- The Political Novel: Re-Imagining the Twentieth Century by Stuart A Scheingold, and: The Novel After Theory by Judith Ryan
If we fully accept Aristotle’s often-cited view that wo/man is a zoon politikon, then we will necessarily despair of ever reading, or writing, a book carrying a title like The Political Novel. The very subject loses all contour and limit. So, inevitably, engaging and intelligent studies like the one offered by the late Stuart Scheingold proceed on the basis of a forgivable conceit, that the “political novel” is reducible to works with certain political themes, rather than all conceivable ones. For Scheingold, the major themes of the political novel in the twentieth century are political estrangement and political disengagement, especially as they manifest themselves in fiction devoted to, variously, the two great world wars, the Holocaust and its aftermath, and sundry political alienation in the United States and Great Britain from circa 1950 through to 2005.
In chapter 1, Scheingold seeks to differentiate his own construction of the political novel from two important, though not quite current, readings of the genre: Irving Howe’s Politics and the Novel (1957) and, to a lesser extent, Robert Boyers’s Atrocity and Amnesia (1987). He rejects Howe’s optimistic faith in the capacity of writers to evoke plausible models of “heroic struggle” in what he sees as, borrowing Winston Churchill’s saturnine words, “the terrible twentieth century” (12, 1). Similarly, for Scheingold, Boyers’s canon is too inclined to see politically affirmative quests at the heart of the political novel. He instead foregrounds “alienation and cynicism as legitimate standpoints for the political novelist” (8). [End Page 136]
Basing his historiography on the work of various British social scientists— Giddens, Hall, David Held, and Tony McGrew—Scheingold sees the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as manifestations of “late modernity,” a world shaped by the nation-state, global capitalism, bureaucratization, industrialism, liberal individualism, and the separation of the public and private spheres (4). Like Zygmunt Bauman, he assigns modernity responsibility for the Holocaust; like Tony Judt, he attributes the mad paroxysms of “total war” to this same modernity. In each case, morally vacant bureaucratization and fearsome technological “advancement” serve as the enabling agents of violence and apocalypse on a formerly unimaginable scale.
In Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph K. becomes an early and exemplary victim of modernity’s collapse into inscrutable systematization. “The individual,” writes Scheingold, “viewed as agent in the modern project, is seen as pawn in [Kafka’s] late-modern critique” (23). Joseph K.’s powerlessness presages that of millions of others as the world goes to war throughout the twentieth century. In chapter 2, Scheingold analyzes political estrangement in two clusters of novels drawn from the inter-war and post-World War Two periods. These works are generally well known, but are obviously relevant here. In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry makes his “separate peace,” bowing out of the stupidity and mayhem of the Italian Front in World War One. Similarly, as Scheingold summarily demonstrates, characters in other celebrated war novels respond to the unspeakable dehumanizations of war through the adoption of pacificism as in Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, or madness as seen in Pat Barker’s Regeneration and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, or “possessive individualism” in Heller’s Catch-22. Each of these novels, and others that are discussed, show how “total war” causes the “progressive destruction of political agency” and with this destruction an inexorable “political estrangement” (51).
Chapter 3 takes up the themes of the Holocaust novel: the eradication of Jewish citizenship in Nazi Germany, life and death in the concentration camps, and the aftermath of the Shoah. Scheingold’s approach here is, roughly, a kind of during-and-after ordering, establishing a developmental historical trajectory through the chosen fiction, some of which is not as well-known as one might expect. Novels such as Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld, Jurek Becker...