Madison Smartt Bell

Flannery O’Connor warned us some fifty years ago that any work of fiction burdened with instructional intent was doomed to become a tract. Or as Sam Goldwyn is reported to have said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

Most American novelists seem to act on these principles (whether or not they’ve actually heard them announced). And there is something quite sound in the idea that flaming political passions make for bad art. The fact that it is extremely difficult to define the boundaries of any event while it’s happening has led American novelists to approach political events historically, as Tolstoy did in War and Peace. Thus the major flowering of Vietnam-related fiction did not come until the 1980s, well after the war had ended. Thus Denis Johnson’s 2007 Tree of Smoke is plainly a historical novel, as is Edwidge Danticat’s 1998 The Farming of Bones.

Then, too, most American novelists belong to a middle class well insulated from the immediate effects of politics; that is, political events may outrage them but are unlikely to threaten their lives or their families. The great exception to that in our time was 9/11, whose shock wave rattled everyone’s teeth, and which produced an exceptionally rapid response from significant American fiction writers: John Updike, Claire Messud, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Safran Foer. Yet for the most part, American fiction writers stay out of politics or choose between politics and fiction, as Grace Paley did in her life as an activist. When Norman Mailer was most involved in politics, he wrote close to his worst.

There are enough exceptions to prove this rule—writers who have produced real literary art by engaging political events more or less as they are happening. Robert Stone staked a claim on the Vietnam conflict in Dog Soldiers (1974), on Latin American struggles in A Flag for Sunrise (1981), on the perpetual Middle East crisis in Damascus Gate (1998). Carolyn Chute chronicled the plight of the working poor in her brilliant trilogy of novels that concludes with Merry Men (1994). Russell Banks has conducted a literary career of unusual political engagement, in regions ranging from New England to Florida (Continental Drift) to the Caribbean (Rule of the Bone) to Africa (The Darling). It may be noteworthy, however, that all three of these writers, if they now inhabit the American middle class, were not exactly born into it.

Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve novels. His eighth, All Souls’ Rising (Pantheon, 1995), an account of Haitian Revolution, was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and the 1996 PEN/Faulkner Award, as well as the winner of the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf award for the best book of the year dealing with matters of race.

• • •

Daniel Kehlmann

He was a recluse and yet was nothing of the sort. No one ever existed more within society than did Voltaire, no one did more to transform the status of the writer from despised copyist to aristocrat and companion of kings. Many times he managed, in all innocence, to set in motion those very imbroglios and conflicts he so deplored: No one exemplified better than he the tensions between silence and noise, society and retirement, engagement and withdrawal, that can be found in the life of any artist. This lover of peace was a master at raising a ruckus, and the mighty feared him as a writer would never again be feared. When this man started shouting in Frankfurt—as Frederick the Great explained to his secret agents—you could hear it all the way to Petersburg.

To be sure, he retreated from the political turmoil of his day, withdrawing to his gardens in Geneva, Lausanne, and Ferney. But here, shut in and sheltered by the wealth he had acquired by speculation, every injustice, every wrongful execution, every natural catastrophe somewhere in the world would stun him with its horror. It was quite simply impossible for this vain, power-conscious, aggressive, and in fact anything but sweet-tempered individual to be happy when elsewhere atrocities were afoot. It’s often been said, starting with David Hume, that Candide is only secondarily a satire of Leibniz, theodicy, and the justification of divine providence—above all, it is a satire of providence itself and the failures of God’s Creation; in other words, a satire of every religious interpretation of existence. Long before Karl Popper, Voltaire recognized the discrepancy between irrefutability and correctness; long before Kierkegaard, he demonstrated that one should do battle with a logically closed construct not by engaging in discussions with it but rather by confronting it with the absurdity of existence and then roaring with laughter.

For one has to be able to laugh about religious faith. This is Voltaire’s most important lesson. So many people who demand respect really mean to say: power. When a religion has achieved even the most trivial degree of power, even the tiniest bit of social influence, it has forfeited all right to deference. Ever since Pascal, we have known that it is the fate of every religious man to endure others’ laughter—and if he is utterly incapable of this, it is the duty of the state not to protect the religious man from laughter but rather to protect the one who laughs from the religious man’s rage. The notion that every religious conviction has an inherent value, regardless of its nature, has its source not in the Enlightenment but in Romanticism.

