Extreme stories –– the cold war years

From the Spanish civil war onwards, writers were forced to negotiate a perilous intellectual divide.

The political novel - the urgent, morally committed depiction of conflicts and tragedies - flourished during the 1930s and 1940s, amid depression, fascism and total war, when Soviet communism was the socialist star on an otherwise darkening horizon. This era spawned some of the finest political fiction and drama we have known: Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, André Malraux, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus were all writing at full throttle.

In my opinion, the cold war - and the fiction it created - begins in the 1930s with the Spanish civil war. Young writers made the pilgrimage to Republican Spain and some of them died. Orwell escaped death by a whisker, as a bullet passed through his neck. Malraux led an air squadron and produced a novel of electric expressionism, Man's Hope (1937). Hemingway settled down to the measured, crafted story-telling of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). But if anti-fascism was the point of departure for all these writers, they would soon divide over the nature of the Stalinist intervention in Spain.

Dos Passos, the most formally innovative of all interwar novelists, chose to turn Adventures of a Young Man (1939) into a howl of protest against communist chicanery. Orwell himself went for a mix of autobiography and reportage in Homage to Catalonia (1938), an indictment of Stalinist tactics in which he talked himself out of Left Book Club patronage and into embittered isolation.

Koestler lied his Stalinist way through Spanish Testament (1937) before shedding his skin and launching the age of communist apostasy with a compelling novel about the Moscow show trials, Darkness at Noon (1940), which summed up the growing disenchantment on the European left. Koestler explores how a seasoned old Bolshevik, Rubashov, a veteran of Comintern campaigns, could be induced to confess to crimes he had not committed. Torture? A promise of leniency? Koestler's answer, based on his reading of the real trial of Nikolai Bukharin, is strikingly more sinister.

So was launched a succession of novels - also including Victor Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1950) - which mapped the extinction of leftist optimism and brought down the curtain on the utopian phase in the history of the Soviet Union. Orwell produced a punishing pair of dystopias: Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The implicit message of the former is that the one salient factor in human nature overlooked by Karl Marx is the innate lust for power. Nineteen Eighty-Four, which brought Orwell global renown, extends the argument about power as an end in itself.

By now, the term "totalitarian" had become the critical signifier in western cold war culture, merging the Nazi and communist systems under a single anathema. The cry was "freedom".

Sartre and Camus also wrestled with the meaning of freedom, while de Beauvoir's novel The Mandarins (1954) faithfully charted the growing divide between the two intellectuals she knew so well. (Koestler briefly appeared in her bed around this time, an event recorded in the novel with cruel precision, though less vulgarity than Koestler's depiction, in 1951's The Age of Longing, of Sartre and de Beauvoir waving their legs in the air as a Soviet invasion looms.) Sartre's Roads to Freedom trilogy provides the most patient and meticulous account of how the French left fell into disarray after

the war. Malraux, meanwhile, expressed his fierce, Gaullist anti-communism through non-fictional polemic. Sartre, too, resorted to non-fiction once his anti-Americanism finally outstripped his misgivings about Stalinism. A comparable distrust of US foreign policy during the McCarthy era can be found in Graham Greene's laconic indictment of CIA-sponsored terrorism in French Vietnam, The Quiet American (1955).

By the 1950s, modernism and a commitment to art for art's sake prevailed in western university faculties (if not among the wider reading public, which will always prefer a strong story and characters with whom one can engage). "Propaganda" and "ideology" were regarded as alien to accomplished art and literature. Not that western critical canons were remotely consistent. Orwell was applauded, as were dissident novels from the eastern bloc. When the opportunity arose to celebrate the civic courage and liberal vision of Boris Pasternak or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prizes were rapidly wheeled out.

The Russians, for their part, were keen to contribute to the divorce. The Soviet campaign against "decadent formalism" - Joyce's Ulysses was denounced as "a dungheap swarming with worms" - extended to all experimental literature, which was condemned as "the art of a dying class". As Sartre put it: "The Communists can neither swallow nor vomit up the enormous Picasso." The Soviet party line consecrated "socialist realism". Writers were expected to be engineers of human souls.

Stalin Prizes were awarded to Alexander Fadeyev, Pyotr Pavlenko, Konstantin Simonov and Vsevolod Kochetov. But even such baubles, and a post in the USSR Union of Writers, could not protect Fadeyev from the demand that he rewrite The Young Guard in order to stave off the impression that young members of the Soviet resistance on the Eastern Front had lacked leadership in the face of the German onslaught.

The voices of resistance to Stalinism remained stifled. Word of purges, widespread informing to the NKVD and the concentration camps of the Gulag began to surface in the manuscripts of Pasternak, Lydia Chukovskaya and Vasily Grossman. Chukovskaya's portraits of fear and trauma in pre-war Leningrad (The Deserted House; Going Under) stood no chance of publication. The only copy of Grossman's monumental historical novel Life and Fate (completed in 1959) was seized from his home. Andrei Sinyavsky's solution was to publish in the west under the pseudonym Abram Tertz, though this eventually resulted in a show trial and imprisonment.

Pasternak stepped out on to dangerous terrain by permitting publication of Doctor Zhivago in the west in 1957 after the Soviet establishment rejected it. His offence was to treat the entire Bolshevik experience from the time of Lenin as a dark aberration. Uproar ensued in Moscow and western capitals. In fear of forced exile - if not for his life - Pasternak felt compelled to turn down his Nobel Prize. He died heartbroken.

The post-Stalin "thaw" allowed Russian writers more flexibility, even though, as in Vladimir Dudintsev's Not By Bread Alone (1956), fictional protagonists still had to be communists at heart, just more loyal to Leninist ideals than the party apparatchiks. The breakthrough (though it would prove to be a false dawn) came when, in 1962, Khrushchev permitted the publication of Solzhenitsyn's novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in which could be heard the authentic voice of the former political prisoner, the zek. After the fall of Khrushchev in 1964, the Soviet
establishment set about suppressing Solzhenitsyn's subversive portrayals of Stalin and Soviet power in Cancer Ward (1967) and The First
(1968). Meanwhile, Georgi Vladimov's spellbinding allegory of the Gulag system, Faithful Ruslan, remained unpublished.

In the west, Vietnam and the emergence of the New Left in the 1960s released political energies among novelists, dramatists and poets. But for Norman Mailer, E L Doctorow and the poet Allen Ginsberg, there was no way back to the old realism. Perhaps the most arresting example of the late revival of US cold war fiction is Doctorow's The Book of Daniel (1971), which merges realist narrative with modernist techniques. Doctorow retells the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg through the eyes of their fictionalised son Daniel as he comes to maturity in the late 1960s. The Rosenbergs were sent to the electric chair in 1953, and we know now that they were guilty of espionage. But this novel remains an absorbing exploration of how America became "Amerika".

David Caute's "Politics and the Novel During the Cold War" is published by Transaction (£42.50)