BOOKS / Reading Matters: Novel power: back to basics: I I Magdalen asks why politics and literature don't mix

Teaching Italian history, I have come to realise that for all the excellence of Dennis Mack Smith, nothing tells the student what life was like in unifying Italy quite so well as two novels: Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma and Lampedusa's The Leopard.

Fiction presents where history relates, and only occasionally, as in Harold Acton's wonderful history of the Neapolitan Bourbons, or Michelet's History of the French Revolution, is the historian also an artist, engaged by character, plot and appearance.

The question is: why are so few overtly 'political' novels successful, either as novels or as politics? There are remarkable portraits of politicians - Edwin O'Connor's picture of the bizarre and tyrannical Boston Mayor Curley in The Last Hurrah, and Robert Penn Warren's acidly loving portrait of the Louisiana populist Huey Long - but they seem curiously dated.

Such outsized politicians perhaps no longer exist: with the exception of such recent oddities as Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Or perhaps it is that our disillusionment with politicians - what sort of men are attracted to this as a profession, save those who aspire to self-enhancement and greed for the lowest order of power? - is now so great that only newspaper editors, who share some of their problems, take them seriously.

Literature has a more ambivalent attitude: it distinguishes between politics as a part of civil life and politics as a profession. This may be why, distance helping clarity, so many 'political' novels are set in the past. From Marguerite Yourcenar's 1951 novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, through the Claudius series of Robert Graves and Rex Warner's underestimated anatomies of Caesar, they push present problems into the past, making them metaphorical in the same way as Cavafy's Roman poems.

Writing contemporary history in fictional form (the craft has been an eastern European speciality for the last 40 years) has its problems. One difficulty is that such writers do not see the wood for the trees. They give us a circumspect portrait of what is, and what is may not be very interesting. Apart from a few remarkable scenes, Andre Malraux's two once-hot novels, Man's Hope and The Human Condition, survive only as a relic of their author's own quixotic personality.

The lesson, for reader and writer alike, is that fiction starts with character and not with ideas. While for my generation Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon - based on fictional materials gathered by a far more interesting writer, Victor Serge - remains fixed in the mind as an ideological image of the dark times of totalitarianism, it may well be that more modest and more intimate, more novelistic efforts will survive better.

One could not, for instance, accuse Louis Guilloux of being non-political (he went to the USSR with Andre Gide), but the continuing fascination of his books lies in the stories he tells. One of the very few genuinely proletarian writers in this century (he married his teacher, who pushed him from boiler-making into writing), he caught the atmosphere of inter-war France in a way almost no other writer has.

Sang Noir, untranslated since the Thirties, perfectly mirrors the despair of the Great War; a series of later novellas examines the fall-out of the Spanish Civil War far better than Hemingway's posturings in For Whom the Bell Tolls; and Jeux de Patience is, alongside Beppe Fenoglio's Partisan Johnny, a definitive portrayal of what 'resistance' was: a horrid mix of high idealism, greed, and the settling of scores.

These latter writers are what we might call the 'realists' of the political novel; they describe. But the dominant tendency is metaphorical. Stendhal's Parma, like the Leopard-Prince of Salina's Palermo, is metaphorical. So too is the imperial court in the first real novel, which is also the first political novel, the Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji. Consider Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, that perfect metaphor for the creeping growth of the Soviet Gulag.

Both 1984 and Animal Farm, the one a dystopia, the other a fable, will keep Orwell read when Graham Greene's truculent anti- Americanism is forgotten: because they are not based on an evanescent spirit of the times. All those politicising Latin American novelists and Nobel- hunters in their day, from Miguel-Angel Asturias to Jorge Amado to Carlos Fuentes, fold up their tents alongside the metaphorising power of Euclides da Cunha's Rebellion in the Backlands from the last century - the exception, perhaps, being Mario Vargas Llosa's prodigiously cunning The War of the End of the World. Compare any Mexican realist 'peasant' novel with a political bias to Martin Luis Guzman's deadpan histories of Mexican horrors.

How then does one write political literature in our time? A good example is Erich van Salomon's classic, Fragebogen,

or The Questionnaire. Van Salomon's is widely detested: his early proto-Fascist novels are not read, though they were richly plundered for material by Gunter Grass. But his reply to the Occupation Authorities' demand that he set down his life and affiliations, burningly anti-American, is a great document as well as literature. This is a difficult art to master, but it can be done, and it is the human content that does it, not the political. Reading Fragebogen, one says to oneself: that was a life and those were times.

Good writers understand the role accident plays in history, how we suffer events, and how much richer human life is than mere politics. Politicians and purveyors of a political 'science' are sick with an illusion, that they will shape us; refractory human beings that we are, we will always (so long as the current Academy allows us to keep our major writers in print) turn to literature for illumination.

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