Between the Lines

A look at the crossroads where literature and politics meet, and the relationship between art and ideas.

By Robert Boyers

Henry James, by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1908. National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

Henry James, by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1908. National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC.

Most of us suppose that we know politics when we see it. Bertrand Russell, for one, thought he was saying the obvious when he declared that “politics is concerned with herds rather than with individuals.” Others note that politics always entails a struggle for power, often involving parties, or movements, whose reasons for being are cast in ideological terms. Yet others contend that politics inevitably requires actors who believe that their actions have some prospect of success, or who operate from a conviction that the established reality in their society is intolerable and must therefore be opposed, whatever the costs. By this token, there can be no politics where it is felt that nothing can be done to effect change or that the laws that govern society and define reality are fixed and immutable. 

In recent years some have argued that the distinction between herd and individual, or between public and private life, is specious, and that in fact everything is political, so that what goes on in the bedroom is as much a struggle for power, and therefore as “political,” as what takes place in a parliament or a revolutionary insurrection. An interesting notion, to be sure, and one that has effectively altered the way that ambitious writers and thinkers of the last half century have come to write about politics, often mixing public and private to a degree that suggests that the old distinctions are no longer fully compelling. When writers nowadays invoke “politics” they are apt to be thinking about the intersection of public and private life, where the motives of individuals may well play a more decisive role in the action of a novel invested in political outcomes than in the programs of parties or movements. Not possible, any longer, for anyone taking up the subject of politics and the novel to ignore the fact that leading writers, from Mario Vargas Llosa and Milan Kundera to Pat Barker and Russell Banks, have taught us all—certainly they have taught me—to think of politics as a great deal more than the activities and stratagems of a political class, and to think of the private life as determined to a considerable extent by the wider public life.

Novelists have often thought of novels as vehicles not merely for raising questions but for staking out positions and demonstrating the awfulness of a political regime or ideology. James Baldwin, among others, noted the widespread influence in his own day of what he called “protest” fiction, “novels of Negro oppression” designed, as he put it, to “say only: ‘This is perfectly horrible! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.’” And he noted that such novels, among them Uncle Tom’s Cabin, were apt to be “self-righteous” and to read more like pamphlets than authentic works of fiction. Does anyone today write protest fiction, novels designed to mobilize sentiment and influence events? Do they find a ready and enthusiastic audience? The answer, in both cases, is most definitely, and of course. And is this a problem for those of us who read and wish to take seriously novels that have something to tell us about our relation to “the world”? Let us say that, when we think about politics, and about literature, we want to be able to make elementary distinctions, to grasp the difference between a work whose reason for being is to trumpet its own “virtuous sentimentality,” as Baldwin put it, or to effect one or another decisive change in society, and another kind of work not meant to be “improving” but to raise difficult questions and to evoke—again, Baldwin’s language—the “beauty, dread, [and] power” of our lives.

Propaganda, by Eugène Buland, 1889. Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Propaganda, by Eugène Buland, 1889. Musee d'Orsay, Paris. 

At a public interview I conducted with Nadine Gordimer thirty years ago, she bristled at my use of the epithet “political novel” to describe her masterwork, Burger’s Daughter. It was not, Gordimer argued, written to promote an agenda. It did not subscribe to a particular idea or ideology. To call it a political novel was to suggest that it had—as Henry James once put it—“designs” upon us, that its author wished to banish incorrect opinions and to install in their place clearly more beneficial views of politics and society. At their best, Gordimer contended, novels were not useful. If I admired her novel as much as I said I did, I would do better to regard it as a free work of the imagination, an inquiry with no purpose that involved providing answers to the difficult questions it posed.

I had no intention of reducing Gordimer’s book to a species of blunt propaganda, and I thought of the epithet simply as a shorthand for “a novel invested in politics as a way of thinking about the fate of society at a particular place and time.” There was a great tradition of political fiction that included works like Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo and James’ The Princess Casamassima. Such novels defined the tradition and suggested that there was really a special kind of work whose interest in politics exceeded anything to be found in other novels. But these classic works were also, I thought, so entirely not works of coarse propaganda, so clearly not composed with obvious designs upon their reader, that no one would object to the words “political novel” as Gordimer had done.

