current mild Baldwin revival--a Library of America volume, a critical retrospective in The New York Review of Books and so on--hardly hints at his fiery role during those Freedom Summers when his writing pulverized so much public hypocrisy about race in America. Baldwin also lighted my way to the Left.
In the same book basement, I discovered an entire moral education: Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," Andre Malraux's "Man's Fate," Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead," John Steinbeck's "In Dubious Battle," John Dos Passos' "U.S.A.," and, ultimately, Jean-Paul Sartre's "The Roads to Freedom." Like Baldwin and the civil rights movement itself, they were my portals to history. Are they any less incandescent and dangerous today?
Mike Davis is the author of several works, including "City of Quartz," "Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster" and, most recently, "Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City."
JOHN GREGORY DUNNE
"There is always something--if it takes ten years, you find it."
That is Willie Stark's chilling command to Jack Burden, in Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men," ordering Jack to dig up dirt on his mentor, the incorruptible Judge Irwin.
Willie again: "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud." Then: "And make it stick."
Jack Burden on his archeological dig into the Judge's past: "Then it was another day, and I set out to dig up the dead cat, to excavate the maggot from the cheese, to locate the canker in the rose, to find the deceased fly among the raisins in the pudding.
"I found it." Found it "buried under the sad detritus of time--For nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost. There is always the clue, the canceled check, the smear of lipstick, the footprint in the canna bed, the condom in the park path, the twitch in the old wound, the baby shoes dipped in bronze, the taint in the bloodstream."
It is easier today. What took Jack Burden months now only takes a few clicks on the computer.
I would not say that Jack Burden or Willie Stark or Robert Penn Warren forged my political awareness. But I was a boy when I read "All the King's Men" and I learned how the big boys played the game. And still do.
I detest politics. I detest politicians more than politics. And the main chancers who work for politicians more than the politicians. And most of all the op-ed and talk show grandees, that symbiotic army of the knowing with nothing to tell any of us about the state
of the nation other than gossip about the smear of lipstick, the footprint in the canna bed, the condom in the park path, the semen on the dress.
I have voted in only three of the last eight presidential elections, twice for the candidate of one party (one of those a mistake), once for the candidate of the other.
I suspect that on Nov. 7 I will pass on both the smirk and the nag.
John Gregory Dunne is the author of five novels and six works of nonfiction, the latest of which is "Monster: Living Off the Big Screen."
JOYCE CAROL OATES
The first emotionally engaging, politically illuminating novel in my adolescent reading experience of the 1950s was probably John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" (1939). (No doubt, this is true for many politically engaged writers of my generation.) In later years I would reread Steinbeck's famous novel with less enthusiasm, for its somewhat mawkish dialogue, unabashed sentimentalism, and the subordination of formal literary qualities to a Populist, "positive" theme (ordinary Americans are naturally good, "economic royalists" are the villains, Americans must rise above private interests to save the soul of the country), but at the time I was deeply moved, as I would be moved by the even more accomplished film version. In retrospect, we can see that John Dos Passos' great trilogy "U.S.A." is by far the superior work, for its technical virtuosity and writerly intelligence, but one can see why Steinbeck's Populist vision would find an immediate and enthusiastic mass audience, while Dos Passos' appeal was, and would remain, more literary.
Fifteen years later I would be invited to write an introduction to Harriette Arnow's lesser-known but equally moving novel of American proletarian experience, "The Dollmaker" (1954), a work of "Populist" fiction that seems to be continually revived, then allowed to sink into obscurity; then again revived. I recommend "The Dollmaker" as a sort of female/feminist vision of Steinbeck's subject.
How ham-fisted by contrast, and how crudely unconvincing, is Ernest Hemingway's venture into macho-Marxism, "To Have and Have Not" (1937). In Hemingway's vast oeuvre, this novel is the most painful to reread.
