REALISM AND THE SOVIET NOVEL
By Howard Fast
BRAND WHITLOCK once said that fiction at its best can come nearer to reality than the truth itself. And in spite of the seeming contradiction, this statement might be used as a key to any discussion of realism and the novel.
The novel itself is another discussion, and a very long one at that. We are concerned here primarily with the problem of reality which faces both the writer and the reader in terms of this specific prose form. Reality as such, or the world we live in, the many thousands of objects and forces which affect us--these can never be contained within a literary work in their entirety. For example, if a writer--even the most thorough of the naturalistic school--were to attempt to follow a human being through a single day of his life, he would be utterly confounded. Ten thousand pages would scarcely do for such an attempt. Even after ten thousand pages, could one have caught all the smells, the half-lost thoughts that begin and have no ending; the sounds that have no description? No. To put reality into words as it exists is impossible. And, though we know it is impossible, and though we are ready to smile at the conception of such a literary endeavor, we must nevertheless constantly refresh that point of view--for, unless it is understood that every writer, however naturalistic he pretends to be, indulges in a fine process of selection, we can neither discuss nor begin to understand the relationship between realism and the novel.
At this point we can talk of the literary work as being selective, as being a very specific and narrow reflection of the world itself. It is entirely valid to say that a writer writes the truth; but it is not valid if, along with that statement, does not go an understanding of the fact that the truth as one man sees it is not the truth as another man sees it.
THE serious American writer has this in common with the serious Soviet writer: they both seek the truth. They both attempt to reproduce within the pages of their novel a valid reflection of the society they inhabit. They do this by dramatic selection--that is, their approach is dialectic. If the approach of a writer--that is, a novelist--is anything but dialectic, his work will be completely stagnant, holding neither interest nor validity for the reader. But the difference between the American writer and the Soviet writer is that whereas one, the American writer, sees the world through a romanticized dialectics, the other, the Soviet writer, sees the world through the realistic logic of dialectical materialism. This becomes plainer when we approach it empirically, as I propose to do.
I have shown that the exact reproduction of reality in literature is impossible. I also stated at the outset of this discussion that I agreed with the concept that fiction at its best could come closer to the truth than such reality. This is neither as contradictory nor as involved as it seems. Around us is an intensely complicated world. It is a world that superficially very often makes for neither sense nor reason--and for some people this world of ours is so bewildering and so frightening that they retreat into evasions. Events in this world share the same complexity--and for that reason so many of us welcome the aid of a specialist in events, of a specialist in politics, of a specialist in science. The novelist at his best is a specialist too. His specialty is the role of the individual. He takes a single person and the prime forces that move this person, that motivate him, he takes what is best in him and what is worst in him, and he sends this person forth on a series of adventures in our very complex world. And when the novelist is finished--if he is worth his salt--the reader not only knows his protagonist but also knows the forces of society which moved his protagonist and which, in certain cases, were set in motion by the same protagonist.
In other words, the novelist selects from reality what is most important and reflects it dialectically. He deals with both the subjective and the objective--and thereby he presents to his reader a clear silhouette of one or several human beings who emerge from confusion.
Take, for example, Theodore Dreiser's American Tragedy, one of the superb novels of our times. Dreiser takes a character essentially weak and allows the main forces of petty bourgeois society in America to act upon this character. Subjectively and objectively he paints the character's reaction in turn and when the reader has finished the book--if the reader is a part of this layer of society--he discovers that he has a more real and more illuminating picture of his own life, his own society, than he was formerly able to comprehend from the society itself.
I think at this point we can see that the dichotomy of realism and fiction is solved by selection. I think we can see that the writer can best solve this dichotomy who is best equipped with an understanding of society. In other words, the reality exists for all human beings, but the reality can be translated into truth or falsity only by means of a philosophy.
LET me give an example of this. The reality of a strike is present for any who care to observe. The objective factors are the same to anyone who cares to observe the picket line, the locked gates, the company guards, etc. For the writer who sympathizes with labor, the reality is a courageous and noble effort on the part of workingmen to obtain their rights and to exist as human beings. To the anti-labor writer, the workingmen are perpetrating a crime against society. To the neutral writer, the workingmen are fighting for laudable motives, but so are the employers, and one could go on and on, into endless variants of these positions.
