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Political Novels

recommended by Joshua Cohen

Through the writing of political novels, writers might hope to speak against their time, says the American author Joshua Cohen. Here he selects five books in which the protagonist undergoes a political education.

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Joshua Cohen

Joshua Cohen is the author of nine books, including the novels Book of Numbers (2015) and, mostly recently, Moving Kings. In 2017, Granta Magazine included him on its decennial list of the Best Young American Writers. He was born in 1980 in Atlantic City and lives in New York City.

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Joshua Cohen

Joshua Cohen is the author of nine books, including the novels Book of Numbers (2015) and, mostly recently, Moving Kings. In 2017, Granta Magazine included him on its decennial list of the Best Young American Writers. He was born in 1980 in Atlantic City and lives in New York City.

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Part of me thinks that all novels are, to a degree, political novels, consciously or otherwise; but one of the major distinctions to make is between novels that are political, in the sense of having a message that the author wants to impart, and novels that are political because they’re showing the effects of the structures on the individual, the experience of politics.

I’m not sure that I’d agree with you, that all novels are political. But I am convinced that, nowadays, to read a novel is political. Especially so if the novel you’re reading is in hardcopy. And you paid for it. At a bookstore. Staffed by humans. As for there being different approaches to what we call the political novel, sure, OK—though I have to say that, to my mind, these approaches have as much to do with the writer as with the reader. What I mean is, writers write to impart one meaning, but then readers read and derive another. They ‘analyse’ or ‘identify’ a certain politics behind—inside?—the prose. I’m not certain how constructive this deconstruction is, but then of course I’d be uncertain: I mean, show me a novelist who doesn’t think that his or her intentions must be respected by the reader, and I’ll show you . . . someone very, very sad.

I’m not interested in propaganda. What I am interested in, when it comes to the politics of the novel, is the revival of that old debate, realism v. naturalism, which I always took to mean the distinction between writing about the-ways-in-which-a-character-experiences-something and writing about the-ways-in-which-a-character-has-been-conditioned-to-experience-something. I find the tension between those two approaches enlivening.

So, what kind of political novels have you chosen today?

These are all novels in which characters discover politics, or politics discover them. Most of the characters—the protagonists—don’t begin the novel as ‘political creatures.’ Some don’t even end the novels as ‘political creatures.’ But the arc they all experience is one between innocence and disabuse.

In both Moving Kings and Book of Numbers your protagonists start out rather disconnected from their political context.

That’s true. Both of those novels centre around characters who have no sense of themselves as having lived political lives: they are unaware of their own conditions, and so they are unaware of the conditions their existences inflict on others. Slowly, however, events unfold that provide their political education. They come to consciousness, in a sense. I’ve always thought of this as the contemporary version of the process of the Bildungsroman, or the Kunstlerroman: after generations of stories about young people coming of age, after generations of stories about young people becoming artists, now we have the story of the young person coming into ideological consciousness, or, if you prefer, the story of the young person getting ‘woke,’ and then craving, to one degree or another, the ability to sleep again.

How would you plot the course to awakening of your protagonists David King, Yoav and Uri?

Yoav and Uri are 21 years old, just out of their compulsory service in the Israeli Defense Forces. They’ve never before been out of Israel. They have only the vaguest notions of how Israelis, or Jews for that matter, are perceived, or misperceived, abroad. Also, they’ve always just been confined to their families: to their military family, to their family-family. They’ve always just followed the orders of their officers and parents. They notice all this, of course, only after decamping for America—only after they’ve made a break and got distance.

Whereas for David King, his awakening comes much later in life, and actually follows divorce and the breakdown of his own family.

David King is a businessman. He has no time for politics—that’s what he tells himself. Politics, in his mind, is just a gentile (in the sense of non-Jewish), publicly acceptable way of thieving for your living, of robbing the general citizenry to support yourself, or your family, tribe, or class. His daughter disagrees—his daughter loathes and condemns him, but still relies on him financially. Which, in turns, lets David ignore her critique. He seeks, then, an alternate family, and so brings Yoav and Uri over to work for him. He invites them, and so politics, into his home.

Let’s talk about your first choice: Nostromo (1904). I like how Conrad seems to have this above-it-all gaze, taking in the workings of everything on the fictional island of Costaguana. Neither side offers fix-it-all solutions; badness exists, to a degree, on both, or all, sides, so there’s no absolute opposition between good and bad and no revolution leads to a bettering of circumstances on the island. Is it consciousness of that that constitutes awakening here?