Certainly I think that contemporary novels, and short stories, can accommodate political visions, though as writers we're likely to be more in the mode of Dos Passos (ironic, formally inventive) than Steinbeck. There is no inevitable contradiction between the "political" and the "aesthetic." Unless you are hoping for a mass-market success and an immediate readership of the sort the young Upton Sinclair experienced with "The Jungle" (1906). The complexity, one might almost say the tragedy, of a passionate political vision in our time ideally lends itself to experimental fiction. Consider: the "political" is an expression of one's deepest moral being; yet, the "political" must be public, exteriorized, couched in language; therefore, the "political" always lends itself to being misunderstood, misinterpreted. The political writer is obliged to be ever more subtle, and his/her fictions ever more reflective of our contemporary fracturing of consciousness, to express this tragic disparity. For me, therefore, the great model of the political novel is James Joyce's "Ulysses" and not a more obvious choice like Charles Dickens' "Hard Times" or our American phenomenon Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Less accomplished stylistically, but equally engaging as a work of political tragedy, is Joseph Conrad's now little-read "Nostromo."
Most of the contemporary writers I admire, among whom are numerous friends, are in fact political writers, though they are not only political writers. We would be more comfortable defining ourselves as writers whose work is suffused with a distinct political/moral vision, ironic, even tragic, yet not nihilistic.
Joyce Carol Oates is the author of many works of criticism and fiction, including, most recently, "Blonde."
The first novel that spoke to me politically, although I was so politically naive when I first read it in high school that I mistook it for an overly long historical romance, was Tolstoy's "War and Peace." When I reread it many years later, it was apparent that Tolstoy, like all great novelists possessing political wisdom and a sense of where the world is going, had communicated to us through his characters and scenes the circumstances that would eventually lead Russia into communism.
Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" gave me a political portrait of the capital city of South Vietnam that I never got from reading anything else during the war years; and, like Greene, Hemingway in his fiction could out-report factual reporting . . . as he did with regard to the Austrian front in "A Farewell to Arms."
As for political writing that is more focused on the deal-making interior lives of the usual suspects we are forced to vote for if we wish to participate in the so-called political process, then Gore Vidal's many works--and the late Allen Drury's "Advise and Consent" for example--get the job done very well . . . although never to be ignored as a novelist who understood politics was John O'Hara. "Ten North Frederick" shows us how genial and repulsive our public servants can be as they talk out of both sides of their mouths, saying nothing. Oh, don't get me started . . . .
Gay Talese is the author of, among other books, "Fame and Obscurity," "The Kingdom and the Power" and "Honor Thy Father."
Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Theodore Dreiser and Henry James were the great American writers of the 20th century, but John Dos Passos' "U.S.A." may be the single greatest novel any of us have written in this country in these last 100 years. It had the largest influence on me of any novel I read while in college. Today, despite all the very good and near-major work being done by a number of American writers, the single large book that mirrors the way we live now remains to be written. We have yet to equal Dos Passos' achievement for his time.
Norman Mailer is the author of, among other works, "The Naked and the Dead," "An American Dream," "The Executioner's Song," and "Harlot's Ghost."
The novels that played the greatest part in my political education are Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" and John Dos Passos' "U.S.A." I read them both as a teenager, and I think they stayed with me because they both take the political--the conflict over what a society is for, and whom it is for--as a full and unstable dimension of life. They're both about corruption ("Everybody's got a secret," Willie Stark, Warren's Huey Long, says as he orders the blackmailing of an enemy, and everybody does have a secret--or, if they don't, they aren't worth a damn); they're both about changing the world. Warren's book is full of flesh-and-blood characters, operators, hangers-on, people you could be if you took a wrong turn, or the right one. Even if you've never seen the movie, I think you see a movie as you read. Dos Passos' 1,200-page epic is full of flesh-and-blood history, an everything-up-for-grabs story of the unreported American war between plutocrats and social revolutionaries. One writer took the American political system as a given, the other bet that it was still to be discovered, and both books left me nearly desperate for politics in my own time that would live up to their drama. Since I read these books in the early '60s, the times paid off in spades.
The only writer working this terrain today is Philip Roth. Up against "American Pastoral" (1997), "I Married a Communist" (1998--along with "The Great American Novel" , Roth's best book, probably no accident that both take up the Red Scare), and this year's "The Human Stain," everyone else of reputation--John Updike, Saul Bellow, Francine Prose, Jane Smiley--is writing tracts or comic books.