Burger’s Daughter does not propose an indisputably correct way to deal with, or think about, or overthrow, South African apartheid. It is, at its core, unmistakably an oppositional work, and its heroic characters are willing to sacrifice their lives to the cause of defeating what was for many years the established order in their society. But no reader can suppose for a moment that the goal of the novel is principally to curry favor with readers by upholding a virtuous position few of them would be inclined to reject. What matters to readers of such a novel is not a stance or a view but a complex way of thinking and feeling about the relation of the individual and society. Like other great writers compelled to engage with political issues, Gordimer operates from an understanding that politics is not everything and that conflicts apparently political in nature often issue from sources far removed from strictly political ends or calculations. Far more important than politics in Burger’s Daughter are questions about how a person comes to find her own way in the world and to establish for herself what it means to be a serious person with genuine convictions. 

Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense—nonsense upon stilts.

—Jeremy Bentham, 1832

When I teach Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons I am always moved by the disputes that unfold among my students. After all, this is a novel unmistakably engaged with big-ticket ideas, especially the opposition between nihilism and liberalism. Characters talk about such ideas as if they were real to them, and as if it were possible to declare for the one rather than the other and to conduct oneself accordingly. And yet my students are never quite sure what Turgenev makes of the collision between such ideas. Does he love his nihilist character Bazarov as much as he should? Does he not make his sweet-tempered, mild-mannered liberals comparatively weak and thereby signal his affiliation with the more forceful Bazarov, who may be deluded on important matters but has more life in him, more energy and force, than the others? When Turgenev has Bazarov call himself a “harmless person” at an uncharacteristically vulnerable moment, does he not expect his reader to defend the character against his own rueful self-indictment? In following out such questions I find that students are at once exasperated and thrilled to discover that there is no reliable way to resolve them. The relevant political issues in Turgenev’s novel are by no means obscure. The informing ideas are spelled out, and characters, when pressed, acknowledge their affiliation with those ideas. And yet the novel clearly courts irresolution and misgiving. Though it alludes to a political ferment in the society that may well have to do with movements and policies, the choices available to characters within the framework of the novel have little to do with parties they might join or petitions they might sign. As is so often the case in such works, even ideas that carry distinguishing labels—nihilism, for one obvious example—really exist for us primarily as reflections of temperament and inclination, and it is not easy to be for or against
a temperament.

Of course we do not require that novels dealing with politics refuse to make up their minds about anything. No one doubts that in Demons Dostoevsky mounts a savage attack on the political radicalism to which he himself had once subscribed. James’ portrait of Princess Casamassima in his 1885 novel is intended to reveal the false consciousness and posturing associated with radical chic, long before that term came into use nearly a century later. Even in Turgenev there is little question that the liberalism on offer, however gentle and humane, is ineffectual, hopeless, and that Bazarov’s nihilism is at most a compelling but half-baked idea, a mere rejectionist reflex with no prospect of altering society or mobilizing a mass movement. Novelists can see things as they are, even when they are consumed with ambivalence. 


In the preface to his 1957 Politics and the Novel, Irving Howe describes his book as primarily “a study of the relation between literature and ideas.” Throughout that seminal work we find references to “feminist ideas,” the “will to power,” “existentialism,” “liberalism,” “anarchism,” “romanticism,” and “imperialism,” among others. Yet in the main Howe does not dwell on these ideas as he grapples with individual actions and characters and teases out implications. The more he thinks about the ideas associated with the classic works in the tradition he studies the more he concedes that, in successful novels, ideas “are transformed,” and that at its best “the political novel generates such intense heat that the ideas it appropriates are melted into its movement and fused with the emotions of its characters.” In this sense, we might also observe that in such works ideas are rarely accorded the formality we associate with system. Exceptions—Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon is one obvious example—of course spring to mind. But in James and Conrad and Stendhal and Dostoevsky, we find that the ideas are constantly changing shape as the novels wind and unfold. Alternatives are posed not as fixed positions but as possibilities not fully understood, whatever the actual consequences they may portend. The Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg had opinions about feminism which she articulated in her essays and newspaper columns, but when she wrote about the lives of women in her novels she was clearly not interested in staking out a position. When her primary male character in All Our Yesterdays tells the woman he has just married that she conducts herself “like an insect,” the author is not thereby mounting an attack on patriarchy or inviting her reader to deplore the tyranny of men. You do not read Ginzburg’s novel for edification or instruction, as if it were in thrall to a single overmastering idea. The wife in the novel does in fact behave somewhat “like an insect” and does somewhat deserve the insult delivered by her husband, who wishes not to lord it over her but to rouse her to think better of herself and behave accordingly. Feminist ideas do surely inform the tensions at play in Ginzburg’s novel, but it does not exist to assert those ideas, and the novel is permitted to develop in ways that seem to us surprising, far removed from any standard ideological trajectory.

