X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

Please note: Previously subscribers used a 'WebID' to log into the website. Your subscriber number is not the same as the WebID. Please ensure you use the subscriber number when you link your subscription.

Books

Proscribed reading

In 1948, Poland’s new communist government was badly in need of legitimacy and desperate for international recognition. So they did what any self-respecting left-wing government would do, back in those days, in order to win a bit of respect; they held a cultural Congress.

17 July 2010

12:00 AM

17 July 2010

12:00 AM

Politics and the Novel During the Cold War David Caute

Transaction, pp.403, 42.50

In 1948, Poland’s new communist government was badly in need of legitimacy and desperate for international recognition. So they did what any self-respecting left-wing government would do, back in those days, in order to win a bit of respect; they held a cultural Congress.

In 1948, Poland’s new communist government was badly in need of legitimacy and desperate for international recognition. So they did what any self-respecting left-wing government would do, back in those days, in order to win a bit of respect; they held a cultural Congress. They invited Picasso, A. J. P. Taylor, Aldous Huxley, a host of prominent Soviet literary bureaucrats and whichever left-leaning writers they could dredge up from anywhere else. They put them all up in the best hotel in the war-damaged city of Wroclaw (Picasso got the suite Hitler had recently used). They produced all kinds of normally scarce luxuries for the buffet table, and then sat back to bask in the reflected glory.

At first, everything seemed to go well. One account from the time describes the mesmerising effect of Picasso’s entrance:

Hundreds of artists, writers, composers from Africa, India, Ceylon, South America . . . all of them turned their gaze on the Spanish painter in the colourful ripped shirt, walking into the hall.

[Alt-Text]


Alas the affair quickly went sour, as these things tend to do. Scarcely had the Congress begun when one of the Soviet bureaucrats, apparently under instructions to ensure that the Polish comrades didn’t become too pleased with themselves, walked up to the podium, pulled out a thick speech and began to denounce Jean-Paul Sartre.

Picasso ripped off his headphones. Taylor and Huxley conferred furiously. The Polish hosts went about wringing their hands, for they knew that this meant the Congress was ruined. Sartre was then the left-wing intellectual par excellence, a fellow-traveller who was idolised by communist writers around the world; if the Soviet Union no longer tolerated even him, that meant that no literary middle ground was possible, that the Cold War had divided the European literary world as surely as it had divided European politics.

In fact the story of this particular Congress is not in David Caute’s fascinating book, but I am telling it so that those who might be inclined to read Politics and the Novel have a taste of the atmosphere of that time, for there is no contemporary equivalent of that bitter literary divide. At least in Europe and North America, writers of fiction are no longer important pawns in political games. Neither the choice of literary subjects nor the choice of literary styles is necessarily thought to reflect anybody’s political views, and the views of the President of the Writers’ Union of any country are no longer sought for any reason.

But in the Europe of the 1940s and 1950s, literary modernists, like abstract expressionists, were banned in the Soviet Union. Proust, Joyce, Musil and Beckett were dismissed as ‘carriers of decadence’ — and thus any Soviet pronouncement concerning their works had political significance. Kafka was taboo in his native Prague until the early 1960s, when the first, tentative public discussions of his work heralded the Prague Spring. After the Soviet invasion of 1968, Kafka metamorphosed, so to speak, back into an enemy of the state.

Caute is at his sharpest when he focuses on these critical disputes and the pompous literary politics which were so emblematic of the era. He has a harder time making a clear argument when writing directly about the political novels of the period. One cannot, in fact, easily line up ‘democratic’ literature against ‘communist’ literature because in the West, literary fiction is not primarily written to convey political ideas. Writers such as Orwell and Koestler did describe the struggle between communism and liberal democracy, but they were exceptions. By contrast, writers on the other side of the iron curtain were almost exclusively obsessed by their own politics, dividing into ‘official’ writers who worked within the social realist canon and ‘dissidents’ who struggled against it.

What is missing, curiously, from the literary fiction of the period — and thus from this book — are tales of the Cold War itself: the skullduggery, the espionage games, the violence and drama then unfolding in the eastern half of Europe, then newly occupied by the Red Army. Outside of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, those subjects mostly fell to spy novelists like John le Carré, writers whose works were below the radar of the literary bureaucrats. Which explains, perhaps, why their books are still so readable, to this very day.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close