His detractors are right: Voltaire was spiritually unmusical. Candide is a shallow book, it isn’t deep, it isn’t rich, it’s just funny, despairing, and true. The profound beauty of the Middle Ages, prayer, and revelation eluded him. He had no respect for others’ piety, and every higher purpose that necessitated the suffering of even a single individual was incomprehensible to him. His social utopia was nothing more than a garden surrounded by a stout fence, inaccessible to God and authority, a garden for cultivating flowers, writing books, and thinking whatever thoughts might suggest themselves. A limited worldview, very one-sided, truly. If it had caught on, how many great ideas we would have missed out on! But also: how many catastrophes.

Daniel Kehlmann’s novel Measuring the World (Pantheon, 2006) was a best seller in Germany, where it won the Heimito von Doderer Prize.

• • •

Richard Flanagan

Nothing, writes Borges, is more secondary to a book’s achievement than the intentions of its author. And in the end, novels, the great subversive medium, subvert not only what society thinks is right but what the writer intends to write.

And why?

Because a novel, when it succeeds, takes the writer beyond his own history and character, escapes the shackles of his politics and opinions, and the alchemy of story makes of the writer’s soul that which joins one human being with all. For this reason, Kipling’s wonderful stories can never be reduced to his imperialism, nor Dostoyevsky’s genius invalidated by his anti-Semitism.

Some writers are, of course, political beings, others are not, but this is a guide to little. Bad writers can have admirable politics, while Hamsun and Pound most certainly didn’t. Great books can be great campaigning vehicles: One thinks of Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Notebook, said to have led to the emancipation of the serfs, or much of Dickens. Books that are written in opposition to politics, questioning its very basis, can in repressed and tyrannical societies ironically become freighted with enormous political significance: One thinks of Dr. Zhivago or Life and Fate (of the latter, it was decreed by the head of the KGB that no one was to read it for two hundred years).

But Turgenev’s or Dickens’s political beliefs are no longer why we read these writers, nor is the persecution of Pasternak or the confiscation of Grossman’s masterpiece why these books matter. They continue to be read because, perhaps, we recognize them as simply being true to the chaos of life. If a novel can achieve that truth, it can never be reduced to an ideology and will always remain the enemy of lies and oppression.

Writing does not excuse a writer from political choices and actions, but neither does it demand them. These are matters between a man and his soul, which the writer must face up to alongside the plumber, the hairdresser, and the executive. Paradoxically, the writers most concerned about making politics part of their work often write work that is autistic to the politics of its times, while writers with almost no such interest sometimes write most perceptively of their era: Amid the agitprop wastes of the ’20s, no one more shrewdly foretold the political apocalypse looming than Kafka, the man who recorded the most historically significant event in his life, the start of World War I, with a fine sense of human proportion: “Germany has declared war. . . . Swimming in the afternoon.”

There are so many forces in the world that divide us deeply and murderously. In recent times, we have lived through not so much a crisis of politics as a collapse of that most human attribute, empathy, a collapse so catastrophic it sometimes appears to be a crisis of love, manifest in epidemics of loneliness and depression. Among Western societies, this strange event seems most pronounced in the United States, a country where pessimism about the future of the novel has become the most persistent literary tradition.

We cannot escape politics, history, religion, nationalism—for their sources lie as deep in our hearts as love and goodness, perhaps even deeper. But at its best, art reminds us of all that we share, of all that brings us together. For this reason, books matter. For this reason, books aren’t just novelty items or celebrity accompaniments, one more marketing platform for the famous and the powerful. In a world where the road to the new tyrannies is paved with the fear of others, great books show us that we are neither alone nor in the end that different, that what joins us is always more important than what divides us, and that the price of division is ever the obscenity of oppression.

Richard Flanagan’s novels include Gould’s Book of Fish (Grove, 2001) and The Unknown Terrorist (HarperCollins, 2007).