In some novels, the informing ideas seem often to control the narrative to a much greater degree. The characters in Koestler’s book debate with one another as if the ideas in dispute were real, as real as the social forces that drive characters into conflict and cause enormous suffering. This is true as well in a very different work like André Malraux’s Man’s Fate where ideas—terrorism, the will to power, quietism—are made to seem coherent, have at least the semblance of formal systems capable of inspiring belief or adherence. Yet even in such novels ideology will seem to us to matter less than it does to its true believers. Ideas which can seem so substantial to an activist or an ideologue do not in fact account for everything in such novels, whose characters exist not merely as embodiments of the ideas to which they subscribe but as odd configurations of will and weakness and potentiality. 

For a reader what will matter more than anything else in these novels—especially those that purport to engage with politics and ideas—is what Natalia Ginzburg called the “spiritual attitude” discernible in the work. What is a spiritual attitude? It exists for a reader as the sign, or token, of the seriousness with which ideas are entertained. Novels in which politics plays a central role purport at least to represent reality in a way that will seem plausible to an adult intelligence and read the relevant implications in a richly complex way. And yet often the spiritual attitude underwriting such works is deficient, portrayals of reality flagrantly one-dimensional, ideas taken up as if they were merely tools or weapons with which to impress readers and thereby to evade the difficult questions implied or invoked. Some years ago, in a review of Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, I argued that Roth had not done what was necessary to get inside the idea of political radicalism. Instead he had created, as an expression of “the American berserk,” a pathetic, twisted, angry young leftist who was made to exemplify the primary thrust of the 1960s New Left. An extremist with some plausible relation to actually existing elements in the counterculture of the period, Roth’s Merry Levov could seem genuinely terrifying. But she was, at the same time, an undifferentiated cartoon of adolescent rebellion, and her creator had made no effort to accord to her or her associates the benefit of any doubt, to accord to anyone associated with the New Left even a modicum of respect for their idealism and their opposition to an established order that had given us the Vietnam War. The spiritual attitude exhibited in such a novel is thus deficient in the sense that it does not labor to resist the reduction of reality to caricature. Roth offers no sign whatsoever that he entertained misgivings about the easy reduction of the radical left in the 1960s to lunacy and puerility. The one-dimensionality of the political in Roth’s novel is readily grasped when it is placed alongside a novel like Vargas Llosa’s The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, where the youthful revolutionary Mayta, fond and foolish and in many ways misguided, is also granted a dignified passion for justice. Vargas Llosa operates throughout the novel in good faith, dramatizing the ambivalences that frustrate the efforts of a narrator—a narrator very much like the author himself—to put definitively behind him his own youthful infatuation with leftist ideas.

The Expulsion of the Austrians from the Porta Galleria, August 8, 1848, by Antonio Muzzi, c. 1849.

The Expulsion of the Austrians from the Porta Galleria, August 8, 1848, by Antonio Muzzi, c. 1849. 

Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost is set in Sri Lanka in the 1990s during a time of civil war, when the order of the day was atrocity and the violence could seem random, disconnected from any prospect of meaning or purpose. Though the novel’s outsider protagonist wishes to believe that there is a difference between clean and dirty hands, she learns that there is not much to differentiate one political faction from the other—not in ethical terms, at any rate. Ondaatje moves us across the terrain of the war he depicts with a wary, calculating delicacy, identifying isolated moments of grace that might almost provide a foundation for hope. But he refuses to impose upon any episode or stray nobility an extravagant symbolic or symptomatic importance. When he introduces an ostensibly promising idea, as he does when he quotes a passage from the poet Robert Duncan (“the drama of our time is the coming of all men into one fate”), he alerts us, quietly, to the fact that this is not much more than wishful thinking, one of those ideas we indulge to pretend that we have mastered the chaos around us. Other ideas in the novel (“the meaning of war is war”) are likewise permitted to circulate while remaining eminently resistible, at most a reflection of someone’s need to think them. The spiritual attitude governing such a work is measured by its steady resistance to all simplifying formulas and caricatures.