Roth has his hates and his nostalgia. He also has a sense of the nation as both suffocating under its own weight and unfixed, at once tired and cynical, young and incapable of learning--which is what "American innocence" really means. Most important, he can lose himself in his characters. Then he disappears from his own novels, and men and women act, think, lie, and say what they mean as citizens--citizens whether they like it or not. Or whether you, as a reader, like it or not, because it's as a citizen, maybe as newly made a citizen as anyone coming out of the federal courthouse, that you read these books.
The novel our time has written, and that now waits for its author, the book I want to read, anyway, is the Bill Clinton novel--the Bill Clinton novel that will go on the shelf next to "All the King's Men," if not Ishmael Reed's "Mumbo Jumbo." Unless Clinton writes it himself, that will take a while. We may all have to die first. Someone may have to discover the story after it's been all but forgotten.
Greil Marcus is the author of several books, including "Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll." His new book, "Double Trouble--Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Time of No Alternatives," will be published in September by Henry Holt.
I have always been fascinated by politics, but I do not believe I ever had a political awakening. Nadine Gordimer said somewhere that one must write as if one were already dead. To me, she might have usefully substituted the verb "think."
Small wonder then that, as a child, I was drawn more to history than to fiction. No one who truly believes in history--in its serene indifference to human wishes and human efforts and its ruthless cyclicality--can ever truly believe in politics. The deep biological selfishness that makes us cling to the belief that our own time is different is indefensible historically, however unavoidable it may be humanly.
In any case, what for me was the chilling discovery in childhood of the geological record made all politics seem like a vain exercise. Perhaps that is why the great overtly political novels of the 20th century that I read when I was young--Jaroslav Hasek's "The Good Soldier Svejk," Malraux's "Man's Fate," Victor Serge's "The Case of Comrade Tulayev," Koestler's "Darkness at Noon"--excited in me then and continue to provoke in me now admiration but not transformation.
Put it down to a saturnine temperament, but I needed no work of fiction to instruct me that the strong and the rich get their way and the weak and the poor get . . . what the weak and the poor get. Even for those with a different cast of mind, surely reading a good newspaper is enough to drum home that lesson. We need fiction, all right, but do we really need it for that?
My own sense is that the tropism of the best contemporary American political novels toward gigantism and paranoia suggests that we do not. At the same time, the novel as daring exploration of ethical dilemmas in the context of historical time--the novel as understood by Proust and Tolstoy--has been abandoned in favor of the confessional and the conspiratorial. But it is precisely this neglected form that we need to rediscover.
Where is the novelist who follows in Proust's footsteps and imagines a contemporary Charlus staring unblinkingly at the end of his own world? And where is the modern-day Pierre Bezukhov? There is ethical anguish today just as there was in Tolstoy's time. These are the questions that the novel can explore in ways that no other artistic medium can approach. This is anartistic awakening that would be worth having.
David Rieff is author of "Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World" and "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the West."
My parents used to spend an evening playing gin rummy at the house of a lawyer friend. I was taken along and told to amuse myself in his study. A bookish little pig in clover, I sampled everything on his shelves, and when I was about 13 came upon not only D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" but also Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." I borrowed the latter to take home--after dipping into the former, I realized a request for that one would not be granted. So I read "The Jungle," and I understood what is surely the first lesson in political awareness.
I began to see that certain "natural" human circumstances around me were in fact not immutable as the sun rising and setting but were the result of human actions and attitudes: what people did to one another, what laws and customs create haves and have-nots. I could relate the lives, the human lot of the Chicago meat workers to those of the black migratory mine workers whom I was accustomed to see cross the veld near our house between their segregated compound and the mine concession stores. This was a revelation of their existence as something that was not ordained, a state of nature between white and black, but--the novelist opened my eyes to it: something wrong. Injustice: Sinclair's story taught me what that meant. It was the beginning of an autodidactic course in political awareness, brought to me through the relation between the "literature of conscience" and my experience of the life around me, within me, as a white in a racist country.
Is the contemporary novel able to "embrace or sustain a deliberately political purpose?" I would disclaim the relevance of "deliberately"; it is the agitprop writer whose purpose it is to write strictly from the premise of a political purpose. To be a propagandist is not dishonorable in a just cause but to be a propagandist is not to be a novelist. As I see it, and as I think is evidenced in my novels, the politics are implicit in the characters: in theirpersonal individuality they act and live within the context, the praxis of politics, economic and social, both created by and imposed upon them. There is no such thing as a novel, even a fantasy, without political significance; all characters are of their time and place. To write what one can dredge up of truth about them is the writer's aesthetic obligation, to catch the supersonic waves of their existence, no less real because not discernible on the wave-length of "deliberacy."
