This is the speech I gave at Tolstoy’s home, Yasnaya Polyana, for the 2012 International Tolstoy Festival.
In her address to the Edinburgh International Writers’ Conference in August 2012, Adhaf Soueif challenged the idea that novels can, or ought to, be political.”Is a novelist a literary activist?” she asked. “Should the novel be political? I don’t believe in ‘should’ anywhere near art,” she continued. She quoted Mohammed Darwish, the Palestinian poet, who described the difficulty of preserving “the literariness of literature in brutal times.” Soueif concluded that, in the wake of the Arab Spring (and, indeed, particularly now that the joy of revolution has soured into the realisation that Egypt under the military junta is no better than it was under Mubarak), “We all” – she meant Egyptian writers – “seem to have given up – for the moment – on fiction… Attempts at fiction right now would be too simple. The immediate truth is too glaring to allow a more subtle truth to take form… Your talent – at the time of crisis – is to tell the stories as they are, to help them to achieve power as reality not as fiction.
Now the plethora of qualifications in the passages I’ve just quoted – “for the moment,” “right now,” “at the time of crisis” – suggest that Soueif herself isn’t fully convinced by her argument. But these are difficult days for the novel. Soueif suggests that there is a time and a place for the novel, but that this is elsewhere, in a land of peace, where artists may give themselves over to their art with no thought for the crushing claims of “ought.” Has she not read Benjamin? “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” So if brutal times call for fact, straight reportage, “stories as they are,” whither the novel in the age of Pussy Riot, the Arab Spring, environmental disaster and the death of late capitalism?
I’m going to speak about power and the novel. I’m going to talk about what the novel can do, and what it can’t, and I’m going to try to give a lot of examples, and a lot of quotes, because that’s what I like when I’m listening to a speech like this. Hard evidence. I’m not saying that everything here is my belief 100%, but I’d like you to consider this a provocation, or a series of provocations, a defense of the novel as a way of not only responding to an age of crisis, but as an instrument in the struggle against tyranny. In the words of Roger Garaudy, “A good book is a force a tool a weapon to make the dreams of today become the reality of tomorrow.”
The novel’s death and resurrection have been celebrated with tiresome regularity over the years. From Ortega y Gasset to Calvino to Berger, critics have long been calling time on the traditional novel, claiming that it was no longer able to represent the extraordinary multiplicity of modern existence. The latest book to attempt to dethrone the king of literary genres is David Shields’ 2010 work Reality Hunger: a Manifesto, which uses a “collage” of numbered quotes from Shields himself and a wide variety of other critics, to attempt to drive the final nail into the heart of the novel. Drawing on Geoff Dyer, Jonathan Lethem, Roland Barthes, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Vivian Gornick and a host of others, Shields seeks to show that – this time – the novel really is dead. It is in autobiography – real life – rather than fictitious biography that truth now lies; the “lyric essay” is literature’s new formal home; the Internet and reality television have destroyed the novel’s ability to provide a convincing mimetic model of the world, that “Forms serve the culture; when they die, they die for a good reason: they’re no longer embodying what it’s like to be alive.”
I’d like to explore this idea – that the novel as a form is unable to encompass the thrilling, baffling vibrancy of the world. That modern life with its iPads and Mars Rovers and social media is too multiple for the cultural monolith that is the novel – somehow dusty, Victorian, backward. The first thing to say about this, of course, is that it is not a new claim. The Modernists felt that traditional methods of making art couldn’t reflect the frightfulness of the First World War, the speed of the machine age. The horrors of the Holocaust provoked their own interdictions on artistic representation. Life is, and has always been, too awful, too complex, too muddled, too fast for the novel to represent anything other than a shabby simulacrum, a false mirror, or so the argument goes. The first thing to say about this is that many novelists, to my mind, do manage – by pushing the boundaries of literary invention, by ranging wide across the worlds of their novels – to achieve something like a world you can hold in your hand. I’m thinking of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and, of course, War and Peace.
