- The Literary Underground: Writers and the Totalitarian Experience, 1900-1950
Exasperating and engaging, idiosyncratic and insightful, John Hoyles' The Literary Underground resists ready classification. Combining political theory, intellectual history, literary analysis, and a dash of film criticism, it does not offer anything like a comprehensive scholarly account of the historical experience of writers living in totalitarian states during the first half of the twentieth century.
What interests Hoyles is a permanent dilemma that has its roots in the great unresolved tension in Enlightenment thought: the conflict between radical individualism and a dream of reconstructing humanity according to the dictates of Universal Reason. The paradigmatic figures in his discussion thus become Dostoevsky's "Underground Man" and "Grand Inquisitor." In Hoyles' reading of history, the "totalitarian experience" is recorded as an ongoing struggle between the alienated writer-as-Underground-Man and the various Grand Inquisitors who would compel him to sacrifice his solipsistic freedom in the name of comfortable socialization or self-satisfied conformity.
Hoyles traces this conflict in three stages: from its adumbration in Rousseau and crystallization in Dostoevsky, through its flowering in the anti-utopias of Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell, to its weird climax in Kafka's life and works. The author cheerfully admits to the holes in this line-up (where, for instance, are Mayakovsky, Brecht, Platonov, Gombrowicz?) and in a prefatory "Introduction and Concluding Unscientific Postscript," he invites his readers to fill in the gaps for themselves.
A left-wing Brit of the Trotskyite persuasion, Hoyles makes no bones about his politics. Readers (like this reviewer) who do not share his political tastes may well be put off. Don't be. Along with the "lip-service to critical Marxism" (his own characterization) beats the generous heart a self-described "humanist" and "surrealist" who finds in the disturbing contours of the absurd a bastion against a pervasive "totalitarianism of everyday life." There is also more than a touch of old-time new-critical religion in his warning that "critical twiddle-twaddle is no substitute for close attention to the text and that attention at all times should be both reverent and skeptical."
Whatever its faults, Hoyles' syncretic approach to his subject proves extraordinarily productive. Although his discussion of We will at first seem familiar, his approach from the left is perhaps better attuned to Zamyatin's thoroughgoing radicalism than that of those more conservative American slavists (myself included) who tend to domesticate it as a normative liberal individualism. His own humanistic, class-conscious radicalism provides a superb vantage point for tracing the connections between the revolutionary Orwell of The Road to Wiggin Pier and the antitotalitarian Orwell of 1984. Similarly, his discussion of Kafka ("a succinct introduction to one of the world's great writers") never drifts into pure [End Page 464] psychoanalysis or arid metaphysical speculation, but makes a compelling case for reading his work as a profound form of satire. In short, everyone will find something to object to in this book, but no one should overlook its virtues.