The Dictator's Dictation

The Dictator's Dictation: The Politics of Novels and Novelists

ROBERT BOYERS
Copyright Date: 2005
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/boye13674
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  • Book Info
    The Dictator's Dictation
    Book Description:

    In these elegant essays, many of them originally written for The New Republic and Harper's, Robert Boyers examines the role of the political imagination in shaping the works of such important contemporary writers as W. G. Sebald and Philip Roth, Nadine Gordimer and Mario Vargas Llosa, Natalia Ginzburg and Pat Barker, J. M. Coetzee and John Updike, V. S. Naipaul and Anita Desai. Occasionally he finds that politics actually figures very little in works that only pretend to be interested in politics. Elsewhere he discovers that certain writers are not equal to the political issues they take on or that their work is fatally compromised by complacency or wishful thinking.

    In the main, though, Boyers writes as a lover of great literature who wishes to understand how the best writers do justice to their own political obsessions without suggesting that everything is reducible to politics. Resisting the notion that novels can be effectively translated into ideas or positions, he resists as well the notion that art and politics must be held apart, lest works of fiction somehow be contaminated by their association with "real life" or public issues. The essays offer a combination of close reading, argument, and assessment.

    What, Boyers asks, is the relationship between form and substance in a work whose formal properties are particularly striking? Is it reasonable to think of a particular writer as "reactionary" merely because he presents an unflattering portrait of revolutionary activists or because he is less than optimistic about the future of newly independent societies? What is the status of private life in works set in politically tumultuous times? Can the novelist be "responsible" if he consistently refuses to engage the conditions that affect even the intimate lives of his characters?

    Such questions inform these essays, which strive to be true to the essential spirit of the works they discuss and to interrogate, as sympathetically as possible, the imagination of writers who negotiate the unstable relationships between society and the individual, art and ideas.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51007-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. INTRODUCTION. THINKING ABOUT POLITICS AND THE NOVEL
    (pp. 1-8)

    Almost all of the essays in this book were written during the last dozen years. Many were first published in The New Republic, where the literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, has often invited me to write about the intersection of politics and the novel. That intersection was once described by Lionel Trilling as a “bloody crossroads,” where matters of life and death are taken up and the fate of “society” hangs always in the balance. Often, the bloody crossroads has seemed particularly attractive to writers and critics for whom novels at their best take positions on issues and permit readers to...

  4. 1 THE INDIGENOUS BERSERK
    (pp. 9-20)
    PHILIP ROTH

    In Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral (1997), Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman alludes in passing to a once famous writer, now largely forgotten, whose “sense of virtue is too narrow” for contemporary readers. The writer, we suspect, is Bernard Malamud. And what is it that passes for virtue in Malamud? In The Assistant, a grim and slender novel, the Jewish groceryman is eulogized as “a man that never stopped working … to make a living for his family,” a man who “worked so hard and bitter,” so that for his family there was “always something to eat.” Morris Bober was...

  5. 2 IDENTITY AND DIFFIDENCE
    (pp. 21-28)
    SEAMUS DEANE

    Irish history is bad history. So says one character in Reading in the Dark, Seamus Deane’s first novel, and no other character in the novel seems much inclined to deny it. In a land of “small places,” as it is described here, people have too often made “big mistakes.” They lie to themselves and to one another. They rely on old certainties when they might better have abandoned them. They carry around “stale” secrets and bitter resentments. Their courage is too often merely a willingness to absorb meaningless defeats and inflict pointless damage. For all their eloquence and their gift...

  6. 3 A GENEROUS MIND
    (pp. 29-40)
    NATALIA GINZBURG

    Natalia Ginzburg had little patience for pretense or fake civility. Although the Italian writer complained of others who had no love for “the daily current of existence,” she was preternaturally poised to criticize. Friends, family members, and colleagues were valued and adored largely, it would seem, for their capacity to avoid sickly sentimentality and self-deception. What she called “the strange gift of motivating and stimulating” she associated with sharp, honest, often harsh truth-telling. “I realized,” she declares in one of several 1990 interviews collected in It’s Hard to Talk About Yourself:

    That this son of mine … is an interlocutor...

