- The Political Novel: Re-Imagining the Twentieth Century
Stuart Scheingold's The Political Novel: Re-Imagining the Twentieth Century in effect proposes recognition of a distinctive if not exactly new genre, the novel of "political estrangement" (7). In six wide-ranging chapters, Schiengold treats "Subversion of Agency in the Twentieth Century" both in relation to political fiction and as a concept; "Anti-War Novels . . . the Road to Late Modernity"; the novelistic search for "Spiritual Solace in the Ashes of the Holocaust"; the post-World War II legacy of Nazism; postwar political disengagement in the US and the UK as manifesting "Contradictions of Democracy"; and, briefly, some speculations about sociopolitical life as the twenty-first century manifests itself. In this last chapter on the twenty-first century, he emphasizes the paradoxical collision between newness of situation (such as the war on terror) and intransigence, on the part of both political leaders and the supposedly led, in repeating the disastrous attitudes and politics that produced the "dispiriting calamities of the twentieth" (7).
As these compressed summaries of Scheingold's six chapters indicate, The Political Novel is a wide-ranging study. A better title might be something on the order of "Some More or Less Political Twentieth-Century Novels and Their Sociopolitical World." It touches on a great many European and American novels, some of them likely to be unfamiliar to most readers. This is precisely, of course, one of the virtues of The Political Novel. Another is that the comments on the novels are frequently illuminating. At its best, Scheingold's interest is so clearly (and, on the final page, avowedly) interdisciplinary that his study can potentially pull together disparate scholarly audiences to the benefit of all. At its worst, however, his interest is so heavily weighted toward personal and moral reflection on twentieth-century political history that literary concerns become secondary or even subservient. That is not unreasonable; a scholar's interests are what they are, and there is much in the history of the twentieth century—or we might better say, everything in that history and in all history—with direct as well as broadly contextual relevance to literature. But it takes firm rhetorical structure to bridge what the author himself recognizes as "the contested intellectual terrain that tends to put literary, historical, and political modes of inquiry at odds with one another" (225), and it is far from obvious that he has built that bridge.
In part, it is simply a problem of labeling. The title The Political Novel both announces a focus on the literary components of the hypothetical bridge and implies an at least partly definitional intention. And the political novel is in fact an entity still begging for critical [End Page 410] definition. In taking Irving Howe's Politics in the Novel, published in 1957, as his "guide to the modern political novel" (7) and using it over and again as the measure of a novel's "political" credentials, Scheingold treats Howe's work (still important, to be sure) as if it were the sole and final word on political fiction and in great need of debate. We never get his own definition of the political novel, nor (a more important matter) do we gain a clear understanding of how the novel "of political estrangement" (8) is to be related to or distinguished from it. Explicit definition is also wanting for the fundamental terms modern, modernity, and modernism, which tend to slip into each other in these pages, and especially for the phrase "the modern project," used insistently and with apparently crucial significance throughout the study.
The Political Novel: Re-Imagining the Twentieth Century is also sadly (sadly, because its intentions and often its achievement are really estimable) marred in more writerly ways. I mean by this both matters as specific as "lie"/"lay" and others as inclusive in their effect as proportion. Fateless, by Imre Kertesz, is given five pages, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five two, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms one and a half, Ian McEwan's impressive Saturday...