In uncertain times, fiction can be better at politics than politicians. Here, in part one of our guide to political novels, New Statesman friends and contributors share the books that make sense of the world.
Although it’s a book with many themes, what stands the test of time is Robert Penn Warren’s portrait of a ruthless politician whose fiery rhetoric and embrace of the idea of the “common man” gains him the unswerving devotion of his constituents. Warren stated that “journalistic relevance” has little to do with any novel’s ultimate merit, but there can be no doubt that his narrative of Willie Stark’s rise and his near-cannibalistic appetite for power continues to resonate. People talk about Nineteen Eighty-Four and It Can’t Happen Here as novels that foreshadow America’s current swerve to the right, but in my opinion neither delineates the rise of Donald Trump (and his ardent supporters) as clearly as this one.
This is a magnificent novel set in Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1943. It is complex, wise, unsentimental and very moving. It feels true, both emotionally and in a “lived experience” sort of way. Among its characters is Mrs Seidenman, who is Jewish but has blonde hair and blue eyes and is therefore able to try to pass as non-Jewish in order to stay alive. The novel elegantly explores the devastating human cost of having a madman in power – the small and the big humiliations, the coarsening of humanity and the egregiously selective way that some human beings are afforded basic dignity and others are not.
Donald Trump keeps promising to “make America great again”. It’s a rallying cry that seems to resonate with his followers, and he proclaims himself the only man for the job. But what does “greatness” consist of, exactly? In political terms, what are the qualities that make a “great man”? Writing in the early 1740s, Henry Fielding answered that question by fictionalising the life of the thief and gang leader Jonathan Wild and drawing a specific analogy between the ruthless exercise of political power and criminality.
A great man, Fielding insists, cannot be a good man, “for greatness consists in bringing all manner of mischief on mankind, and goodness in removing it from them. It seems therefore very unlikely that the same person should possess them both.” Besides being a timeless and universal political satire, the book is also an attack on Prime Minister Robert Walpole and the sleazy machinations of his party as politicians betray and double-cross each other while jostling for power. Parallels with our present administration are not hard to find.
Not a novel, but a tremendous piece of Roman fiction and the only work of Latin literature ever to have made me laugh out loud. Seneca’s short satire The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius wonderfully takes the mickey out of the doddery old
autocrat’s attempts to become a god after his death. The story starts with his funeral, shows him travelling to Mount Olympus to argue his case (unsuccessfully) in front of the assembled deities and ends with him consigned to Hades as a menial slave for eternity. It’s the perfect antidote to the claim that the Romans had neither the wit nor the imagination to send up their own political institutions.
Edward Bellamy’s novel is a compelling description of a utopian 21st-century America run by an enlightened state in which a highly industrialised economy is organised so that work has become a pleasure rather than a chore. Citizens retire at 45 and culture and learning have been elevated to a quasi-religious status. The book has an unusual history, partly because it is less well known than the one it inspired: William Morris wrote News from Nowhere as a rebuke to Bellamy, because the English socialist was appalled by the American author’s belief that emancipation lay in harnessing industry and state planning to cure society’s ills. Morris set out his alternative vision of an agrarian paradise.
Looking Backward was a sensation when it was published. Bellamy societies were set up around America and the author became an overnight celebrity. It is always curious to read our ancestors’ predictions about the future, and that’s part of the joy of this book. Bellamy anticipates a form of Spotify – the book’s protagonist describes how free music is piped into every home through the phone network. He predicts a rudimentary form of debit card and describes how warehouses selling every conceivable product deliver straight to customers’ homes.
Given America’s aversion to socialism, it is interesting to read a book that inspired so many of the country’s citizens to sign up to some of its central tenets. It’s a slightly clumsy take on the future, but there is much to be gained by reminding ourselves of how our forefathers imagined our world might turn out – even if many of those predictions were wildly optimistic.
Tom Watson is the deputy leader of the Labour Party
In her 1971 essay “The Desegregation of Art”, Muriel Spark argues, “The only effective art of our particular time is the satirical, the harsh and witty, the ironic and derisive. Because we have come to a moment in history when we are surrounded on all sides and oppressed by the absurd.” I do so wish she were alive today to brandish her scalpel. But in 1974, she produced The Abbess of Crewe, in which the Watergate scandal is transferred from Richard Nixon’s America to a nunnery in England. Conversations are bugged, an election is rigged and the Kissinger-esque figure of Sister Gertrude travels the world doing deals. It’s short, completely nuts, as broad as the White House lawn and brutally effective.