  7. 4 CLEAR LIGHT AND SHADOW
    (pp. 41-58)
    ANITA DESAI

    The novels of Anita Desai resist enchantment. Quietly, defiantly secular, they are skeptical about the quest for mystery and unimpressed by the wisdom of sages or swamis. Compassionate, occasionally tender, they are, much of the time, unforgiving toward the deluded and the vacant. If they seem, as some have said, Chekhovian in their attention to “the sad humor of provincial lives,” they can also be savage in their repudiation of provinciality and innocent self-approval. Apparently remote from political intentions, the novels are yet alert to history and refuse to submit to the formulaic reductions of postcolonial literary theory. Enchantment—so...

  8. 5 BULLETS OF MILK
    (pp. 59-68)
    JOHN UPDIKE

    John Updike’s novel Toward the End of Time is set in the year 2020, not long after a brief but devastating war in which millions of American and Chinese citizens were killed. We see none of this killing, and we are told nothing of the causes that led to the war or that brought it to a close. Occasional references are made to the war’s aftermath, to a collapsed national economy and deteriorating office buildings, to a “depopulated” Midwest and abandoned neighborhoods, but we do not tour those neighborhoods or feel in any way the effects of the reported disaster....

  9. 6 POLITICS AND POSTMODERNISM
    (pp. 69-78)
    MARIO VARGAS LLOSA

    In the novel The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, there is an arresting sequence in which the protagonist and his revolutionary comrades stop at the ancient mountain community of Quero. They rest there for two hours before continuing their flight from government troops that have been sent to bring them back to be punished for revolutionary crimes against the state. What is striking in the handful of pages devoted to Quero is not the quality of the political ideas brought forward or the revelation of character facilitated by the protagonist’s reflections. What emerges so...

  10. 7 IN EXILE FROM EXILE
    (pp. 79-90)
    NORMAN MANEA

    “To learn that we have said or done a foolish thing, that is nothing,” wrote Montaigne. “We must learn that we are nothing but fools, a far broader and more important lesson.” It is a lesson that many an autobiographer has been all too ready to embrace. In the staging of dramas in which frailty and foolishness are relentlessly depicted, the lighting tends to be very carefully arranged. The assumption informing autobiography has long been that it is at once a constructed narrative and a “truthful” engagement with a nature or a disposition more or less equally compounded of darkness...

  11. 8 THE NORMALITY BLUES
    (pp. 91-106)
    PETER SCHNEIDER

    Is there nothing so grim that it cannot be turned to comedy? Twentiethcentury German history would seem to provide a test case. The land of war criminals and skinheads, of festering guilt and revisionist denial, of blood sausage and blood libel, has inspired plenty of farce and satire, but most serious German writers in the twentieth century have opted for the lugubrious or the solemnly admonitory, for the rueful or for an especially vengeful species of black humor. To be sure, Günter Grass long ago demonstrated, with an assurance bordering on megalomania, that a German writer might make anything he...

  12. 9 DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH
    (pp. 107-116)
    FLEUR JAEGGY

    We have grown tired of decadence, and surely of what passes for decadence today. Coy, artificial, a mystification without mystery or transgressive power, it no longer inspires cults or effusions on the tonic effects of fetish objects. Instead we get only the unsubversive postures of subversion. Objects of art and style that are designed to seem diffident or nasty seem to most of us only quaint, willed, and excessively literary. Works whose models were celebrated for their capacity to enthrall are more apt now to amuse, faint reminders of a time when representations of sex in a freshly dug grave...

