David Caute

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Alan Ryan

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Collisions collects together 19 essays of one kind and another which David Caute has written during the course of the past ten years. The remarkable range of his talents as novelist, playwright, political theorist and historian makes one cast about a bit anxiously for some common thread, a unifying theme. Mr Caute seems to share this anxiety; he suggests that one 'obvious thread linking these disparate pieces is the inclination to walk to and fro across the bridges which join, or can be made to join, history, politics and literature'….

The unifying theme is a 'continual gnawing' at familiar liberal dilemmas—what sort of price is it worth paying to preserve one's freedom from foreign oppression, are freedom and equality compatible, can the writer serve the liberation of his fellows by committing his pen to their political concerns or must he preserve a certain detachment both for his own sake and that of his art? The first three essays making up a section called 'Disputes' really aren't much of a contribution to mankind's search for a solution to these dilemmas. They recount Mr Caute's struggle to organise a teach-in on Vietnam in the Oxford Union, his battle with the forces of immobilisme in All Souls, which ended with his resignation from that curious institution, and his conflict with the BBC over the question of whether he could say 'fuck' on the Third Programme when quoting Norman Mailer's Why are we in Vietnam?

Thereafter Collisions gets steadily better. There is a subtle essay on 'Realism and Commitment' where Caute argues against the view that the committed novelist ought to espouse some form of realism, both for the usual reason that 'art fiction and contrivance require a modicum of relaxation and some small measure of detachment' and because the contemporary novelist owes it to his readers to show them what he is doing and so to engage them in the pleasures of creation. And this judgment comes persuasively to life after Mr Caute's long and careful account of John Berger's G, in which he explores the affinities between Berger's Marxist analysis of painting in the 20th century and his performance as a contemporary novelist.

Mr Caute is at his best, I think, when discussing Sartre, Malraux and Anatole France….

Alan Ryan, "Finding the Thread" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of A D Peters & Co Ltd), in The Listener, Vol. 91, No. 2354, May 9, 1974, p. 605.∗

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