Great stories, real lives

The Power of the Story
June 23, 1995

Shelley claimed that poets were "the unacknowledged legislators of the world", Hugh O'Shaughnessy said that it was the "music makers, the dreamers of dreams" who were the "world shakers and world removers", and Jean-Paul Sartre saw literature as "the self-consciousness of a society in permanent revolution". Michael Hanne has studied five novels which dealt with immediate social issues, and come up with a set of more modest conclusions which have the great advantage of being based on what actually happened.

The connection between the first two novels and the events which followed them is an obvious one. A Sportsman's Notebook was published in book form in 1852, and it was Turgenev's own claim that it contributed to the decision by Alexander II, nine years later, to abolish serfdom. Uncle Tom's Cabin also appeared in 1852, and the meeting at which Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe with the words "So this is the little lady who made this big war" took place in November 1862, two months after he had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Both books thus took roughly the same time to produce their effect, and the claim that a story can have the kind of power which Sartre would have liked to give the books he wrote is founded on more solid evidence than anything available elsewhere.

The link is less clear between the three other novels which are "said to have had a major impact on the political events of their time" and what took place after they had been published. Graham Greene may have been right to claim in his 1934 review of Ignazio Silone's 1933 Fontamara that it "opened the eyes of all those who believe that there are different brands of fascism and that the Italian trademark is any better than the swastika". But Italian fascism did not collapse as a result of the publication of a book; it fell through defeat in war. Michael Hanne twice quotes the letter in which Mark Ivanovich Kononenko told Solzhenitsyn that nowhere in the Soviet Union had he seen longer queues than the ones for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and Solzhenitsyn himself claimed that the magical quality of literature can perhaps "save a nation from taking an unnecessary, mistaken or even a ruinous path". But it is easier to argue that the Soviet regime collapsed because of the strain put on its already failing economy by the need to keep up in the arms race with the West than as a result of anything even in Solzhenitsyn's books. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was published in the week of the Cuban missile crisis, and regimes more successful in their foreign policy than Khrushchev's was on that occasion are relatively impervious to literary attacks.

Michael Hanne does not, it is true, claim that either Silone or Solzhenitsyn produced a decisive change in the way the society they described ran its affairs, and he is even more modest in the case of The Satanic Verses. It is nevertheless the chapter dealing with Salman Rushdie's novel which puts forward the most convincing thesis. This is the idea of narrative fiction as a catalyst, the view of narrative as a force capable of making society see things differently, even if this means ignoring the official intentions of the author and reading his text "against the grain". The basic situation may not change. But just as the tensions in a liquid become visible under the impact of the catalysing agent, so the publication of certain books makes the tensions of society easier to identify and analyse.

As a contribution to the debate on la litterature engage, The Power of the Story benefits from a determination to see how Marxism, receptionist theory, feminism, as well as the ideas of Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva, work in practice.

Michael Hanne makes the interesting point that Fontamara has had its greatest impact outside Italy, especially in Central and South America, where its placing of peasants rather than industrial workers in the centre of the political stage "underlines the need for individuals to emerge from the indigenous masses as an heroic focus for revolt", and it is a defining characteristic of literature that none of its effects can be predicted. The Power of the Story does not bring the story of how literature affects society to an end. But it takes the reader a long way on a very interesting road.

Philip Thody is emeritus professor of French literature, University of Leeds.

The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change

Author - Michael Hanne
ISBN - 1 57181 019 6
Publisher - Berghahn Books
Price - £25.00
Pages - 262

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