  13. 10 PRIMACIES AND POLITICS
    (pp. 117-130)
    NADINE GORDIMER

    For quite some time, cutting-edge literary theorists and postmodern writers have proclaimed the impotence of art and their conviction that the novel as an instrument of knowledge has exhausted its resources. What one critic called “the platitude of meaning” and another “the loss of significant external reality” came rapidly to inform and constrain anything that might be said about the work of many sophisticated writers eager to be taken seriously. Those who regarded with relative indifference the manifestos of influential spokesmen for “advanced” art were routinely dismissed as hopelessly out of touch with their own cultural moment. Novelists who betrayed...

  14. 11 THINKING ABOUT EVIL
    (pp. 131-150)
    KAFKA, NAIPAUL and COETZEE

    A few years ago, in the pages of the New York Review of Books, the poet Charles Simic—born a Serb but long an American citizen—conceded that “it’s hard to find anything good to say about Serbs these days. Burning villages, killing women and children, chasing hundreds of thousands of blameless people out of their homes hardens the heart of anyone watching. To set neighbor against neighbor is not only evil; it’s also stupid.”

    The burden of Simic’s brief essay is not to declare that we know or should know evil when we see it, or that the spectacle...

  15. 12 PATHOS AND RESIGNATION
    (pp. 151-168)
    PAT BARKER

    There is little inclination to elegy or nostalgia in the work of Pat Barker. Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road, her trilogy of novels set during World War I, recover sentiments and issues that were once compelling and still seem in her hands remarkably interesting, though often out of reach. The Europe of Barker’s imagination is a real place worth remembering, but decidedly dead and gone. She evokes the world shattered forever by the Great War in prose notable for its disinfatuation, while the war itself seems to us, as we read, a conflict no one...

  16. 13 STIFLINGS
    (pp. 169-178)
    LÁSZLÓ KRASZNAHORKAI

    There is no single, standard Eastern European novel. Neither is there an archetypal Czech or Polish or Hungarian novel against which ostensibly deviant forms may be assessed. The best books by Eastern European writers are spectacularly diverse, and the works that have appeared in the years following the fall of communism have been especially varied. Though it is tempting to believe that one or two aspects of particularly gripping masterpieces—a fondness for the grotesque or the apocalyptic, an obsession with political tyranny—may serve as defining features of Eastern European writing generally, one need only think of the “exceptions”...

  17. 14 THE DICTATOR’S DICTATION
    (pp. 179-186)
    AUGUSTO ROA BASTOS

    For more than a decade, the Paraguayan novelist Augusto Roa Bastos has been regarded in Latin America as a major writer. In the years since the publication of his masterpiece Yo el Supremo (I the Supreme) in 1974, hundreds of articles examining the novel have appeared, and an authoritative critical edition was published in Madrid in 1983. When Carlos Fuentes recently declared the book “one of the milestones of the Latin American novel,” he was merely confirming what had long been taken for granted south of our border. Now that a superb English translation of this dauntingly complex work is...

  18. 15 MANY TYPES OF AMBIGUITY
    (pp. 187-198)
    INGEBORG BACHMANN

    There is mischief in formulation. Write something striking and decisive and you are bound to open up as many questions as you sought to resolve. When a character in a story by Ingeborg Bachmann declares that “well said is half lied,” he is uttering a “truth” and bearing witness to the inherent slipperiness of formulation, especially when it is terse and provocative.

    Bachmann was a relentless formulator. She was drawn to language as if it held the key to every human hope. “No new world without a new language,” one of her characters intones. It is like Bachmann and her...

  19. 16 RUBBLE AND ICE
    (pp. 199-216)
    W. G. SEBALD

    The work of W. G. Sebald is by now a part of the air we breathe. It seems to many writers and readers “noble” and “irrefutable.” It possesses, apparently, a “preternatural authority,” and demonstrates “that literature can be, literally, indispensable.” To one of our best novelists the fiction offers a “truth” that is “exalting,” while a distinguished poet regards Sebald as a “thrilling” writer who “makes narration a state of investigative bliss.” James Wood, in what is surely the best of all the essays I have yet seen on Sebald, makes the case for his language as “an extraordinary, almost...

  20. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 217-218)