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Don’t read this book: A history of literary censorship

Leo Robson reviews three new works concerned with banned literature.

A Nazi book-burning. Photo: Getty
A Nazi book-burning. Photo: Getty

The Zhivago Affair: the Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book 
Peter Finn and Petra Couvée
Harvill Secker, 350pp, £20


The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses 
Kevin Birmingham
Head of Zeus, 420pp, £20


The Rushdie Fatwa and After: a Lesson to the Circumspect 
Brian Winston
Palgrave Macmillan, 161pp, £55

“I think you must distinguish between a passage which says that homosexuals are sometimes happy and a passage which says: come and be a homosexual,” Frank Kermode argued at the 1967 obscenity trial in London for Hubert Selby Jr’s novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. In a later essay, he elaborated: “We have not always believed that poems, plays and novels should carry the label ‘No road through to action’, but we have believed it for a long time.” Well, we don’t seem to believe it any more, judging by the success of Oprah’s Book Club and Alain de Botton, or by the ubiquity of biblio-memoirs and testaments about “the book that changed my life”. And did we really believe it then? Although the Selby trial coincided with the battle for gay rights – homosexual acts were legalised the same year – and formed part of the story later charted in John Sutherland’s book Offensive Literature: Decensorship in Britain 1960-1982, the broader context for Kermode’s remarks was the ongoing cultural cold war, in which the CIA and the Kremlin and, for that matter, a large contingent of professional critics believed strongly in the relationship between writing and advocacy, reading and action, as Kermode knew all too well.

Earlier in 1967, Kermode had resigned from the co-editorship of Encounter magazine over revelations – which came as news to just about no one – that its original backer, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, was in turn being funded by the CIA. Kermode later noted that his own business had mainly been with “the non-political part of the magazine”, the arts and books pages, but the aim of the Congress for Cultural Freedom was not to liberate culture from politics but to emphasise the connection between culture and liberal politics at a time of legitimate fears that literature was seen as a far-left pursuit. As Frances Stonor Saunders writes in her formidable book Who Paid the Piper?: “The whole premise of the cultural cold war, of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, was that writers and artists had to engage themselves in the ideological struggle.”

The CIA had made its most direct and best-known intrusion into cultural matters almost a decade before Kermode appeared at the Old Bailey, in what Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, in their new book, call “the Zhivago affair” – when agents energetically distributed copies of Boris Pasternak’s novel, denied publication in the Soviet Union. (Its first publisher was based in Italy.) The cultural cold war wasn’t an argument over whether literature had something to do with politics; it was a competition. The kind of book that the Soviets banned because it criticised the revolution – both semi-directly by exposing its bad products, and more implicitly, in its embrace of un-Soviet “individualism” – was the kind of book the CIA wanted Russians to be reading. The belief underpinning such activities is that contemplation and action are closer than Kermode believed – or believed that “we” believed. Finn and Couvée quote a CIA spokesman who talked about literature’s ability to “reinforce dispositions”, to say, in essence, “yes, you can be a homosexual”, or “cultivate your bourgeois instincts”.

The Iranian critic Azar Nafisi, in her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, recalls the experience of having her disposition as a secular feminist in 1990s Iran reinforced by nothing more direct than the “multivocal­ity” of Pride and Prejudice: “We needed no message, no outright call for plurality . . . All we needed was to read and appreciate the cacophony of voices to understand its democratic imperative. This was where Austen’s danger lay.” One of the narratives in Philip Hensher’s new novel, The Emperor Waltz, about a gay bookshop, offers a nuanced picture of what homosexual literature might be saying to the reader. The Big Gay Bookshop isn’t in the business of conversion exactly, but it likes the idea that novels provide consolation or comfort, assuring “one person after another . . . that you could live your life openly”.

For Nafisi and Hensher, literature’s capa­city to communicate ideas and even messages is not a betrayal of its subtlety, but one of its greatest virtues – and one that depends on “literary” qualities. (Nafisi’s heroes are Austen, F Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov; Hensher’s are Angus Wilson, Edmund White, Robert Liddell and Alan Hollinghurst.)

An often heard literary argument against censorship is that – as well as misrepresenting novels – it dominates their reputations. Kermode, in one of many essays on Pasternak, expressed the hope that the “fortuitous political celebrity” of Doctor Zhivago “will not predispose readers to treat it as primarily a brave piece of propaganda”. But it would be hard to argue that Pasternak had not intended – if never solely – to challenge orthodoxies and wound sensibilities. Kermode reasoned that Doctor Zhivago touches on revolutionary politics only to compare them to “natural plenitude and true human liberty”; even putting the argument in those obscuring terms, it is clear why the novel might have given a fearful government cause for concern.

