Atrocity and Amnesia
“Political novel” is a venerably conventional category that, along with others, has become disposable for recent schools of literary theory. The deconstructionists, in particular, are uncomfortable with the stable, privileged textual paradigm it assumes. Robert Boyers, a professor of English at Skidmore College and the founding editor of the journal Salmagundi, is uncomfortable with critical trends since the 1960’s. A novel’s sense of itself, according to Boyers, ought to be the starting point for a reader’s sense of it. Throughout Atrocity and Amnesia: The Political Novel Since 1945, he argues that there is a class of novels that are most satisfactorily experienced as political. Because always involved with change, the species political novel will always be problematic. Boyers, however, is enough of a traditionalist to insist on the ethical foundations of literature and to enlist a definition, albeit fluid, of political novel in the analysis of some contemporary novels that engage him most.
In its critical orientation and style, Atrocity and Amnesia reverts to an earlier generation, acknowledging Irving Howe’s Politics and the Novel (1957) as its inspiration and mentor. Boyers adapts Howe’s conception of the political novel as the one in which ideas are central and in which they take on independent motion to recent texts and a critical environment that require a more complex approach than he finds in Howe. He contends that contemporary political novels demand a more versatile strategy than do the classics of the genre. He is especially attracted to the Marxist notion of “absent cause,” the sense, in the works he discusses, that there exists some supraindividual necessity that accounts for the material conditions of the fictional world.
Chapters of Atrocity and Amnesia originated as independent articles, appearing in Salmagundi, The American Scholar, and the Times Literary Supplement. The book begins with two chapters exploring procedural issues. It concludes with a coda of sorts, an open letter to the Czech émigré Milan Kundera that argues for the validity of applying the term “political novel” to his work and that thereby effectively frames the entire discussion. The intermediate chapters, however, which focus on specific authors, do not advance a consecutive, developing thesis.
Boyers assumes some familiarity with the authors and works he treats. His approach is to avoid plot summaries and to zero in on the principal achievements and deficiencies of the figures he has chosen. Much of the discussion in Atrocity and Amnesia looks beyond immediate details of anecdote and character to more abstract concerns of genre. Merely through the quantity and quality of its attentions, the book implicitly establishes a sort of canon of the contemporary political novel. Including works by Graham Greene, V. S. Naipaul, Alejo Carpentier, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nadine Gordimer, Jorge Semprun, George Steiner, Günter Grass, and Milan Kundera, it is quite cosmopolitan—however, it pointedly excludes any novels from the United States. Noting “the striking disjunction between political intelligence and advanced literary thinking in the United States,” Boyers bemoans what he describes as American provincialism and judges novels by Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, E. L. Doctorow, and Robert Coover unworthy of a place in his study.
In principle, Boyers would use the term “political novel” as a neutral tool of literary analysis, and not as an honorific. His justification for employing it is in the insights that can thereby be generated. One may presumably develop prolific insights into minor works as well as employ other classifications to engage other, not necessarily inferior, works. In practice, however, Boyers comes to award the designation “political novel” to works about which he feels the most enthusiasm and to consign those in which he is for one reason or another disappointed to the category “novel of sensibility.” When, for example, he describes Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979) as “a novel in the great tradition of Western political fiction” but, though he speaks of it as a “great achievement,” claims that A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) is devoid of politics, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Boyers much prefers the former.
The chapter on Naipaul in Atrocity and Amnesia in fact portrays the West Indian author’s career as a triumphal progress toward the creation of A Bend in the River, a book which Boyers praises for its density and for...
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