Contemporary writers who follow this: I think of Albert Camus, Gunter Grass, John Berger, Carlos Fuentes, Chinua Achebe, Primo Levi, Sembene Ousmane . . . to name only a few. I can't see any reason other than complacency and lack of talent that would prevent a 21st century writer from writing fiction that is both aesthetically adventurous and politically powerful.
Nadine Gordimer is the author of many books, including the novels "Burger's Daughter" and "The House Gun." In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE
Politics and aesthetics make for a dicey mix. The political novel often fails because the author begins with an inflexible point of view and creates a story in order to illustrate it. By the same token, novels of social engagement often become melodramatic and predictable because the writer is trying too hard to tot up the score in the epic struggle between exaggerated villains and downtrodden heroes. In "The Tortilla Curtain," which many feel is my most "political" novel, I fervently hope (and believe) I was able to sidestep these pitfalls because it was the aesthetic impulse that inspired me--that is, I did not begin with a political or social platform but rather let the story guide me in exploring both sides of the all-but-molten issue of illegal immigration in Southern California. And I took plenty of heat from all shadings of the political spectrum for my audacity, oh, yes, indeed. Each faction will read or misread a given work according to its lights, and all the author can do is follow his story to the point at which he discovers something he doesn't already know.
I'm not sure why this should be, but some of the most successful recent books of social engagement often come from abroad. I think of J.M. Coetzee's stirring anti-apartheid novels, "Waiting for the Barbarians" and "Life and Times of Michael K," both story-driven and both set in an unfamiliar landscape that seems to materialize out of a dream--or a nightmare--of his country of origin, South Africa. Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," in contrast, is very specific as to setting, but the political point emerges from the trials of the protagonist and the deprivation he suffers, with only a mention of the regime that exiled him to a Siberian labor camp. It is the force of the fiction that brings the injustice to the fore, rather than the other way round. To my mind, though, perhaps the most powerful piece of protest writing in our time comes from an American playwright, Arthur Miller. I can never see a production of "The Crucible" without soaring on the genius of his conception. Here, on the face of it, is a wrenching drama about accusations of witchcraft in Puritan Massachusetts, and yet it was written and produced in 1953, in the midst of the contemporary witch hunt that was the McCarthy hearings. Intolerance, prejudice and the heavy boot of authority are obscene in any age, and Miller's genius was not so much in creating an allegory as a daring and inescapable parallel. He knew what I know: Let the story speak for itself.
T. Coraghessan Boyle is the author of numerous novels, the most recent of which--"A Friend of the Earth"--will be published in September by The Viking Press.
Is this symposium a symptom of the perennial itch to control literature: "Ivory Tower vs. Commitment"?
My generation knows where a demand for "political" novels may lead, but since it seems history is no longer taught, people may have forgotten that for decades in the Soviet Union and its satellites, stereotyped, boring--dead--novels were written and published, a dreadful warning--and literature there has not recovered yet.
Few novels written to a formula have any life. That is because real novels are written from the solar plexus.
Orwell's "Animal Farm," the best and most influential political novel of our time, was written out of bitter personal experience. (It is read up and down Africa now: Are we surprised?)
Readers often confuse a novel that describes politics with one that pushes a message. Both are called committed. My "Ripple From the Storm" is a case in point.
Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" was written from burning experience. So was Toni Morrison's "Beloved." Neither needed a debate about the virtues of political writing.
"The Making of an Activist" and "Black Pain" (invented titles) written from the same part of the brain that makes a pamphlet die on the nest.
As for what novels prompted my own political awakening: as a child I read Dickens and had only to look around me (the old Southern Rhodesia) to see what he described. But do we call him political? His "message" was that injustice is wrong. Our time has the honor of narrowing what were broad and generous and complex definitions; "political" writing meant, for decades, communist writing. We have still to recover from that habit of mind: political correctness is its heir.
Doris Lessing is the author of numerous books, including "The Golden Notebook" and the just-published "Ben, in the World."