Late in V. S. Naipaul’s Half a Life we read that one character “had been given an idea of the uncertain ways of power.” With this idea the man comes to know things he had not grasped before. That is what we are told. But Naipaul wants to do more than register a momentous awakening in the life of a minor character; he wants to examine what is sometimes called false consciousness, as if this were a temptation to which any one of us might succumb. Naipaul’s character is by no means a stupid man. A landowner in an African colonial outpost, he had gone about for many years predicting, to anyone who would listen, the “calamity to come, something that would sweep away the life of the colony, sweep away all his world.” He had known, in other words, for a very long time, the uncertain ways of power, but had carried that knowledge only in the way that one carries a vague but oddly compelling idea that has no determinate shape and no trail of sharply imagined consequences. “A man who lived easily with that idea (and liked to frighten people with it),” Naipaul writes, should not have been suddenly impressed, amazed, undone by the actual eruption into his life of the thing itself, the raw demonstration of power and its “uncertain ways.” But he is amazed and undone. And thus we are asked to observe that the philosophical view the character had long trumpeted was a “sham,” an “abstraction,” a “way of self-absorption” in the sense that the holding of the idea required no intellectual exertion, no resistance. Like the ideas so often held in works of political fiction, the idea that gripped Naipaul’s character had been held in a fundamentally unserious way, and it is one great burden of Naipaul’s novel to examine the difference between a serious and a fraudulent, spiritually deficient way of engaging reality.


Such things are not always easy to sort out in the case of a particular novel. A few years ago Christopher Hitchens took Orhan Pamuk to task for his failure to depict political Islam as it was, in a novel that purported to do just that. Why, Hitchens asked, would Pamuk, in his novel Snow, present fanatics “in a favorable or lenient light”? Why portray young girls “who immolate themselves for the right to wear head covering” as the victims not of their Islamist imams and devout, coercive parents but of “the pitiless [secular] state” with its empty westernizing ambitions? Why in the novel is so much sympathy given to characters who are consumed with resentment directed at “European ways”? Grant that Pamuk is somewhat accurate in his depiction of the secular regime long dominant in Turkey, which “imposed a uniform national identity” on the country, where “ethnic and religious variety was heavily repressed.” Even so, Hitchens argues, Pamuk as novelist is less than forthright and courageous in handling his Islamist characters, refusing to draw the obvious conclusions to which his own novelistic material should have directed him.

Pamuk’s novel is built around a poet named Ka, who has “no interest in politics” (Pamuk has occasionally said much the same thing), and it is part of the business of the novel to represent things as such a character would see them. But Ka is a determined innocent who refuses much of the time to acknowledge what he sees. The air he breathes is suffused with what Hitchens calls “fatalism and passivity.” As a sensitive and generous soul who clings to his own innocence, such as it is, Ka wants to believe that at bottom political Islam is simply a protest against meaninglessness. The “Party of God” in the novel may look as if it is determined to punish infidels and to be vigilant against the tiniest of infractions, and still the energy of the novel is largely devoted to Ka’s misgivings about his own mild atheism and freethinking. Readers like Hitchens demand from Pamuk not a tract but a focused interrogation of a religious movement overwhelmingly dominated by provincial and reactionary sentiments and determined—even on the evidence of the novel itself—to win the war against modernity and multiculturalism. On this reading, Pamuk as novelist is far too invested in the benign, dreamy, generous perspective of his poet character, and the novel thus fails to engage adequately with the ideas embraced by proponents of political Islam.

