Writers of the World, Unite

Politics and the Novel During the Cold War by David Caute

“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.”

It’s odd that Caute overlooks the fact that the Cold War wasn’t all that cold. There’s nothing on either the Korean War, Malaya, Cuba or the American edition of the Vietnam War (though we do get Graham Greene’s The Quiet American), and his register on the Cold War is quite lofty. I’d contend that many of the most interesting novels about the true Cold War era were the offerings in science fiction where man fights alien invaders, for instance, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (destroyed on celluloid by Hollywood liberals and Paul Verhoeven) or The Puppet Masters (later ripped off by Jack Finney in The Body Snatchers) with its eccentric combination of McCarthyite paranoia and proto-hippy nudism.

An academic study shouldn’t be too concerned about readership, but the other thought that occurred to me is: how much interest is there nowadays in many of the writers Caute examines? I can’t remember the last time I caught anyone reading Dos Passos, Malraux or Sartre (the last time I did was the same time I was — the Seventies) and I doubt those who are reading Norman Mailer are reading the drivelly Armies of the Night. Even the most contemporary of writers cited, E. L. Doctorow and Robert Coover (for their assessment of the executed Rosenbergs), are somewhat faded figures. Camus and Kafka, of the writers Caute covers, I’d argue, are the ones going strongest, and they are the least “political”.

The major failing of the Left in the 20th century, everywhere, was that it couldn’t come to terms with the fact that it was wrong, completely, utterly, unpardonably wrong, about their exemplars, their paragons, the communist regimes that came to power in the Soviet Union, Red China, Vietnam and Cambodia, and that whatever the shortcomings and warts of “capitalism” and the West, the capitalist countries were a paradise in comparison to the countries that actually claimed to be workers’ paradises. And in every case, the damning evidence was there from the beginning — it was just ignored.

Caute’s strength seems to be Soviet literature, though he overlooks the generation just below Solzhenitsyn who also went into exile, interesting writers like Limonov and Dovlatov. The Spanish-speaking world and Africa are somewhat cheekily dismissed with a sentence at the very end about political fiction “resurfacing” there. Plenty is missing, but what Caute has evaluated is well done.

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