A more legitimate literary objection to censorship is its implicit portrayal of a reader as the sort of person who jumps off a cliff when asked. Notions such as “obscenity” or “abasement before the west” make literary language a tool of subversion and ascribe to the novelist the hypnotist’s capacity for making a previously obedient or prudish member of the public throw stones or unzip. In censorship’s official, airbrushed view of the reading experience, dispositions are imposed, not reinforced. As J M Coetzee argued in Giving Offence: Essays on Censorship, “it is a feature of the paranoid logic of the censoring mentality that virtue, qua virtue, must be innocent, and therefore, unless protected, vulnerable to the wiles of vice.”

James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, published in France in 1922, is a special victim of this paranoid logic, having suffered censorship for diametrically opposite reasons. In the Soviet view, Joyce – or “Dzhois”, as he was known – didn’t criticise the revolution and its products, but he was accused by Stalinist critics, mainly in the 1930s, of showing decadence in form and pessimism about the future, which made him an opponent of socialist realism (one judgement said that “Joyce’s path and the path of Soviet literature form an angle of 180 degrees”).

But as Kevin Birmingham records in The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, long before the cold war or its cultural offshoot, the novel was being equated with Soviet tendencies. John Sumner, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, posited links between Joyce and the Bolsheviks, and a London police inspector declared a Stepney librarian who requested a copy “a red hot Socialist”. Joyce was too bourgeois for the east and too Bolshevik for the west, though the official charge in England and America was obscenity, the relevant definition being that of an 1868 interpretation of the Obscene Publications Act, or “Hicklin rule”, which put the emphasis on “the tendency . . . to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall”.

Birmingham has unearthed every last detail about the novel’s tribulations, but his argument is tendentious and short-sighted. He wants to portray the modernist “battle” against obscenity laws as consistent not just with its author’s lifelong desire to create mischief – “Joyce’s record of foul language began when he was seven years old” – but with the anti-establishment mood of the early 20th century. If sentimental misconceptions about literature’s subtlety and discreteness lie at one extreme of commentary on censorship, then sentimental misconceptions about its crusading power, its evergreen friendship with progressive causes, lie at the other extreme.

“For modernist writers,” Birmingham writes, “literature was a battle against an obsolete civilisation . . . Censorship was the tyranny of established cultural standards.” Knowledge of the book’s reception is read back into its author’s intentions, almost as if Joyce wrote the book in order to expose the stupidity of obscenity law. But as Birmingham knows, Joyce’s target, the one he waged war against with “what I write and say and do”, was the Catholic Church – hardly dominant in the countries where Ulysses was prosecuted. Birmingham’s Joyce – Joyce the foul-mouthed libertine – can never be truly free because he is so much a slave to his disobedience, his refusal to “yield to the demands of bourgeois governments and markets”. There is a difference between breaking rules and living for nothing else, and Birmingham, in presenting the fate of Ulysses as the most significant thing about it, has clouded the distinction.

Everything is seen through the lens of obscenity law. Birmingham ascribes F R Leavis’s isolation at Cambridge to his decision to assign Ulysses as a text for study. As shown by his impatience with the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – and his refusal to testify for the defence – Leavis cared nothing about freedom as an end in itself. He wanted to teach  Ulysses because he thought it was relevant to a course he was teaching, rather than as a way of giving the finger to Cambridge or the government.

Birmingham says that “decades later” people were still saying, “We don’t like the books he gives undergraduates,” yet Leavis, in the article Birmingham quotes, recalled remarks like that “at the time of Lawrence’s death” in 1930 – four years after Leavis had entered the Galloway & Porter bookshop to request a copy of Ulysses. In the subsequent decades, Leavis did plenty to irritate his colleagues. (Ironically, the central proof of his lack of favour was that he was never made professor, a title Birmingham gives him more than once.) A reference to Nab­okov is similarly skewed: “Lolita . . . would not have been possible without Ulysses. ‘Oh, yes,’ Nabokov said, ‘let people compare me to Joyce by all means, but my English is pat ball to Joyce’s champion game.’ ” In context, and even out of it, this remark has nothing whatsoever to do with obscenity; coming as it does at the end of Birmingham’s book, it reminds you of all the ways in which, by adopting the polar opposite of Kermode’s stance, he has short-changed his subject and understated Joyce’s literary importance.

