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Should Novels and Politics Mix?

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in events honoring Irmgard Keun and Amos Oz—two writers who, on the surface, would seem to have little in common. Keun (1905-1982), born in Berlin, was a literary darling of Weimar Germany who promptly found her works blacklisted after the Nazis came to power. She spent the late 1930s in exile—for a time as the companion of the Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth—before returning to Germany, where she lived out the rest of her life in relative obscurity. Oz, meanwhile, is perhaps the best-known of his generation of Israeli literary lions, a writer showered with honors, author of nearly twenty works of fiction. Unusually for a novelist, he is nearly as well known for his journalistic writing, in which he has strongly advocated for a two-state solution, criticizing those on either side who impede the progress of peace.

The question of how to write a political novel—or whether politics and the novel ought to have anything to do with each other at all—is crucial for any writer who lives and works in tumultuous times. (Of course, some would say this includes every writer, period, since global politics affect us all.) Some of the more politically engaged writers have argued that a novelist who avoids current events shirks his or her responsibility. Hence Chinua Achebe, writing during the Biafran War: “It is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant—like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames.” But others have insisted just as urgently that politics and the novel must be kept separate—among them Oz, who has often asserted, as he did in the interview I conducted with him, that he literally uses two different pens for writing polemics and writing fiction, explaining that fiction is for ambiguities and “complicated thoughts,” while politics is for the straightforward and transparent.

As a critic, I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable navigating the intersection of politics and literature, feeling safer on the “high road” of purely aesthetic appreciation. I’ve also found the argument persuasive that a novel that foregrounds politics will always be unsuccessful as a work of fiction, motivated blatantly by ideas rather than by plot, character, or language. But there is no such thing as a pure literature, unmediated by outside influences; and there’s something about this attitude that makes me feel a little like the man who leaves the burning house to pursue the rat. So I was grateful for my recent encounters with Keun (on the page) and Oz (in the flesh), which made me think about this question again.

Keun rose to prominence in Germany in the early 1930s with her best-selling second novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, a story in the vein of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes transplanted to interwar Berlin. The difference is that, in the American novel, the floozy somehow manages always to come out ahead, her misadventures and malapropisms notwithstanding. Keun’s version turns out more like The House of Mirth: The heroine’s beauty and charm aren’t enough to allow her to snare one of the wealthy men she desires, and she winds up destitute and desperate. Though it contains almost no overly political content, the novel’s dark vision of life in Germany earned Keun a place on the blacklist, and her books were withdrawn from circulation. In a place where simply telling the truth about the way things are is enough to get one’s books burned, writing an honest novel is itself a political act.

Keun’s novella After Midnight—written in 1937, during the period she spent on the run from the Nazi regime—uses the voice of an unsophisticated young woman named Sanna to present a subtle critique of Nazi Germany from the inside. (At the discussion of Keun’s work in which I participated, it was mentioned that she may be unique among German writers in depicting the texture of daily life under the Nazis while it was going on.) Sanna is herself uninterested in politics, speaking uncritically of her aunt’s support for Hitler: She “bought swastika flags and joined the National Socialist Women’s Club, where she got to meet a good class of person as a German wife and mother.” And she is judgmental when a girlfriend begins dating a “person of mixed race, first class or maybe third class—I can never get the hang of these labels.” But if Sanna is personally unreflective, she is nonetheless a good observer, and the picture she draws of Nazi Germany is unwittingly damning. Keun followed After Midnight with Child of All Nations, which looks at the world of the exiles through the eyes of a young girl: “We left Germany when my father couldn’t stand it any more, because he writes books and articles for newspapers.” (These three novels have recently been published in English translation by Other Press, Melville House, and Overlook, respectively.)

Keun doesn’t seem to have written explicitly of her intentions anywhere, but considering her circumstances, it’s impossible to imagine that these novels—as well as being works of art—were not also important to her as political gestures. Oz, on the other hand, has repeatedly made it clear that he does not intend his fiction to be read with one eye on the page and the other on the newspaper. In that spirit, I undertook to examine his latest, Scenes from Village Life, unallegorically: as “not so much a book about the Israeli condition as about the human condition in general,” as he put it. This is a collection of linked stories each told by a different person: Some are local fixtures, appearing over and over; others we meet once and never see again. They all live in the fictional village of Tel Ilan—“the most beautiful village in the entire country,” one character says, filled with farmland and cypresses. But the mood is nervous, dark, uneasy. Some of the characters have lost relatives: parents or children who have died or become estranged. Nearly all of them live alone, or with an elderly parent rather than a spouse. There are siblings who don’t speak to each other; guests who fail to show up; uninvited visitors who arrive without warning. In many cases, they endure guilt for crimes committed—or sustained—long ago.

All great literature is “about the human condition,” as Oz would have it; and at least several of the stories in this collection certainly merit that distinction. But great literature derives its greatness also from its particulars: and the particulars of this book are that it is set in Israel, at a time that seems to be the present, among characters who live Israeli lives and think Israeli thoughts. Take the book’s very first line, “The stranger was not a stranger,” which works on one level as a general warning that things are not going to be what they seem, and on another as a reflection on the relations between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors. It’s easy to take this kind of interpretation too far, to infer political import in virtually every detail, ad absurdum. But to not do it at all seems equally absurd. These stories are meant to speak to the Israeli condition as well as to the human condition; otherwise they would be irrelevant. And in the Israeli condition, politics play a primary role.

During our interview, Oz told an anecdote that illustrates the intertwining of politics and literature with particular power. After a twenty-year-old Palestinian was shot in 2004 while jogging in Jerusalem—the killers apologized to his family, saying they had thought he was a Jew—the man’s father, the prominent lawyer Elias Khoury, sponsored the Arabic translation of A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz’s autobiography and masterwork. The book is the story not only of Oz’s childhood, but of the childhood of the state of Israel, to which his parents came as refugees from Lithuania in the 1930s and which he grew up alongside. Even its smallest details are rich with political implications, as in the debate, humorously presented, among the customers in the grocery shop frequented by Oz’s parents over whether to buy “kibbutz cheese” (“somewhere … an overworked pioneer girl was sitting, with tears in her eyes perhaps, packing this Hebrew cheese for us”) or “Arab cheese,” which happened to be both cheaper and tastier. “Imagine the contempt with which Tolstoy would regard anyone who would buy one kind of cheese and not another simply because of a difference of religion, nationality, or race!” Oz writes. “What of universal values? Humanism? The brotherhood of man? And yet, how pathetic, how weak, how petty-minded, to buy Arab cheese simply because it cost a couple of mils less, instead of cheese made by the pioneers, who worked their backs off for our benefit!” When even cheese cannot be free of politics, how can literature?

“Elias wants to build emotional bridges between our nations, and to do that you need to let each read the narrative of the other,” Oz said in an interview with The New York Times. In fact, he took the bridge-building even further himself, sending a copy of the book to the former Fatah youth leader and convicted terrorist Marwan Barghouti in prison. “This story is our story; I hope you read it and understand us as we understand you,” Oz reportedly wrote as a dedication. It’s hard to think of a more moving gesture of faith: in literature, in politics, in humanity. There may be two pens on Oz’s desk, but he writes with them using the same hand.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter: @ruth_franklin.