Age of Extremes: During the Cold War, Writers Were Forced to Negotiate a Perilous Intellectual Divide. the Result Was the Greatest Era of Political Fiction We Have Known

By Caute, David | New Statesman (1996), June 28, 2010 | Go to article overview

Age of Extremes: During the Cold War, Writers Were Forced to Negotiate a Perilous Intellectual Divide. the Result Was the Greatest Era of Political Fiction We Have Known


Caute, David, New Statesman (1996)


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: Hemrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Andre 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.

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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 storytelling 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.

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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).

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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). …

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