Ulysses and Doctor Zhivago belong to the same volatile era, when a book could be punished for threatening or celebrating bourgeois ideals. That era came to an end in the 1980s. Glasnost fulfilled what Khrushchev’s “thaw” – the period in which Doctor Zhivago was smuggled out of Russia – had only promised; Pasternak’s novel became formally available to the Russian public in 1988 when Novy Mir, the literary journal, began publishing excerpts, and Izvestia began serialising Ulysses, legally available in England and America since the mid-1930s, in Russian translation the following year. Attention in the west shifted from obscene publications to visual pornography. Novels on erotic and homosexual themes were published without reprisal. But then, in February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced Salman Rushdie to death for insulting Allah in The Satanic Verses, starting a familiar but subtly distinctive argument and raising the curtain on yet another “battle”.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, welcomed by the right as “the end of history”, with democracy as the outright and eternal victor, ought to have made things easier for the left, cutting Marxism-Leninism off from actually existing totalitarianism. With crimes no longer being committed in his name – at least not in Europe – Marx could once again become the author of numerous articles in defence of free expression, which Stalinists had preferred to dismiss as products of the young Marx, still gulled by “humanism”.

Instead, the situation became newly complicated. The cold war had produced an Anglo-American backlash not of cultural neutralism and retreat from politics, but of wholesale politicisation, with particular emphasis on feminist, post-colonial and Marxist readings; beyond the academy, a similar process of revisionism and wrong-righting was at work in political correctness. As Brian Winston points out in his thoughtful new book, The Rushdie Fatwa and After: a Lesson to the Circumspect, liberal acceptance of alien belief systems hobbled liberalism’s “ability to deal with any root-and-branch rejections of its values”. Cultural relativism/political correctness found it as hard to defend Rushdie against the charge of hurting Muslim feelings as it did to condemn Khomeini’s fatwa – or, as it became when the ayatollah died in June 1989, hukm (a fatwa dies with its issuer).

Winston’s book is helped by the public nature of the Rushdie affair. Birmingham, a literary historian eager to emphasise the importance of the Ulysses trials, thanks “countless” librarians; Finn and Couvée, respectively a reporter and a translator, found material for a non-fiction thriller (they describe the CIA book-smuggling programme as a “caper”). But there is nothing clandestine, nothing cloak-and-dagger, about a fatwa. The facts have been amply documented, most recently by Rushdie himself in his strange and unappealing memoir Joseph Anton. Winston is therefore free, having cantered quickly through the logistics, to consider the ironies and contradictions, and to offer “a lesson”.

He is also helped by the clarity of the charges made against Rushdie. Unlike obscenity or political subversion, blasphemy is seen as an end in itself. Ayatollah Khomeini, in ordering Muslims to punish Rushdie, made no reference to a knock-on effect. The reply, often enough heard, that the fatwa turned literature into agitprop is not strictly accurate. Rushdie wasn’t accused of saying “be a sceptic”, but was said to have shown disrespect to Allah, which by most definitions he did.

The relevant reply is not that literature doesn’t incite, implore, proselytise, recommend, disrespect, but that it can incite, implore, proselytise, recommend, disrespect whatever it pleases. To the peculiar emphasis on Rushdie as a “fictionist” – the word used by Christopher Hitchens, his shrewdest supporter – Winston calmly points out: “Claiming such writing as fiction is pointless because what is fiction, in any case, but lies? . . . Fiction, like drunkenness in a case of dangerous driving, exacerbates the offence.”

Another thing that distinguishes Winston’s book is the live reality, the continuing urgency and pathos, of the conflict he describes – his “after” isn’t over. Birmingham recounts the Ulysses scandal as a piece of Whig history; there’s a happy-ever-after tone to his claim that “you do not worry about your words being banned partly because of what happened to Ulysses”. Finn and Couvée end their book by quoting the description by David Remnick, a Moscow correspondent during perestroika, of ordinary Russian men and women on the Metro, reading their sky-blue copies of Novy Mir. When Pasternak had died in 1960, Kermode referred to the “reinstatement which will follow at some convenient time in the future”; and here it was, less than 30 years later. But it is difficult to show such confidence about the day when the people of Tehran will be permitted to read The Satanic Verses or the “more objectionable passages” (still banned) of Ulysses; to follow or ignore the guidance they may or may not be offering. 

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s chief fiction reviewer