• • •

Dana Spiotta

A novel’s obligation to the complexity of the human heart makes it a poor platform for straight-up polemics or political advocacy. However, I do think fiction has some inherently subversive qualities. Most contemporary novels are pretty marginal—not widely read, not widely discussed. I also admit there is something cranky and suspect and marginal about writing novels (reading them is completely virtuous, of course). But this marginality is also, in part, what makes them powerful. The low-tech, beneath-the-radar form that limits the novel’s mass appeal also makes it the perfect place for contemplating the repercussions of more contemporary technology. The sustained attention required of readers already stands as a critique of the way we generally consume information. Another primary obligation of fiction is its imaginative and original use of language. This priority contrasts dramatically with the wearisome language employed in everyday public discourse. I believe dis­locations and derangements of language do undermine the cultural status quo—even if it is just for that writer and his handful of readers. The novel may be marginal, but within its small world, there is genuine refusal and some breathable air.

I also think the way fiction conjures interiority and consciousness is unique among the arts and deeply challenging. A novelist can inhabit some pretty unloved and vilified people and make them human and recognizable. Since the novel is built for irony as well as for empathy, it can avoid sentiment while pursuing these recognitions. Few places in the culture encourage this kind of hard-edged, uneasy empathy. Fiction can counter our culture’s ubiquitous tendency to reduce us to our differences.

There is another important component to the politics of writing novels. I very much believe that human behavior is shaped by forces—historical and cultural and economic. So I am interested in everyday human experience, but always in a specific context. People don’t exist in some windless, timeless space. For me, it is part of the writer’s task to contemplate the cultural moment surrounding and influencing the characters. Novels are an ideal place to explore the precise nexus of persons and history—the complex way we are of a moment and also making a moment.

Dana Spiotta is the author of two novels, Lightning Field (2001) and Eat the Document (2006), a National Book Award finalist, both published by Scribner.

• • •

Lydia Millet

Some of my novels are overtly sociopolitical—that is, they contain discursive passages that proceed as much by argument as by intuition. Call them, in fact, argumentative novels, in which characters argue or rage from a somewhat reasoned position. When these books have done well critically, I’ve often felt it was despite their stubborn inclusion of argument, or when that element could be ignored in favor of other pleasures.

Such overtly idea-driven, sociopolitical novels are a minority population, if at times an important one: The most crucial artistry of fiction is the existential question, whose critique of power is found in its linguistic play or symbols or evocations of feeling. And an obvious but key distinction between the literary and the middlebrow, between books that are art and those that simply are not, is not politics per se, which can play a part in either, but the quality of being beyond easy description. If a novel loses little through being synopsized in a page, it is not art but narrative. Narrative can be a skeleton for literature but clearly is not literature itself; that distinction belongs only to fiction that is comparable to other art forms, to poetry, to painting, to music, and cannot be represented by anything other than itself. Language is a landscape whose beauty rises from the unconscious, while narrative is a superficial structure we impose on it consciously—not an end in itself, but a tool.

The problem is that fiction is written about in this country, in places as prominent as the New York Times, in a way that mistakes narrative for art. There’s nothing wrong with pulp fiction or genre fiction, and there’s nothing wrong with middlebrow fiction: What’s wrong is that (increasingly, to my mind) opinion-making critics elevate the mundane and the middlebrow to the literary. One dominant reviewing trend, for example, mistakes banal stories about assimilation or interpersonal drama—and often those sagas that marry the two —for literature merely because they may expose insular readers to unfamiliar cultural or ethnic touchstones. Works that are little more than cross-cultural soap operas pass as literary achievements because, in a sense, they also pass for political statements: The politically correct, in other words, is clothed as the political, and apparently, that’s the closest many readers care to come to transcendence.

True literature is almost always truly political—political in a deep sense, political in a way that is felt, that reverberates through the being. It should not be enough that a writer has an identity that is deemed marginal, or writes about identities that are. What needs to matter most is the extraordinariness of the artist’s relationship to language.

Lydia Millet is the author of six novels, most recently How the Dead Dream (Soft Skull Press, 2008).

