Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The starkness of the contrast drawn above between art and politics is somewhat misleading, although it is certainly not irrelevant to the motivations of the novel. The infamous Sartrean notion of “committed writing” sets the problem which Berger’s text attempts to solve. Yet the notion that the artist—in this case a painter, a more difficult one than that Sartre proposed in Qu’est-ce que la litterature? (1948; What Is Literature?, 1949)—can in any direct sense contribute to revolutionary politics would seem, at the end of the novel, to be explicitly rejected. If Lavin must give up his painting in order to participate, as his dead friend Laszlo had done, in the revolutionary process, then the novel can be said to condemn at the level of its plot the Sartrean hypostatization of art as politically efficacious.

Yet is this so? In a long passage from Lavin’s journal, dated March 10, 1954, the dialectic between commitment to art (Lavin’s) and commitment to revolutionary activism (Laszlo’s) is systematically explored in a series of meditations on the nature of aesthetic practice itself. The entry commences by setting art and social reality in implacable opposition to each other, but by the end, the two have been shown to follow similar sets of determinate laws. Action in life, Lavin ultimately reasons, is analogous to action in the production of art; the laws governing both remain mysterious, although this does not prevent their being coercive and inescapable. Lavin’s is, one might say, a good materialist position—both on life and on aesthetic practice.

The same problem is staged somewhat differently some pages later, in the journal entry for March 20. Lavin is in the process of beginning his...

(The entire section is 715 words.)