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Franz Kafka: A realist after all 

"The Thirties and Forties spawned arguably the greatest era of political fiction and playwriting we have known: Feuchtwanger, Heinrich Mann, Brecht, Malraux, Koestler, Orwell, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, James T. Farrell, Steinbeck, Sartre and Camus were all at work."

David Caute is astute enough to have slipped the word "arguably" into that sentence in his introduction to Politics and the Novel During the Cold War because, I would suggest, politics has always piggybacked on works of fiction to some extent (or have been imagined to be present), even if later audiences are unaware of it. 

The Enlightenment comes to mind as another era where entertainment often had a political or nakedly moral charge, or indeed, sometimes politics functioned as entertainment: Voltaire, Fielding, Richardson, Diderot, Beaumarchais, Crebillon, Swift, Lessing. But you can go further back to Augustan Rome and the careers of Virgil and Ovid to see that writers always had to tread carefully if they cherished an easy life, otherwise like Ovid, they could find themselves in inclement circumstances regretting "carmen et error". Even Homer was probably accused of being pro-Trojan or too lefty.

At the outset, Caute states that he wants to examine "how politically engaged novelists of the Cold War era, Western and Soviet, conveyed their understanding of recent and contemporary history through works of fiction". While acknowledging that you can't do everything in one book, there is a usual suspects feel to this book, and Caute cheats a good deal by stretching the term "Cold War" backwards to include, for instance, the Spanish Civil War. So this book could be more accurately retitled Literature and the Left in the Twentieth Century. In addition, I couldn't help thinking all the way through the excellent chapter on Orwell's Homage to Catalonia that this isn't fiction even in the loosest sense.

As a tour through 20th-century literature this isn't bad, because Caute writes extremely well, with a punchy style that is out of favour in academic circles. He says something in almost every sentence but he doesn't have that much to say about the novels per se. We are treated to all sorts of amusing and informative asides, but they are digressions from the stated theme (the title of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls is taken from John Donne, Calvino liked reading Babel, Malraux thought Hemingway un faux dur, etc).

The one surprise for me was Lydia Korneevna Chukovskaya, whose novella Sof'ya Petrovna I'd never heard of, and I greatly enjoyed the chapter dedicated to that. The story of Kafka's frosty reception in the Soviet Union is also extremely amusing, but again a bit of a deviation from the mission statement. This section does however provide the best laugh of the book: the witticism of the Marxist professional critic György Lukács, who had spent most of his career rubbishing Kafka, claiming that the latter dodged reality. After the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, Lukács, along with other leading figures of the Imre Nagy camp, was held in bizarre circumstances in Romania. There he is reputed to have finally conceded: "So Kafka was a realist after all."

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