When I was aged 15, prompted by a review, I asked my parents to buy a novel for me. It was, I guess, the first adult, intelligent novel I read; "The Twenty-fifth Hour" by C. Virgil Giorghiu, a Romanian author. A deeply humane and tragic story about two people, one a peasant, one an intellectual, whose lives are destroyed by totalitarian forces--first fascism, then communism--it affected me profoundly. At that tender age I had not suspected that literature could carry a significance for mankind beyond the pleasure of "a good story."
Giorghiu's vision was a worthy precursor of a still more powerful novel which influenced me aesthetically as well as politically: Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago"; followed, of course, by the novels of Solzhenitsyn. The title of the Romanian novel is striking and unforgettable; humanity was not at one minute to midnight, the author suggested, but beyond hope, at the 25th hour. My precious copy was loaned, and lost, a few years ago. I have never heard of the author since I read his book in 1950. But I remember its grave and humanist tone. He quoted at one point T.S. Eliot, which surprised me. "Political" novels can succeed only if they putuniversal values first, not ideology. Indeed, they even have to oppose ideology, showing the inadequacy and puerility of exalting a political dogma above the eternal values of justice, freedom and love.
D.M. Thomas is the author of several novels, including "The White Hotel." He is also the author of "Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life."
The novels that first stirred my political feelings were those of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. I discovered both authors in my grandfather's house in 1950, when I was 14 years old. My grandfather had an entire set of Dickens, and I read several volumes in the summer months--more in the next two years. "David Copperfield" and "Hard Times" were the ones that mattered most to me, provoking complicated adolescent anger at the arrogance of power.
When I discovered Twain, it was Huck Finn, of course, who captured my imagination and awakened energies and longings that were jubilantly insurrectionary. Huck, for me, legitimized irreverence and denunciation in the face of sheer stupidity and evil that the grown-up world accepted without protest.
Of all the novelists I later read as an adult, only Graham Greene and William Faulkner had as strong an effect as Twain and Dickens had on my political beliefs. Faulkner frequently disclaimed deliberate political agendas; but "The Sound and the Fury" somehow stirred explosive feelings in me about race and power and resistance that prepared me for the racial revolution of the 1960s and provoked in me the will to be a part of it.
Greene's "The Power and the Glory" had an insurrectionary consequence for me as well. Curiously, this book--the least explicitly political of Graham Greene's important novels--seemed more provocative to me, politically and morally, than any of his more coherently, intendedly "subversive" works.
Deliberately political books have seldom deepened my political beliefs. (Orwell's "Animal Farm," to take an obvious example, has always struck me as a fictional contrivance rather than a work of literary greatness with the power to transform the reader's soul.) It is the morally charged but ideologically "nondeliberate" masterpieces--to those I've mentioned here, I would add "Crime and Punishment" and several other works of Dostoevsky--that have been transformative for me. "Beauty is subversive," says Natalie Merchant, the politically courageous singer and songwriter who remains so popular among the students that I meet on college campuses these days. Auden took the opposite position when he wrote that poetry "makes nothing happen"--"it survives," he said, only "in the valley of its saying." It's a clever line of verse but it is certainly not true in my experience. Whether in fiction, poetry, or music, I have found in morally charged art the quiet seeds of insurrection.
Jonathan Kozol received the National Book Award for "Death at an Early Age." His latest book is "Ordinary Resurrections," published by Crown.
At the age of about 14, I opened a copy of Richard Llewellyn's "How Green Was My Valley" and by the time I was 16 had read it perhaps six times. Even at this remove, I can remember the effect it had of compelling my awareness of a culture--Welsh-speaking and living by the work of its hands--which might have existed on another planet instead of a few hundred miles away. Looking at it again recently, I found it mawkish in parts but still potent (and still containing a lyrical description of a boy's loss of virginity). It was, anyway, a bridge to "grown-up" reading and, once across that bridge, I fell upon Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon." Again, subsequent learning has qualified Koestler's theory of Stalinism but the debates between the prisoner Rubashov and his interrogator Gletkin were not displaced in my mind, for sheer force, until I encountered Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor. Meanwhile, though, I was much prejudiced in favor of George Orwell as a novelist by reading "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" and realizing that someone before me had grappled with my own family's values. Emerging from Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," I felt I'd grasped something theoretically important about the relationship between war and sex.