But what if we accept that the basic premise – that the world is too much for the novel to encapsulate? In his interesting and provocative book The Power of the Story, Michael Hanne puts it like this: “Storytelling is a fundamentally reductive process. It mystifies our understanding by giving a fake sense of coherence and comprehensiveness to a selection of scattered events.” The novel imposes an order, a teleology, where before – out there in the real world – there was none. And yet this – this very reductiveness – is one of the powers of the novel. I’d like to suggest that it is not the novel that cannot hold modern life, but our minds. The novel – and the constraints, the patterns, the order it imposes on the rough world – is a coping mechanism. Novels, like religions, allow us to impose meaning and coherence on a world that is often bafflingly lacking in both. And those simple, elemental stories – I’m thinking of The Old Man and the Sea or, again taking into account our surroundings, ‘Alyosha the Pot’ – contain within them truths which we may lay over our everyday experiences, illuminating, instructing, explaining. Even when they are harsh truths, it’s surely better than no truth. Or, as WG Sebald put it, “tragedy is still a pattern of order and an attempt to give meaning to something, to a life or a series of lives. It’s still, as it were, a positive way of looking at things. Whereas, in fact, it might just have been one damn thing after another, with no sense to it at all.” We human beings need patterns and stories are our patterns.
Turning to another criticism of the novel in Soueif’s speech – its need to choose among stories, to privilege one strand of history above another, to necessarily exclude tales which may be just as pressing as the one which – because this is how novels are – we have selected for our narrative. Firstly, again, I can think of examples to challenge this assumption. In Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, the fourth book, ‘The Part About the Crimes,’ contains excruciating, forensic, extremely repetitive descriptions of the murders of young, working class women around the maquiladoras or foreign-owned sweat-shops of a city in northern Mexico. The novelist’s wish to give voice to these young women, even in death, his insistence that we read face-on the brutal nature of their deaths, his unwillingness to tie together the loose threads of the novel into a traditionally comforting ending, all of this speaks of an extraordinary ethical drive on the part of the author. Bolaño’s wish was to bring to the world’s attention the thousands of women murdered by drug cartels along Mexico’s northern border – crimes which had been passed over in the global media narrative until that point. A typical journalistic approach might have been to focus upon one young woman, asking us to feel our way into her life (and the loss of it). Bolaño resists this simplifying instinct, instead presenting us with so many murders that we, the readers, feel overwhelmed, helpless in the face of so much violence. This is what it is to live here, Bolaño is saying. But of course even he has to be selective. The city in which the bulk of his novel is set – Santa Teresa – is closely modelled on the real-life Ciudad Juarez – he could have chosen any number of other towns along that bloody frontier; the eighty-nine murders he gives us in the book don’t come close to giving voice to all the women killed – it is again a simulacrum of reality, not the thing itself.
But to select does not mean to exclude, and here we have one of the great powers of the novel, our ability “to see the universal in the particular,” as James Joyce put it. If we as novelists are doing our job right, then we give access to our readers to another world, and through that other world, like light through a prism, they can see more and more modes of existence, feel their way into a greater and greater empathy with the world. And thus, when I write about one man who sets himself on fire in a square in Tunis because he is living under a government that refuses to let him earn an honest wage, and where any freedoms he has are illusory, and where his life is totally circumscribed by the tyranny of wealth and privilege, I am not only writing about him. Because, by placing him within the novel, by turning what Brecht called the “special mirror of art” upon him, he becomes a symbol. He is a symbol for those other men who set themselves alight during the Arab Spring whose stories I have chosen not to tell, he is a symbol for the protestors in Tahrir Square, for the brave fighters still resisting Assad in Syria; but he also symbolises those who wish to act but cant, he becomes for them, through my words, a myth, an idol, a figure of hope. He is the monk burning himself on the streets of Saigon, he is three young women in a punk protest band waiting to be sent to a labour camp, he is Berardo Viola in Silone’s Fontamara, he is Father Sergius cutting off his finger to prevent himself sinning. Our young man is part of history, but, because he is now in a novel, he expands up and out of history, into a world of greater signification.
In his 1985 Jerusalem Address, Milan Kundera spoke of Rabelais. Rabelais had traced certain French neologisms which have since faded from the language. One of these is “agélaste” – a person without humour. Humour is one of the driving forces of the novel, and we now live in a new age of the agélaste, who worships money and power and has no time for art or laughter. I’d like to quote a paragraph from Kundera’s speech. “No peace is possible between the novelist and the agélaste. Never having heard God’s laughter, the agélastes are convinced that the truth is obvious, that all men think the same, and that they themselves are exactly what they think they are. But it is precisely in losing the certainty of truth and the unanimous agreement of others that man becomes an individual. The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth, neither Anna nor Karenin, but where everyone has the right to be understood, both Anna and Karenin.”
