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Politics and the Novel

A Symposium

August 13, 2000

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

like these

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.

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