I don’t think Conrad is interested in asserting any type of moral equivalency—I don’t think he believes the exploited and the exploiters have equal moral claims. Instead, what Conrad cares about is individuality—the possibility or impossibility of a world of individuals—and how each of them, each of us, might be trapped, or might resist being trapped, in the positions and circumstances into which we were born. This, in Nostromo, is best dramatized in the person of Charles Gould: is the mine his birthright? From there, it’s a very direct line to asking the question: To what degree are birthrights delusions, or self-invented?

Again, an awakening as stepping up or away from the unit you were born into–but obviously, as with Yoav and Uri, it’s not enough to leave your motherland. So what does that stepping up entail for Conrad?

For Conrad, especially in Nostromo, it’s a question of personal ennoblement, of honour. So many of his characters have conflicting loyalties and are always trying to negotiate between them. Conrad is especially engaged with the ways in which people fail, or feel as if they have failed, the standards that were set for them. So, for him, “stepping up” as you put it, usually takes the form of a “stepping down,” a betrayal—not least of notions of Empire, or of duty.

Do you think his focus on the individual defining himself, making himself the best he can be, as opposed to his birth–and nationality, and class, and so on–defining him, derives from Conrad’s own status as a kind of transnational drifter?

Sure. He was the displaced son of a Polish patriot who hated the Russians and spoke French and wrote in English. This, for him, is what the sea did. His style is ship style: when you work and live on a ship, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, or where your shipmates are from. The only thing that matters is that they can do their jobs, and that you can do your job. You’re forced to become mutually reliant, for survival. At sea, or on Conrad’s sea, problems of origin fall away or become translated into problems of individual talent and character. The sea, in Conrad’s imaginary, becomes a democracy, a meritocracy, of survival. This, at least, is the “governance” that his Europeans aspire to and are tried by. This is Conrad’s European way of understanding the “natives,” not by appropriating them culturally, but by enlisting and rallying them in a campaign against the elements, a campaign against the pitilessness of Nature.

The notion of individuals working together for the advancement of the group is central to your next book: The Foundation Pit (completed in 1930; published in 1987) by Andrei Platonov.

Platonov’s novel concerns the destruction of a Russian village or town and the digging of a foundation pit for a vast communist housing-block that the reader slowly realises will be the size of, or just will be, the world. The men who dig this hole are myriad: from true communist believers to convicts. And sometimes the convicts are the truest believers.

And, again, about these individuals’ realisation that they might want to, and yet probably can’t, break free from the mould that they have been set in.

To be clear, many of Platonov’s characters believe in communism, but their belief comes through a misapprehension of communism. To many of them, communism has become, or originally was, a religion: something like an early Christianity, something like a pre-Christian Christianity of Edenic charity and provision. Platonov’s pit-diggers are convinced of the brotherhood of man. In their innocence, they are convinced and so convicted.

He works in so much individual psychological detail—each dawning of consciousness is different; each man experiences and is shaped by the labour of digging the pit differently even though they are, notionally, all aiming to build the same structure. So, yes, basically, it’s the world…

Many of Platonov’s characters regard communism as this abstract moral principle—a principle of equality. But then each of them—from worker to engineer—defines this equality differently. This, of course, is where the conflict comes in. What is a perfect world? How many simultaneous perfect worlds can there be? In Platonov, this notion of the perfectible is related to, or emerges from, language. Because the perfectible can only exist in language: it can only ever be just a word.

Is that what Joseph Brodsky was getting at when he diagnosed Platonov’s suspicion of language and narrative, of meaning itself?

What Brodsky said was this: “Woe to the people into whose language Andrei Platonov can be translated”? It was Brodsky’s notion that any language that can bear Platonov’s meanings is already degraded—in other words, it has already been manipulated and used for purposes of political obfuscation.

Let’s talk about The Cleft (2007), Doris Lessing’s final novel…

I remember, you don’t like this book. Why?

It’s a while since I read it, but I remember struggling. I’m not the kind of person who needs human characters, or any characters at all even, or plot, for that matter—but I do remember finding it a bit of a grind. I never felt very involved, I suppose. What do you see in it?

It’s always been one of my dreams to make a text that appeals to an authority beyond myself—an authority greater than myself. If I write a book and my name is the name on the cover: it’s my fault. I’m to blame. I’m responsible. But what about all those texts that I grew up reading—all those texts that were, in many cases, poorly written, though that was OK, that was acceptable, because those texts were written by God, or at least I was told that they were? I’m thinking about my experiences of reading the Romans, the Greeks, the Sumerians—reading things that are millennia old, and how it’s the age itself that imparts their authority.