The novel is, in its very form, liberal, democratic. We could speak of the power of the novel to effect political change – Uncle Tom’s Cabin, perhaps, which galvanised the north against the indignities of slavery, or Turgenev’s The Hunter’s Sketches, which played a part in the emancipation of the serfs here in Russia. But I’m talking about a deeper reading here. The act of reading a novel is, at its core, sympathetic. In reading a novel, the reader triangulates a bond of sympathy between him or herself, the author and the characters in the novel. Novels, as Kundera says, are a place where “everyone has the right to be understood” and where we as readers are finely tuned understanding machines. Through our reading, our writing, the other becomes familiar, the unknown, known. As John Steinbeck puts it: “A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending out signals… We are lonesome animals. We spend our lives trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say – and to feel – ‘Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’” While Solzhenitsyn might have one of his characters ask “How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?” the very novel in which it’s asked is a response to the question. We read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisavich and we are there with him, feeling with him. The act of sympathetic imagination binds us to other humans; the novel is a vehicle of love.
In a recent New Yorker essay, Jonathan Franzen wrote a meditation on the death of his friend David Foster Wallace. The key word in his essay is love. He says that “the curious thing about David’s fiction… is how recognized and comforted, how loved [Franzen’s italics] his most devoted readers feel when reading it. To the extent that each of us is stranded on his or her own existential island… we gratefully seized on each new dispatch from that farthest-away island that was David.” Franzen describes how Wallace catalogues his own failings in his work and yet “at the level of form and intention… this very cataloguing of despair about his own authentic goodness is received by the reader as a gift of authentic goodness: we feel the love in the fact of his art, and we love him for it.” Discussing Wallace’s suicide, Franzen ascribes it to his friend’s inability to finish his latest novel, saying: “He’d loved writing fiction, Infinite Jest in particular, and he’d been very explicit, in our many discussions of the purpose of novels, about his belief that fiction is a solution, the best solution, to the problem of existential solitude. Fiction was his way off the island, and as long as it was working for him – as long as he’d been able to pour his love and passion into preparing these lonely dispatches… he’d achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself. When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death.” Novels, Franzen is saying, both reading and writing them, hold something out against death, are beacons of love in a dark and violent world.
I will finish with one final power the novel has: in journalism, we must stick slavishly to the truth; in novels we may lie. And lies can be powerful. For an example of a novel acting on the political stage, we can turn to Ignazio Silone’s 1930 novel Fontamara. Written by its Communist author in exile in Switzerland, it tells of a village in the Abruzzo region of Italy whose honest but naive inhabitants are firstly abused by the thuggish local Fascist bosses, then attacked, the women raped, the men killed. By the end, the village is more or less wiped out, the few remaining villagers join the underground to fight in the memory of their fellow, Berardo Viola, who sacrificed himself that the revolution against Mussolini’s tyrannical rule might continue.
Michael Foot, the Labour politician, summed up the impact of this novel when it was published in Britain in the mid-1930s in this way: “Fiction can sometimes speak more strongly than fact. For some of us, Fontamara planted a more indelible impression than any other report from that scene of tyranny and terror.” The novel was translated into 29 languages, sold a million and a half copies, and radically altered the world’s view of Mussolini’s regime. From having been tolerated, even praised as the acceptable face of fascism, it was understood that things in Italy were no better than in Germany or in Russia – brute power tyrannising a helpless populace.
Except it wasn’t really true. While the press reviewed and reported the novel as if it were drawn from fact, Silone admitted that the whole thing was made up and that – aside from the horrific murder of Giacomo Matteotti – the Fascists were not carrying out the sort of brutal attacks described in the novel. The author, indeed, was rather embarrassed by the general reaction to the novel (whilst recognising how useful it was in the fight against Mussolini). But while the novel may not have been true to life, the regime caught up with fiction, enacting harsh anti-Semitic laws in 1938 and, in the last years of the war, becoming almost as brutal as their northern neighbours. So the truth it revealed was deeper, more meaningful, than mere fact.
I will leave you with a few quotes, here in the land of the novel. Firstly the critic Ross Chambers talking about the seductive power of narrative. He says the way it wraps us into a world, produces “authority where there is no power, is a means of converting historical weakness into strength. As such, it appears as a major weapon against alienation, an instrument of self-assertion and an oppositional practice of considerable significance.” Vissarion Belinsky, writing in the 1840s under the heavy censorship of Tsarist Russia, said “the pubic looks upon Russian writers as its only leaders, defenders and saviours against Russian autocracy, orthodoxy and nationality.” Finally, 130 years later, Solzhenitsyn again, who said something similar: “for a country to have a great writer is like having another government.” I think we can all agree that we wish to be ruled not by the corrupt tyrants of our governments – and I speak as much for my own country, where the politicians are undoing much of the good that previous governments have achieved, as for yours – but by a government of writers, a government of novels.