Sometimes a book makes a splash, then time passes and it’s forgotten. The Corrections was published seven years before the great financial correction of 2008, but Jonathan Franzen’s dynastic portrait of a society sent spinning off its axis by the imbalance of tradition and modernity seems to gain in greatness with time. I spent three years doing 21 drafts of a script for a film version that was never made, but I will never regret a moment I spent in that book’s company. Can we remake ourselves? Are we our parents? How can today’s America, which makes nothing except money, compete with the memory of an America that once made railroads and industries? These questions have never been addressed with such style and wit. It’s as good as The Magnificent Ambersons.
I came to The Book of Daniel by way of the first line of another hugely political novel, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963). Who were they, the Rosenbergs? I was 15. I went to the library in Aberdeen and looked them up on microfiche. When I read The Book of Daniel a couple of years later – a wounded fictionalising of the aftermath of the executions, a story of the children of political expediency, madness, violence, breakage, love, the complexity of humanity against political odds – it gave me despair both personal and communal as radical impetus, the real world and the imaginative form as family and the novel as a fresh and other politic.
The Country Girls (1960)
by Edna O’Brien
The most important political novels are never really about politics with a capital P. Rather, they aim to capture the consequences of politics on real (that’s to say imaginary-real) people’s lives: in a particular time or place, setting down in fiction how political decisions made in London, Dublin, Beijing or Washington might liberate, or destroy, or transform the world.
Edna O’Brien’s debut novel, The Country Girls, is such a book. The story of two young girls in the west of Ireland in the 1950s, it was considered so dangerous on its first publication that it was banned by the Irish censorship board and there were public burnings in O’Brien’s home town. It is lyrical and beautiful, the language as beguiling as the characters of Kate and Baba, and a wonderful story of female friendship and self-discovery. But beneath it all, the politics is fierce and raw: country v town, hypocrisy and violence, the restrictions of women lives, social and sexual repression, the grip of the Catholic Church.
Nearly 60 years later, in these darkening days when women’s rights worldwide are increasingly under attack, this gem of a novel has never been more relevant.
The Radetzky March (1932)
by Joseph Roth
This novel chronicles the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire through the story of three generations of the Trotta family, reflecting Joseph Roth’s commitment to the possibility of European unity and his hatred of nationalism in all its forms. One collapse – of the Trotta family – mirrors that of another – of the empire – culminating in the events of 1918, unleashing a vicious, murderous quarter of a century. “Everything that had once existed left its traces,” wrote Roth, but now is a time dominated “by the capacity to forget quickly and completely”. A century on, has anything much changed?
Philippe Sands is a professor of law at UCL and the author of “East West Street” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
The Death of Virgil (1945)
by Hermann Broch
The Death of Virgil has haunted me ever since I first read it. Begun in 1936 and finished as the Third Reich collapsed into ruin in 1945, it is the most profound fictional meditation on the relationship between politics and art ever written. Inspired by the legend that Virgil, shortly before he died, requested that the Aeneid be destroyed, it casts Rome’s greatest poet as a man haunted by the ambivalences and responsibilities of artists in an age of autocracy. Augustus, whose last meeting with Virgil provides the novel with its central encounter, has never been more charismatically or more terrifyingly rendered.
The Master and Margarita (1967)
by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Master and Margarita is a surreal story about the visit by the devil to Moscow in the 1930s. It’s a wonderfully conceived, biting satire on life under Stalin and what happens when politics fails people.
Few novels written in the 20th century caused as much controversy as Doctor Zhivago. The first time I read it, I was a high school student in Turkey. It blew my mind. How similar was Russia to my motherland! How complicated its history and its people, how beautifully sad. Many years later, I read it again, this time in English. It felt different, somehow less emotional. Maybe I had changed, or maybe there was a subtle difference between the two translations, the two languages. Either way, Doctor Zhivago is a timeless story and, like all great political novels, it is primarily a love story.