• • •

Dubravka Ugresic

Upton Sinclair’s Oil! would have remained a half-forgotten classic of American literature if not for the recent adaptation by Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood). After I saw the movie, I recalled my mother’s first edition of the book, translated into Serbo-Croatian. The binding was embellished with scribbles, my first attempts at drawing. Sinclair, Gorky, and Dreiser might not have been my mother’s favorite writers, but their books were among the few that graced half-empty bookstores in postwar Yugoslavia. With these books, my young, newly married parents started to furnish their library.

I don’t remember whether I ever read Oil! If I did, I wouldn’t have boasted about the fact during my student days. Studying comparative literature, I was inspired to defend the “autonomy of literature,” a notion closely tied to literary evaluation and literary taste. Simply put, good writers were not supposed to deal with politics, or ideology, or even (too much of) real life. “Literariness” mattered. Although Yugoslav writers had never been seriously infected by the virus of socialist realism, resistance to politicizing literature lasted a long time, even when the “enemy” was long dead. Consequently, many bad writers were thought to be good only because they didn’t deal with politics, and the opposite was also true: The great Croatian writer Miroslav Krleza remains stigmatized for his friendship with Tito.

Many lives have been lost because of the written word. The history of kings and poets, commissioners and writers, patrons and artists, is soaked in blood; episodes of book burning and censorship occurred frequently; and the number of lives lost fighting for free speech is great. Some writers, when they found it profitable, became politically engaged, but others chose engagement although it was suicidal. To save their skins, some authors held that their work was autonomous, unconnected to society; others choose that view even when it led to actual (or moral) bankruptcy. The dynamic between the two poles—autonomy and engagement—has been particularly dramatic in the former Eastern Europe’s literatures, and although the political context has changed, it’s still relevant. Eastern European writers may lose their careers because of their writing or be named to ambassa­dorial posts. Even as Communism evolves into nationalism, the writer is still expected to be the voice of the people, or the people’s traitor.

The first Serbo-Croatian edition of Oil! slumbers quietly on the bookshelf in my eighty-two-year-old mother’s house. This book suggests several histories: those of American literature, Eastern European literatures, and Yugoslav literatures, no longer Yugoslav. My mother’s grandchildren do not know who Upton Sinclair is. My mother does. That’s why Granny is cool! Even though she also has no clue who Daniel Day-Lewis is.

Dubravka Ugresic is a novelist and essayist born in the former Yugoslavia, living as a freelance writer in Amsterdam. Her latest books are the novel The Ministry of Pain (Ecco, 2006) and the collection of essays Nobody’s Home, which will be published by Open Letter in September.

• • •

Norman Rush

Last time I met her, we were in a restaurant together. She slammed down the menu and screamed, “I hate reading!”

—Pamela Anderson on Paris Hilton’s distaste for the written word

Paris Hilton’s aversion is an extreme emblem of conditions obtaining in the evolving readership for novels of all kinds. Everybody knows the statistics: numbers of books read and books finished, scene length, vocabulary (vocabulary employed and vocabulary of readers)—all the indicators point down. The results of the UK’s National Year of Reading campaign have just been released: Two actual authors appear in the list of the top ten things read by teenagers, J. K. Rowling and Anne Frank, behind Heat magazine, online song lyrics, and Internet sites “that helped you cheat at computer games.” For the political novel in particular, the weakening grasp on actual history is a burden: A majority of young Brits think Winston Churchill is a fictional character and Sherlock Holmes an actual one. So when it comes to possible readers, the outlook’s not good.

Today, we live in Late Capitalism, a world system characterized by parliamentary styles of governance, accompanied by the undeclared hegemony of the limited-liability corporation and by the evaporation of any significant advocacy for an alternative system based on collective ownership—which was the core of the radicalism prevailing among political novelists until just about the other day. Protest against the existing economic order goes on in the form of fragmented populism, of ethical campaigning against assorted injustices. Maybe this sort of resistance will turn out to be a good thing—who knows? The great impediment to the absolute consolidation of Late Capitalism is the development of militant, chiliastic, antimodernist Islamic movements. Might Islam and Late Capitalism reach some grand accommodation? It’s under way in the realm of international banking, for instance, and tepid forms of Guided Democracy (as in Indonesia under Sukarno) are getting tryouts in some of the more forward-looking Muslim autocracies.