Hitchens was a fabulously gifted and scrupulous reader, though in this case he demanded, in effect, of Snow what such a novel never promised to provide: that it operate in the way of the novels Hitchens most admired, works with a greater appetite for contestation and for an implied resolution of the ideological conflicts they set in motion. He accused Pamuk of timidity because he thought of novels at least in part as battlegrounds and supposed that novelists did well, wherever possible, to take sides. But Pamuk did not wish to take sides, and thus it is not timidity that I see in the author’s apparent identification with Ka’s dreamy and irresolute perspective. The very fabric of Pamuk’s writing in Snow is such as to undermine polemic. Even where characters are made to declare for this or that position, the movement of the novel as a whole tends toward diffidence and doubt. The love interest at the center of the novel, along with the local intrigue and the occasional passages of casual but gorgeous word-painting, make us feel that Snow is anything but a novel of ideas. The handling of loaded issues—the ongoing head-scarf controversy, the suicides of devout young girls, the violent threats to tolerance and diversity—is such as to make all these matters subordinate to larger and perhaps deeper issues. Politics is at the center of the novel, and yet politics takes a back seat to other concerns. A character named Blue has much to say about the degradation of Muslims by “Western eyes.” At one point he publicly threatens to murder a TV host who has uttered “inappropriate” remarks about Muhammad. And yet what matters most, in our sense of this figure, is Ka’s observation that next to Blue he cannot but feel “ordinary and superficial.” A Western, secular reader may not like or approve of that sentiment—I’m with Hitchens there—but no reader of the novel will deny that it is fully compatible with the dominant tone and thrust of the book.

It is impossible to tell which of the two dispositions we find in men is more harmful in a republic, that which seeks to maintain an established position or that which has none but seeks to acquire it.

—Niccolò Machiavelli, 1515

As for the other charge, or objection, that Pamuk should not have been so generous to political Islam—not when he observes, in the novel itself, what it entails—I can only say that the instinct to generosity is matched by another, contradictory impulse. Call it the impulse to satire, or farce. Hard not to regard much that passes for earnest Islamic conviction in the novel as preposterous. Hard not to feel that Pamuk has deliberately made it seem so. The novel thus portrays fanaticism as awful and comical. So bizarre are the convictions and rages and stratagems of the Islamist fanatics that we cannot but regard them as part of a highly stylized extravaganza, a sort of wild opera buffa. The devoutness that can prompt the actions of adolescent suicides seems at once terrifying and moving and also terminally infantile. To feel “ordinary and superficial” next to a devout fanatic willing to die for his beliefs is understandable, but the novel also incites wonder at ostensibly reasonable adult figures who can get worked up about the virginity of unmarried adolescents and think it a good idea to have Islamic thought squads interrogate people like Ka about their atheism.

To complain that such a work does not call things by their rightful names is to miss the mood of the thing and to overlook the reader’s steady enlistment in that mood, a mood that resigns us to the fact that there is everything to worry about and deplore and nothing to be done. Can that mood, in this case the mood of farce and nonsense, successfully drive such a work and make its ideas seem to have been responsibly engaged? Contra Hitchens, I would say that Snow manages perfectly to accomplish the feat.

Readers inevitably bring their own demands for ideological correctness and relevance to works of fiction that are built around issues. And writers, for their part, strive to shape responses to their fiction, sometimes by giving interviews that express their “real” views on questions handled less explicitly in the fiction. Pamuk surprised no one when he admitted that he routinely tries “to determine…how my books should be understood and read.” But most novelists also freely concede that their takes on issues and ideas in fiction are richer, more complex, and thus truer than anything they can say outside the framework of their novels. The novel as a form allows a good writer with views to resist the temptation to simply and straightforwardly promote them. Bad or lesser writers are unable to resist that temptation. Likewise, readers who are unable to read without demanding a comforting echo of their own beliefs will have no real feeling for the rigors and inflections of serious fiction. Politics, in novels we can admire, must always pit ideas against the world as it exists, or might conceivably exist, and allow at every turn for contradiction and irresolution. Irving Howe got it right when he spoke of “the vast respect which the great novelist is ready to offer to the whole idea of opposition, the opposition he needs to allow for in his book against his own predispositions and yearnings and fantasies.” To think of politics and the novel without bearing in mind that commitment to “opposition” is to miss more or less entirely what is central to our great and familiar subject.

Related Reads