Now out of my teens, I find the most politically engaging novels to be (unless they are by Gore Vidal) those that don't treat the subject explicitly. The mistress here is George Eliot, whose arresting insights into public affairs and the will to power are offered on the edge of limpidly personal and reflective prose. Vladimir Nabokov's "Bend Sinister" deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. The essential element doesn't alter; one must strive to be as radical and pitiless as life itself.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation. His new book, "Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere," will be published by Verso in November.
After a procedure on my memory like an archeological dig, I think that I experienced a political epiphany when I read Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain."
Between my 6th and 12th birthdays, I had first-hand experience of totalitarian rule, both Nazi and Soviet. Why what I had seen happened, why human beings dehumanize, enslave and murder other human beings in the name of an ideology, were questions that tormented me then just as they torment me now. This is the context in which I read Mann's novel, during the autumn of '48, around the time of my 15th birthday, and made the acquaintance of his superb personages, Settembrini, the well-meaning, overly enthusiastic homo humanus, and Naphta, a converted Jew who became a Jesuit, whose vision is relentlessly pessimistic. They represent fundamental opposing forces of history: in Settembrini's terms, the European principle (belief in progress, respect for law, freedom, knowledge, ferment) as opposed to the Asiatic (rule based on might, tyranny, superstition, obduracy, resistance to change). The backdrop for their debate is the approaching hecatomb of World War I. Who was right? Did I really believe with Settembrini in the fraternity of all men of good will as soldiers in the fight for freedom, and in the inevitable triumph of bourgeois democracy? Or could it be, as Naphta held, that the degradation of man coincided with the rise of bourgeois democracy and excesses of freedom?
At 15, I was easily swept away by grand generalities. Settembrini's and Naphta's seemed to lead to answers to my own questions. Instinctively, I sympathized with Naphta, won over by his cleverness and lack of sentimentality. And so it remained for many years.
I am convinced that it is possible today, as it was in the past, for a great writer to write a great novel with a deliberately political purpose, but the purpose has to inhere in the subject matter. That is why the politically explosive novels of the last 50 years (my expansive "today") that are real works of literature have been the creations of dissident writers whose writing defies and threatens repressive regimes by the mere fact of its existence or writers giving novelistic expression to the traumas of a society under extraordinary political and moral stress. The examples I have in mind are Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," Milan Kundera's "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" and J.M Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians" or, for that matter, "Disgrace." I cannot think of a novel with a political message attached to it "for the good of the cause" that is not a failure.
Louis Begley is the author of several novels, including "Wartime Lies" and "Mistler's Exit." His new novel, "Schmidt Delivered," will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in late October.
"Politics" implies different things in the United States and in Europe. I left America at the age of 7, before I read novels, but Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," about working men in the stockyards of my native city, Chicago, was among the clutch of unideological"'left-wing" novels on which I fed, with appalled nostalgia, while at school in somewhat meatless 1940s England. The fact that Sinclair Lewis was nicknamed "Red" (actually on account of his complexion) misled me into thinking that "Main Street" and "Babbitt" were manifestos for a new social order rather than marvelously mimicked portraits of middle America (of a piece,perhaps, with Edward Hopper's paintings). My early novels, "The Earlsdon Way" and "The Limits of Love," are obvious tributes to "Red" Lewis. I read all of his stuff in mymid-teens, imagining that his accurate, often affectionate description of middle-class attitudes was a manifesto for revolutionary change.
Postwar Europe influenced me as I grew up, not least Sartre's notion of the writer as engage, socio-politically committed. The French always seem more adult than the rest of us; hence my most recent "political" novel, "A Double Life," is set in France. Sartre's unfinished tetralogy "The Roads to Freedom" dealt boldly with sex (it had pubic hair even, and a homosexual "hero"). Sartre borrowed insolently from both John Dos Passos (in the cinematic intercutting in "The Reprieve") and from Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls": Sartre's hero discovers "freedom" when firing a machine gun at the Germans from a church tower during the Resistance. Though he knows he will probably be killed, he is as happy as Francis Macomber. Sartre himself had no such brave experience. Novelists are liars by trade, but--sometimes--what liars!
