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.

Inline sub2


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.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: 20th Century, Cold War, History, Literature, Non-fiction, Poland, Politics