Banned in Russia, the book was first published in Italy. Against the backdrop of a turbulent history (between the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the civil war), it tells the story of Yuri Zhivago, a physician deeply interested in literature, philosophy and poetry. Pasternak liked “the revolutionary spirit” but he was not a fan of the Bolshevik ideology. This cautious approach is visible in his storytelling.
The novel brought its writer a Nobel Prize in Literature but Pasternak was fiercely lambasted in Russia. He was called a traitor, a bourgeois reactionary. He was a man who had sold his soul to the West in return for accolades. After all, authoritarianism was not only an official ideology. It was also a lifestyle internalised by millions of citizens – and the literati were no exception. Those who most viciously attacked Pasternak were writers and poets. Years later, there were reports that during the Cold War the CIA had published and distributed copies of Doctor Zhivago for their own ends.
At the heart of the pandemonium, though, is a fabulous novel written by a brilliant mind and an author who learned the hard way that books have a destiny of their own. Pasternak was no stranger to either praise or criticism, and until the end of his life he remained a staunch critic of collectivist identities. “Don’t yell at me,” he once said.“But if you must yell, at least don’t do it in unison.”
The Tortilla Curtain (1995)
by T C Boyle
The Tortilla Curtain is one of the best novels I’ve read that addresses the divisive subject of immigration. As nearly all novelists turning to this topic do, T C Boyle ultimately sides with the down-at-heel immigrants: a Mexican couple illegally camping out on public parkland while the woman drolly named América grows heavily pregnant. Yet along the way, Boyle balances his reader’s sympathies more than most authors do.
Although vastly wealthier than the Mexican couple with whom their lives become intertwined, the white American couple is allowed to have problems, too. The climax is as comic as it is tragic, and the negative consequences of illegal immigration – for both the immigrant and the native-born – are not completely whitewashed. This novel has a sense of dimension and a sense of humour, qualities sorely lacking in so many fictional treatments of this material. It is political in the best sense: not about elections and candidates but about a big, complicated issue that affects swaths of ordinary people. And the story is cracking.
Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux (1867-68 and 1873-74)
by Anthony Trollope
I’m the sort of person who keeps the whole of Anthony Trollope on her Kindle in case of an emergency. Phineas Finn and its sequel Phineas Redux should see you through any period of electoral turbulence. Two brilliant stories in the Palliser series, centring on the British political scene, they include sex, love, marriage and money, as any good political story should.
Ireland is a vital part of it all: once again, how could a great British political novel be complete without a strong Irish element? Finn is a handsome but poor young man, the son of an Irish doctor, who arrives as an MP at Westminster ready to solve problems such as parliamentary reform and his own finances. In the second volume, one of my favourite Trollope heroines, Madame Max Goesler, a graceful and rich mid-European widow, enables him to solve the latter, where Lady Laura Standish and the heiress Violet Effingham did not; and she finds love that the grand old Duke of Omnium could not supply, try as he might. Apart from that, it’s all about politics.
The Year of the French (1979)
by Thomas Flanagan
Set during the rebellions of 1798 in Ireland, Thomas Flanagan’s book combines fictional diaries and fictional documents from the period, superbly accurate and plausible in their tone and texture, with a cast of different narrators and protagonists, all of them memorably created, from the perspectives of both the insurgency side and those who were loyal to the British.
It is hard to think of a better book about what a rebellion against a great empire feels like, how many motives are involved, how much odd idealism and excitement there is, and then how much cruelty and loss of control. The book also captures the idea of competing narratives and shows an amazing grasp of a significant political milestone in the movement for an independent Ireland, a country soon to become a lonely, sad western outpost of the European Union.
The Quest for Christa T (1968)
by Christa Wolf
There is no political novel quite like it. Indeed, for many, it would barely qualify as a political novel. There is no didacticism and scant idealism. Intense, lyrical subjectivity becomes the most perfect means of evoking a specific time, place, class and nation. A young woman who grew up in Nazi Germany attempts to capture the life of her childhood friend who has died in her thirties. Glimpses of the outer world draw us back to the horror, then the hope, of the history they live through. During the war, the narrator’s home town is “raised up high by the waves of refugees and retreating armies”. Later, both share an emotional loyalty to “the new world that we were making” in the GDR. It’s a fine portrait of a sensitive, intellectual woman, “who was trying out the possibilities of life until nothing should be left”, and the most unlikely tear-jerker ever.
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue