Saturday, February 7, 2009

Essay Collection: "The Novelists' International"

Michael Denning's "The Novelists' International" in Volume 1 of The Novel, edited by Franco Moretti.

Denning begins by considering the place of magical realism in terms of the history of the Cold War. "As the age of three worlds (1945-89) reached its midpoint, the novel looked dead, exhausted." Then came García Márquez and his Buendíases: "In its wake, a new sense of a world novel emerged, with Cien años de Soledad as its avatar, the 'third world' as its home, and a vaguely defined 'magical realism' as its aesthetic rubric."
Like "world music," the "world novel" is a category to be distrusted; if it genuinely points to the transformed geography of the novel, it is also a marketing device that flattens distinct regional and linguistic traditions into a single cosmopolitan "world beat," with magical realism serving as the aesthetic of globalization, often as empty and contrived a signifier as the modernism and socialist realism it supplanted. There is, however, a historical truth to the sense that there are links between writers as unlike as García Márquez, Naguib Mahfouz, Nadine Gordimer, José Saramago, Paule Marshall, and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, for the work of each has roots in the remarkable international literary movement that emerged in the middle decades of the twentieth century under the slogans of "proletarian literature," "neorealism," and "progressive," "engaged," or "committed" writing.
The bulk of the essay is a straightforward account of this "remarkable international literary movement"—it outlines the development and diffusion of the proletarian novel—where such a form took root, what adaptations occurred, and how it influenced other communities of "engaged" writers. It is worth reading just for the embedded bibliography dropped piecemeal through its pages, and even more worthwhile for the way it helps the reader to assign places, influences, and ideas to names. I was frankly unaware that Cesar Vallejo had written a novel, for instance, or that Cesare Pavese was a communist (all I knew about him was that NYRB Classics had published The Moon and the Bonfires, and now, as I look at his author page there, I see that they've written out his leftist commitments).

Denning provides an excellent history of this process of diffusion and adaptation, and he also pauses periodically to take stock and note connections, commonalities, and continuities. What I found most interesting, however, were the moments in which Denning analyzes the challenges presented by embedding proletarian themes and situations into a form that almost repelled such material:
Several challenges immediately presented themselves: the attempt to represent working-class life in a genre that had developed as the quintessential narrator of bourgeois or middle-class manners, kin structures, and social circles; the attempt to represent a collective subject in a form built around the interior life of the individual; the attempt to create a public, agitational work in a form that, unlike drama, depended on private, often domestic consumption; and the attempt to create a vision of revolutionary social change in a form inherently committed to the solidity of society and history.
Denning is also especially good at isolating the factors that make it difficult for critics to keep the results of this struggle to wed content and form in our sights:
[A]lthough the aesthetic ideologies of "proletarian literature," "socialist realism," or "engaged" writing are found around the globe in the twentieth century, most literary histories focus on a single national tradition, and there is little comparative work that would indicate whether the novels share common modes, forms, and styles. Mainstream literary criticism has generally taken one of two stances: either arguing that proletarian or social realist novels share a transnational formula that marks them as less-than-literary outsiders to the national literature, or claiming that the finest left-wing writers transcend the generic formula and are thus best understood within the particular linguistic and cultural tradition that makes up the national literature. Moreover, the two leading transnational aesthetic terms—realism and modernism—were so embedded in the cultural cold war that they became mere honorifics, with little actual meaning. In the communist world, favored writers were proclaimed realists; in the capitalist world, they were deemed modernists.
If novelists had to work overtime, however, to overcome the novel's "inherent" affinities to bourgeois individualism, and critics now also have to work extra-hard to read these novels against the grain of those traditional novelistic affinities, Denning suggests this surplus labor is appropriate: coming full circle back to magical realism, he argues that rather than a "successor and antagonist to social realism," magical realism is best seen as "a second stage of the proletarian avant-garde: if the first moment in the wake of the upheavals of 1917-1919 was dominated by a paradoxically ahistorical modernism that tried to document the lived experience of radically new factory and tenement… the magical realism of 1949 [the year Alejo Carpentier published El reino de este mundoThe Kingdom of This World, the preface of which introduced the term "lo real maravilloso," the marvelous real] is the return of the repressed history" of the deeper traumas of "a history of conquest, enslavement, and colonization."

This half-mythic past's return unexpectedly resulted in the "unleashing of desire and utopia" most associated with magical realism, although the general interpretation of that release is highly depoliticized and given little or no context, political or otherwise. "World literature" sells best when shorn of its history of radical sympathies and stances. It sells a whole lot better if "the unleashing of desire and utopia" gets re-coded as simple tropical vitality.

Edmond Caldwell has done some very interesting analysis of James Wood's handling of self-avowed leftist writers—Saramago here and Bolaño here. Caldwell holds that Wood employs a process of recontextualization and misreading that "domesticates" these authors. I think there is a great deal in common there with the attempts Denning describes of nationalizing or aestheticizing proletarian literature. Denning does, as you can see above, mention Saramago as precisely one of these writers whom we are so apt and eager to absorb as a representative of some gauzy cosmopolitanism.


Tony Christini said...

While the establishment certainly does tend to de- and re-politicize leftist tendencies or appearances in novels and other art, a more fundamental point is that works like those of Márquez and Saramago and Bolaño and similar others are already quite tepidly or indirectly left, liberatory, thus they are inherently rather safe to be prominently published and prized.

More fundamentally, we can see that, for example, explicit overt antiwar fiction that might examine the state's central and highest crimes are excluded from prominence or even publication and production more-or-less entirely...not to mention discouraged from creation in the first place, in all kinds of ways.

Conditions are much more extreme in favor of establishment ideology than anything suggested in this post, probably at least an order of magnitude different, though Denning and Caldwell make reasonable points within their purview.

More thoroughly "left" (liberatory) works are in order - not to be put off - on just about any grounds one can think of: societal, cultural, political, technical, on artistic grounds writ large and whole. In this regard the biases and prejudices of the establishment, as well as the related and derivative tendencies of the blogosphere, need to be understood, overcome, surpassed.

Andrew Seal said...

Tony, can you give some examples of models for this kind of literature--novels or other writing that could inspire the kind of left/liberatory works you're calling for?

Tony Christini said...

In a thumbnail that is a comment box, in a general literature forum, a few examples would be open to wide misinterpretation, which is why - simple to do - it seems most sensible and appropriate to first see sites that provide and put in context some left/liberatory fiction and analyses, such as the journal I coedit, Liberation Lit, and my weblog of largely liberatory fiction and critical works, A Practical Policy.

Note too that I write about and push the envelope of liberatory tendencies that have existed for a long time, centuries, even millenia, and emphasize some of the most revolutionary aspects of these tendencies, which are often among the most marginalized in relation to today's realities and possibilities, especially as such aspects explicitly and overtly threaten current establishment injustice and the powers behind it.

So the general sites are:

For a pre-existing reading list with links to many examples, see these course readings:

And for more of my critical and imaginative works on these matters, two links:

In one sense, all this is overkill to your request for "some examples of models for this kind of literature." But in the links above I provide what I think is more appropriate and more useful, that is, rather than provide some "models" that might inspire left/liberatory works, I provide links to a number of such works themselves and references to and commentaries on others. At least these works have significant left/liberatory features. As for whether or not they might work as "models" for others, I don't make any claims - though they might be used in that vein, as well as for various inspiration, understanding, and action.

There are examples of fairly well known works that are more or less liberatory or contain some such strong elements: Swift's A Modest Proposal with its listing of explicit actual reforms and with its satirical revolutionary rhetoric; Hugo's Les Miserables with its brief preface noting the liberatory purposes of the novel (he was an avowed socialist incidentally); Ngugi wa Thiong'o's contemporary epic masterpiece Wizard of the Crow.... A longer list of such works here:

Again, I make no claims for these works as models, or even in whole. I think these and other works evince some useful and valuable liberatory elements. As for far more marginalized liberatory works, realities, and possibilities, I've written about this at length.