“We become inured to the world in which we’re raised. The monstrous can come to seem the natural”

The fact that these texts have survived, and have been commented on, and interpreted, for generations: this gives them a certain aura. I’ve always been interested in this aura, or in pursuing the aesthetics of this aura as a way to dissociate myself from my books—as a way to evade responsibility for them. In other words, I’ve always hoped to write a text that read like it was ‘found.’ And this is what Lessing succeeded in doing with The Cleft, which has all the authority of a ‘found text,’ without any trickery. She doesn’t say ‘this was found in a bottle washed up on a beach,’ or ‘this manuscript was dug up in my backyard.’ She just writes, and what follows doesn’t reads like a novel but like a fragment. There’s the sense that its flaws are the flaws of transmission: there are mistranscriptions, there are lacunae.

It also picks up on what you were saying before about not belonging, not being rooted in one side, one country, one culture or another, because an ancient found text pre-dates most of those distinctions. In the case of most ancient religious texts, they almost belong everywhere.

Lessing’s version especially, because hers tells of an island of women—an entire female society based on an island—that is suddenly “disrupted” by the introduction of a new species: males. No men have ever existed before, and then, out of nowhere, one man appears, bringing sex with him, and so bringing chaos. It’s a creation myth, created out of creation myths.

Let’s have your fourth book The Union Jack by Imre Kertész (first published in 1991; published in translation by Tim Wilkinson in 2010). When you were talking at the very beginning about your interest in awakenings, this was the first book that sprung to mind–it’s quite explicitly about that, set during the Hungarian revolution of 1956.

This is one of the most beautiful short novels, or novellas, ever written. And only one thing ever happens: Kertész’s narrator looks out a window and sees a jeep go by flying the Union Jack. That’s it. But just the sight of this flag, and the context of the sighting, reminds Kertész that there’s an outside world: a world beyond Hungary, a world of freedom.

The rest of Kertész’s oeuvre is worth discussing too, if we can–even though, pending more great efforts from Melville House and Tim Wilkinson, a chunk of it remains unavailable in English.

He was one of the few, the very few, great writers who came through the Nazi death camps who wrote beyond the camps: who transposed the camps onto other structures. He once wrote that he was happiest in the camps, and he wasn’t being perverse, or he wasn’t only being perverse. What he meant was that, as a child in Hungary, all he knew were the camps, and so the rare moments that was able to sit in a field or have a fleeting conversation with a friend, became exceptionally joyous, exceptionally precious.

We all become inured to the world in which we’re raised: this was Kertész’s point. The monstrous can come to seem, and too often does come to seem, the natural.

Tell us about your final book, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal (1964; in English, in 1995).

A phenomenal book. A literal translation of the Czech title would be: Advanced Dancing Lessons for the Elderly. It consists of a single sentence: a monologue being delivered to a gang of women sunbathing topless—and perhaps also bottomless—behind a church. The subject of the monologue is nothing less than the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

How is that brought to bear on what we were talking about before, how an individual can, or should, be?

The narrator, who is and isn’t Hrabal, is concerned with elegance: not with decadence, but with elegance—in literature, painting, music, but especially in fashion. He is especially taken with army uniforms: soldiers, to his mind, should always be well-dressed. And there was no better-dressed army than Austria-Hungary’s.

It becomes apparent, after a bit, that the narrator is drunk, and that his endless sermonizing is just drunk-talk: a harangue at the end of the bar. Hrbal himself was always intoxicated with intoxication as a literary, and political, principle: the notion that to live in this world you have to in some way numb your sensibilities. His characters essentially enter a pub under the monarchy and drink the pub dry. They emerge only to find that they’ve boozed their way through history: they’ve missed Nazism and communism, and they now have to stumble home, which is, of course, an imaginary ‘home’—an imaginary past—through the gaudy solicitations of the free-market.

Hrabal’s characters drink so as not to be harmed by others. They prefer to harm themselves.

Speaking of monologues, do you think there’s enough talking going on these days? Is the political novel is good shape?

I’m not sure. I don’t know whether it would be a good thing for the political novel to be in good shape, or a bad thing for it to be in good shape, or a good thing for it to be in bad shape, or a bad thing for it to be in bad shape. I think if there’s any lesson to be taken from my choice of books here, it’s this: the political must be founded in the individual. These writers, these characters, cannot be reduced to any one specific camp, or any one specific ideology: they resist this reduction and, in fact, would regard this reduction as a mechanism of oppression.

That said, it’s the novelist’s tendency to refuse to agree with anyone: to agree is to be destroyed. Novelists must insist on their own words—it’s only by doing so that they can hope to speak against their time.

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

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