Literature & Power: Writing about Politics, with John Ralston Saul, Oksana Zabuzhko, Shashi Tharoor, Tomás Eloy Martinez, Francine Prose, and Bernard-Henri Levy
FRANCINE PROSE: I think the question of what the writer can and should do about politics and power and the power of the state has entirely to do with what kind of writer one is. The essayist or polemicist has one kind of responsibility, and when I write essays now, as an American I feel that my responsibility is to say I live in a house in which a crime has been committed, and further crimes are being planned. I don’t for one moment imagine that I can stop these further crimes from happening by saying it, but I do so partly to preserve my own sanity, to preserve the sanity of others who are noticing what’s going on, and also to try and keep what tiny shreds of credibility our culture and our country have in the rest of the world.
I write for papers in this country and abroad. Earlier in Iraq war, I was living in Italy, and a newspaper in the United States in New York asked me to write an essay about what it was like to be an American in Europe during the war. And I said, among other things, that I felt that the Italians treated us the way you would treat someone you basically liked, but who you knew had a serial killer in the family. And I didn’t mean just George Bush, I should point out. The newspaper said, “We can’t run that line.” And I said, “Yeah, I knew that was going to happen.” And then later they said, “Actually, we can’t run the essay.” And I kind of knew that was going to happen too. I feel that I have a responsibility to let people here and abroad know and to get things right.
When I’m writing novels, I feel a different kind of responsibility. As we all know, polemic is the enemy of literature because the polemicist feels the need to distort language and character for a particular agenda instead of writing the most beautiful language or the character that’s most true to human nature, regardless of whether this truth goes against that particular agenda. Consequently, people say there’s no such thing as great political art. But of course that’s not true. Recently I saw the new production, the new translation of The Threepenny Opera on Broadway, and I was shocked and terrified. What made the play so exhilarating and so terrifying was how modern it seemed, how topical it seemed; it could have been written yesterday. As most of you know, Hitler shut down production on The Threepenny Opera, and everyone connected with the new has been joking that if it gets shut down, we might choose to leave the country the way Brecht and his associates did.
The novelist, the realistic novelist, wants to write about what we call human nature and society, and I think it’s impossible to write realistic fiction without talking about those two things. I also think that literature of the past says as much about politics as the most polemic fiction. I think that if you read enough Balzac you can pretty much figure out how Dick Cheney’s mind works. I think if you read Moby-Dick and think for a moment of Captain Ahab as our current administration, you can kind of tell where the ship of state is headed. And if you read something like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, you begin to realize that your most paranoid fantasy will turn out to be the truth.
Lately, when I read literary journals or magazines, or even live in this culture, I feel as if we’re involved in a plane crash—a big plane crash—and all the other passengers are aeronautics engineers. They’re saying, “You know, I don’t really like that little whistle I’m hearing,” or “The engine sounds funny to me.” But still, we don’t have any choice. We can’t actually get off the plane; we can only stay on the plane. The hope is that what we write during this particular journey, if that’s what it happens to be, will survive the crash, will outlive us, and will be useful to future generations and to people in other countries.
I’ve been reading more history than I have fiction, and I’ve been reading in particular books about Hitler, books about Stalin, and books about the dirty war in Argentina. I’ve been reading them the way a hypochondriac reads health newsletters, looking for the warning signs of what could go wrong. One of the books about Argentina describes the way in which the generals perverted the language, and that it’s extremely important to listen to the language we’re hearing and to listen to the way our government is using the language, and to pay attention. At the same time, what I want my own children to read, what I want all young people to read, is great literature—and also, for example, books about Vietnam, because those are books about ways in which writers in particular and a population in general did alter government policy and did make a difference.