The above might be a rich scene for a political novelist to anatomize and dramatize, no doubt, but there is a problem. And the problem is . . . doomsday. The environmental crisis, a mosaic of threats to human flourishing that grows more complex by the day (global warming, acidification of the seas, water shortages . . . ), has a tendency to throw a dark shadow over the human arena. This crisis, it seems, is a summary outcome of humankind’s most innocent endeavors, to get and spend and to tame the planet. And the doomsday shadow tends to make the social struggles traditionally addressed by political novels seem parochial, in a way. It’s tough, these days, for what Lawrence called the one bright book of life.

Norman Rush is the author of Whites (1986), Mating (1991), which won the National Book Award, and Mortals (2003), all published by Knopf. He is completing a novel set in the Catskills titled Subtle Bodies.

• • •

Valerie Martin

Harold Pinter began his 2005 Nobel Prize speech with an observation about the relationship between reality and art: “There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false. I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them, but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?”

It’s a simple proposition: Artists are not obligated to take questions from the audience, but politicians are.

Perhaps the gradual blurring of the line between the genres of fiction and nonfiction, which is an echo of a deeper confusion about the nature of reality itself, is responsible for the American reader’s perverse and stubborn insistence that novelists owe them what politicians do not: answers to the questions “What is true?” and “What is false?” Sometime in the past twenty years, it has become clear that although Americans vehemently dislike being lied to, many do not really believe there is such a thing as fiction. A novel, in this view, is a thinly disguised story about its author. Authors are routinely invited to book clubs to explain to readers what they were trying to say in the book under review. The response that everything an author is trying to say about a novel is actually in the novel is considered unsatisfactory.

In such an atmosphere, overtly political novels are doomed to instant irrelevance; they will be treated as tracts. Two recent examples leap to mind: Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint and J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, both widely reviewed not as works of the fictive imagination (which knows a thing can be both true and false at the same time), but as trite expressions of authorial pique.

A novel is not an opinion; it’s an engagement. When novelists choose to reflect on the current political scene, they will likely have to contend with reviewers treating a provocative strategy as a personal judgment, and book-tour audiences expecting them to defend views they neither endorse nor reprehend. This prospect may intimidate the doughtiest among us and depress the enthusiasm to enter the fray. And in a free country, that is a crying shame.

Valerie Martin is the author of several novels and collections of stories. Her novel Property (2003), which recounts life on an antebellum plantation, won the Orange Prize.

• • •

Claire Messud

All literature is, in the broadest sense, political. In many places in the world—if only recently in America—just the decision to write is political. Look at any list of imprisoned or endangered writers, and this fact becomes abundantly clear. Beyond this first step, every literary decision, however unwittingly, implies a political choice: subject matter, most obviously, but questions of form no less so, insofar as they relate to a particular audience or articulate a particular vision of the world. When a writer chooses to use simplified or elevated diction, or to disrupt syntax, or to disdain conventional forms, this is, perforce, a political decision. Stories are the way humanity understands itself, and what stories are told, and how they are told, will determine who we are. This is merely to state the obvious.

Ours is not a culture that readily acknowledges these oblique political acts, and ours is a particularly conservative time. The challenge of relevance in a time and place in which literature is not a primary source of communication (compared with film, television, and popular music) is acute, and there are many contemporary writers and readers alike who, in this environment, would zealously deny the political altogether. But this is a misunderstanding: Fiction can, of course, take the form of directed satire or of message-driven propaganda, but the most powerful and lasting—and, indeed, the most political—fiction is not of this stripe. It is bigger than that: It addresses a politics of humanity. My private canon consists of writers whose acclaim does not stem from recognizably political pronouncements—Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Svevo, Beckett, and Bernhard are all intensely engaged writers whose daring lies both in their formal courage and in their resonant apprehensions of individual fate.

A writer’s endeavor must surely be to eschew orthodoxy of any kind, not to preach to the converted—indeed, not to preach at all, but rather to convey, as best as possible and as comprehensively as one can, a world, known or imagined. To conjure the world as it might have been, to reflect the world as it is, to imagine the world as it could be—all are, or should be, radical deeds. And while we all assert that “poetry makes nothing happen,” none of us actually believe this, for if we did, we wouldn’t write. Every writer is a leader in her own fictional country, and every writer aims, through his pages, to make readers see their world anew. In our blinded nation, in our unsettled yet disturbingly complacent times, this may seem a Herculean task, but without faith in the remote possibility of success, who would bother?

Claire Messud is the author of four novels, the most recent of which is The Emperor’s Children (Knopf, 2006).

• • •

Margot Livesey

A few years ago, I taught George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in a course for MFA students about form in fiction. It was the single work that every student in the class had heard of—newspeak, doublethink, and Big Brother are so firmly entrenched in the culture—but that none had read. As for me, I had last read it secretly—I was meant to be studying King Lear—in high school English class when I was seventeen. We set out to read it together.

Critics have frequently acknowledged Orwell’s political ambitions for the novel, but what was striking to me, and my students as well, was how artfully the author constructs Winston Smith’s totalitarian London, and the choices he makes about Winston’s increasingly subversive behavior. I had remembered, of course, the passionate relationship with Julia, but I had forgotten that Winston’s first devious act is to buy a beautiful blank notebook and start writing in it. And Julia’s first such act with Winston is to pass him a note with three words: “I love you.” Nothing, Orwell suggests, could be more dangerous than writing. Indeed, two of Big Brother’s major projects are the eradication or revision of the past and the narrowing of language to the point that certain thoughts are no longer possible. Winston and Julia embark on their affair knowing they are doomed and knowing that no private act, or thought, will change the regime; only the proles, unbeknownst to themselves, have the power to do that.

And in that dichotomy surely lie some of the difficulties of the novel as a political act. As readers, as writers, we are committed to the individual, hence the many wonderful novels bearing witness to tragedy and atrocity. But that very commitment makes it hard for novels to take on another aspect of reality: the power of larger forces—be they big businesses or duly elected governments—in our lives.

Sitting up in bed, reading the New York Times during his final illness, my father-in-law gestured to the headlines about Guantánamo Bay and said, “During the Second World War, I knew how to be a good citizen. I don’t know how any longer.” Novelists may aspire to be good, or better, citizens by writing about the larger political landscape, but the form is against them. The last third of 1984 is devoted to Big Brother torturing and rehabilitating Winston. “He loved Big Brother” is the final, piercing sentence. Only long after I finished teaching the novel did it occur to me how oddly sentimental it is to think that a regime would spend so much time on one middle-aged man.

Margot Livesey grew up in Scotland. She is the author of several novels, including Criminals (Knopf, 1996), The Missing World (Knopf, 2000), and Eva Moves the Furniture (Henry Holt, 2001). Her new novel, The House on Fortune Street, was recently published by HarperCollins.

• • •

Zakes Mda

Writers are profoundly connected to society. Public discourse informs their writing, and if the writer is influential enough, he or she will reciprocate. In apartheid South Africa, where I developed as a writer, the highly charged political environment accentuated this relationship. You could not write a simple love story without touching on politics, because apartheid limited the circle of those you were allowed to love, the residential areas that were open to you, the educational institutions that you and your loved one were permitted to attend, and the professions from which you were not barred—all based on a state-determined hierarchy of complexion. It stood to reason, then, that my work and that of my fellow writers would be unambiguously political and would address apartheid. Apartheid was the dominant discourse in that society.

When I wrote my most recent novel, Cion, set in Ohio and Virginia, I was determined that my characters should be driven solely by psychology and that overt politics should play no role. This was in keeping with the aversion to such political expression that I had observed in most contemporary American fiction. (I use the modifier overt because whether we define politics as social relations involving authority or just the conflicting interrelationships among people in society, all human interaction is political.)

