"Journalism is today's news, art is tomorrow's." Cocteau's remark offers one guideline for separating the political novel that merely exploits current headlines (Joe Klein's "Primary Colors" et cetera) from the novel that finds a creative point of departure in headlines from whatever period or country. Henry James provides another. What Balzac did in his "Human Comedy," James wrote, was "to read the universe into the France of his time." Proust, of course, did the same thing for the France of his time, as did Robert Musil in "The Man Without Qualities" for pre-World War I Vienna.
Reading Conrad, Greene and Ambler, it seems to me now, was an initiation into political realities, summed up in one of Ambler's sharp asides that political prestige has become "the decoration conferred on mediocrity by ignorance." I found the same subtext in different texts that I read later: not only Balzac, Proust and Musil but Flaubert with his ironic yet passionate account of a young man coming of age at a time of political turmoil in "Sentimental Education" and Kafka with his eerie comedy of an individual grappling with mysterious, faceless authority in "The Castle."
Kafka's subtly invasive bureaucrats, in fact, are far more terrifying than Orwell's Big Brother in "Nineteen Eighty-four." It's the difference between the journalist who announces his agenda and the artist whose characters are woven like tapestry figures into a historical-political-cultural fabric. Of which the most recent example that occurs to me is Bret Easton Ellis with "Glamorama," whose terrorists are as "unsuspected and deadly" as Conrad's professor and who play out new versions of old European games at the end of the American century.
Gavin Lambert is the author of several works of fiction, including the novel "The Slide Area," and nonfiction, including, most recently, "Mainly About Lindsay Anderson" and "On Cukor."
I came across the work of the Nobel Prize-winner Mikhail Sholokhov (1905-1984) in the mid-1960s, when I was 14 or 15, and hurried to read everything I could find in English. I suppose I wanted a myth to replace the jettisoned Catholicism, and this Soviet writer seemed to supply it. Even then, it was easy to see that novels like "Virgin Soil Upturned" were propagandist and inferior as literature to "And Quiet Flows the Don," his epic story of Cossack families during the Russian Civil War. This is a highly ambitious and ambivalent work, written by a Communist but with an anti-communist hero. Because Sholokhov continued to publish under Stalin, many of his contemporaries hated him and accused him of plagiarism. As I now understand it, the charges don't stick. I read the book again last year in a newer edition (J.M. Dent, 1996) and decided first thoughts were right: It's one of the great novels of the 20th century.
Few novelists would now dare to try to create a picture of a whole complex, warring society, as Sholokhov did; but he was a master of portraying ideas in action. There's limited scope, if you want to keep your reader, for the discussion of ideas on the page; my worry is that as novels become more like screenplays, ideas have to be more concealed and perhaps more facile. On the other hand, the novel is supreme at showing how individuals negotiate power between themselves and at suggesting the psychological hinterland which lies behind an individual's political choices. You have to try hard not to degenerate into higher gossip and cheap psychologizing; politicking is easier to depict than political ideas, and pragmatists in smoky back rooms are easier to depict than idealists. What do you do, as a novelist, if you suspect that your politics are different from those of your likely readers? You aim to start your story in a way that makes them at least wipe their prejudices; if you can get them behind your team for the duration of the story, it's a triumph.
The historical-political novelist has a clear advantage. Historical novels have their own problems of credibility but can't be belittled as mere journalism with dialogue or ephemeral satire. I think of V.S. Naipaul, with his informed historical sensibility, as the major political novelist of our era. As examples of how to tackle contemporary political themes, I'd choose Timothy Mo's "The Redundancy of Courage," a novel about East Timor, and David Caute's excellent "Fatima's Scarf." Caute's novel is about Islam in the West and offers a fictionalized take on the Rushdie row. Despite his pedigree as a novelist and academic, Caute had to self-publish (Totterdown Books): an illustration of publishers' cowardice in the face of a really effective political novel.
Hilary Mantel is the author of eight novels, including "The Giant, O'Brien" and "An Experiment in Love."