There was something fascinating about the Communist Party, although I was never disposed to join it, not least because of Arthur Koestler's unsurpassed "Darkness at Noon" and also because of Orwell's "Animal Farm" and "Nineteen Eighty-four" (his "Homage to Catalonia," though not a novel, was memorably ancillary to them). Koestler's "Gladiators" and Howard Fast's "Spartacus" were a nicely spiced contrast to the dusty ancient history I was learning at school. As for "reactionaries," when I first read Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory," I was all for the Lieutenant when he argued against Greene's hero, the whisky-priest. Was I somewhat vindicated when, years later, Greene declared that he would prefer to live in the Soviet Union than in the United States?
I never adhered to a program or a party. It seemed indecent, however, not to be on the side of "the workers" and "progress." Hence the thrill of reading the words of Andre Malraux's "Man's Fate": "The general strike was beginning." What good a general strike ever did, or could do, was another question. Malraux's reportorial authority was commanding, although it later proved that he was not in Shanghai at the time. No more did Hemingway, another left-pushing influence, attend the execution of the Greek politicians so graphically, and gloatingly (enviously?), described in "In Our Time."
Howard Spring's now forgotten "Fame Is the Spur" impressed me, in my 20s. It is an account of the succulent seductions which still turn "left-wing" English politicos into reactionary social climbers. "Tommy loves a Lord," said Byron of the poet Tom Moore. Today Tommy becomes a lord, by being rich enough to contribute to party funds.
There seemed always to be something very grown-up about political extremism; seriousness about what Auden once called "the necessary murder." It took a little too long for me to conclude, somewhat regretfully, that there was cruelty, fraud and criminality at the heart of heartless "revolutionary" ideas. Victor Serge's "The Case of Comrade Tulayev" remains as chillingly hilarious an antidote to the red illusion as any you can find.
Is it fruitful to speculate about the political utility of novels in the present? The main enemy of freedom in the literary arts today belongs to the machinery of their propagation. Publishers who demand "abstracts" and "'specimen chapters" are a more malign influence than "'commitment" or lack of it. What matters, and has always mattered, is to write like an honest man or woman, not as the function or functionary of a political or advance-paying Juggernaut. I remain somewhat loyal to the spirit of what I took, however naively, to be "Red" Lewis' campaign against the corporate sponsors of the obvious and the chorally incline proponents of political correctness. A lonely allegiance.
Frederic Raphael is a screenwriter ("Eyes Wide Shut") and novelist whose most recent book is "A Double Life."
I abhor novels that commit themselves to the service of some political purpose. The novel should "discover what only the novel can discover" (Hermann Broch), and not clothe in novelistic images "truths" that are already known and that were cooked up in other people's kitchens. I have no liking for what Sartre called la litterature engagee. The concept did French literature a good deal of harm in its time. That was when Albert Camus, the author of the enthralling "The Stranger," wrote "The Plague," a lesson in politics and morals disguised as a novel. I don't mean to say that the great novelists never spoke of political events in their works, but that they did so in their own fashion--ridding them of ideological interpretation, demonstrating their devilish complexity, exploring their existential essence. This is how politics is discussed in the novels of Stendhal, and Flaubert, and Broch, and Musil, or Rushdie.
Milan Kundera is the author of such novels as "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," "Immortality," "Slowness" and "Identity." His commentary was translated from the French by Linda Asher.
FRANCINE DU PLESSIX GRAY
It was a first reading of Camus' "The Plague"--I was 16--which made me aware of the inviolable obligations that bind all humans to one another; which led me to believe that we must ever balance our quest for individual happiness with a commitment to the common good; which made me realize that the microbe of evil is ever present among us, like the germ that brings the plague and lies dormant for decades and centuries, "waiting patiently in rooms, cellars, suitcases." It was Camus' sublimely impersonal novel which imparted concerns central to the political process: the notion that the only way of being fully human--what Camus' protagonist, Dr. Rieux, meant by the phrase "being a man"--is to fight evil through a quotidian dedication to the welfare of others; the notion that we must never lose faith in the redemptive (and deeply political) force of human tenderness.
I very much doubt whether a novel that plumbs such fundamental issues could be written with equal grandeur in the United States today. I'll cite only one of the numerous reasons for my pessimism: the vogue of the MFA degree