However, in my involvement with the real-life community depicted in my novel, I found that it was impossible to escape politics. Not only was the marginalization of that Appalachian community a result of political decisions and actions over the years, but politics also dominated discussion whenever members of the community gathered. When the women came together to sew their elaborate quilts at the community center, they gossiped about the latest events in the town and complained about how George W. Bush was planning to privatize Social Security: “He wants to gamble with it on the stock market,” they said. Men reminisced about the historical events that had shaped their community and pondered the political action that had to be taken to change their situation.

Such experiences convinced me that contemporary American fiction, in striving to be apolitical, actually fails to reflect the preoccupations of the American reader, who recognizes that politics, however defined, makes up a vital part of American life.

Zakes Mda is a South African author and painter currently working as a professor of creative writing at Ohio University. His latest novel is Cion (Picador, 2007).

• • •

Siddhartha Deb

1. In 1869, Flaubert publishes A Sentimental Education, the mother of all modern novels. As workers erect barricades for the revolution of 1848, the character Frédéric Moreau waits anxiously for the married Madame Arnoux in a seedy hotel room. She doesn’t come, he never makes love to her, he misses the revolution. 2. In 1922, the Hungarian critic György Lukács is enraged by German excitement for a novel by Rabindranath Tagore. Calling Ghare-Baire (Home and the World) “Tagore’s Gandhi novel,” Lukács describes the novelist as a bourgeois reformist seeking to check the Indian revolutionary struggle against imperialism. It should be said that Tagore’s critique of Indian radicals came from his unease with nationalism rather than any love for the British Empire. But Lukács’s summary of the novel (“how the wife of a ‘good and honest’ man is seduced by a romantic adventurer”) suggests that, once again, adultery has distracted the characters from the work of revolution. 3. Neither Flaubert nor Tagore is significant in my early encounters with the relationship between adultery and revolution in the novel. Instead, I am impressed by the Bolshevik novel And Quiet Flows the Don. Written in the ’20s by Mikhail Sholokhov, this is an approved text of the revolution. Yet within its vast expanses of wheat and history, charging cavalrymen and ossified feudalism, there is an adulterous affair between Grigori and the wife of a fellow Cossack, offering a remarkable instance in which the forces of libido and historical materialism appear to coincide. 4. In the ’90s, I take classes at Columbia University with Franco Moretti. In Moretti’s The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture, I read that nineteenth-century English writers, unlike their European counterparts, did not write novels of adultery. 5. I would like to add to this my observation that they also did not write novels of revolution, failed or otherwise. The one possible candidate is Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859. But quite aside from its (reactionary) depiction of the French Revolution, it is at pains to avoid both adultery and revolution: It sends its hero, Sydney Carton, who is in love with a woman in love with another man, to the guillotine; and because it is written in 1859, two years after the Indian uprising of 1857, Dickens in writing about one revolution is not writing about another revolution. 6. In more contemporary times, the English write a number of novels of adultery. To my knowledge, they have not yet written many novels of revolution. 7. In 2007, the English writer Hari Kunzru writes a novel called My Revolutions. I have not yet read it. It may be a novel of revolution. I do not know whether it is a novel of adultery. 8. Is adultery a necessary and sufficient condition for a novel of revolution? Or is it an obstacle to such utopian hopes? Marx himself, from what I can tell, is not useful on this question. The single reference to adultery I have found in a database of Marxist works is by Engels, who writes that in the transition from the iron grip of feudal oppression to the silky domination of the bourgeoisie, “marriage itself remained, as before, the legally recognised form, the official cloak of prostitution, and, moreover, was supplemented by rich crops of adultery.” This is both confusing and a mixed metaphor. 10. In conclusion, in choosing to write a novel of the revolution, it may or may not be possible to include adultery as a complementary theme. It is better, however, to write either a novel of adultery or a novel of revolution, or a novel in which the revolution is deferred by adultery, or a novel in which adultery is frustrated by revolution, than not to write a novel at all.

Siddhartha Deb is the author of the novels The Point of Return (2003) and An Outline of the Republic (2005; both Ecco). A writer-in-residence at the New School, he is currently working on a nonfiction book on India.