But we approach the question, which of these several realities is the reality? In other words, one of these concepts must be correct, and the rest false. If we reason scientifically, we know that such is the case. For example, primitive man, seeing trees bend as the wind blew, deduced that the motion of the trees caused the wind. But we, armed with scientific knowledge and observation, know that the reverse is true--that the motion of the air causes the motion of the trees.
Therefore we come to this proposition: is there a science through which society may be understood, through which the actions of man in relation to his environment may be understood in the same terms that the action of an acid on a metal is understood? If one does not believe that there is such a science, but contends that all of human life and human society is anarchistic and haphazard and meaningless, than this discussion would have to come to a sudden end. If one does believe that there is such a science, and that, through this science, the key to reality may be obtained, who is best armed with that science?
SINCE he is armed with that science, dialectical materialism, I believe that the Soviet writer is armed far better than we are with the tools of an understanding of society. To go back to our reference to the strike, the Soviet writer would see the strike as an effort on the part of labor to advance the cause of mankind. In our country, this might well be debated and debated very furiously. But. for one who believes in the cause of labor, all other interpretations of this struggle would be not truth but falsehood.
A writer who wishes to tell the truth about the working class in America has to think several times before beginning to write--provided that he is armed with the ability to reflect the truth. Then he has to labor through a welter of contradictions. If he believes in democracy he must attempt to bring forth that democracy within the framework of an imperialistic nation. If he believes in labor, he must be prepared not merely to write as an honest writer but to face the abuse and scorn of the press who will immediately denounce him as a Communist. If he should believe that he has so clear an understanding of society as to be able to choose the truthful reflection of reality then the critics will attack him as being one-sided, as presenting a biased point of view.
One could go on and on with this, point to case after case where almost unassailable walls are built about the American writer. And from this results the almost hopeless confusion in serious American writing, the disillusionment, the inability to see either hope or method. Also from this results the decline in our literature which we are observing today; for, finding the treatment of reality a heart-breaking and almost impossible task, writer after writer here in America is turning to one form or another of escape literature--the mystery book, the tough guy a la Chandler, the huge historical novel, the thin, childlike anti-humanism of Steinbeck and Huxley.
In contrast to these evasions of reality are the novels from the Soviet Union, which present human beings who believe in life, who fight and love and work with hope and directness seldom matched in our American literature. The Soviet hero believes in life. He believes in the ability of the individual to conquer his environment. He believes in the ability of the Soviet citizen to conquer his enemies. The war writers of the Soviet Union-- Ehrenburg, Grossman, Simonov, Wasilewska and a dozen others--have painted unforgettable pictures of men in battle; but more than this, they have achieved an amazing reality in terms of warfare, and in their tales, to put it vulgarly, we fairly smell the smoke--whereas our own writers approach battle and shy away for the most part from the dialectic core of the struggle, the fact of how men kill and why they kill.
Curiously, the charge most often hurled against the Soviet novel is that it is a departure from reality, the conditioned work of an artist in uniform. Many honest observers in America have offered that opinion, and it is well to understand from where it stems. We in a confused and contradictory society have come to a point where we refuse to accept reality except in terms of confusion.
So long have we been conditioned to frustration as an integral part of the novel that we ourselves demand frustration as a literary condiment. Our critics object to Ilya Ehrenburg analyzing in his Fall of Paris the forces which brought about the first defeat of France; for these same critics are so far from reality that they refuse to believe that such forces can be either analyzed or interpreted by a writer. Our critics objected to the horror of The Rainbow chiefly because our own writers have never honestly and objectively faced the fact of fascism and attempted to portray it. Ostrowsky's Making of a Hero, one of the great Soviet novels of our time, was attacked in this country as an unthinking propaganda statement because, once again, our critics were unable to cope with a writer who believed so fervently in his own country and his own people.
Reality exists for the writers of all countries, but the writer must come to reality armed with a philosophy that will give him understanding. The Russian writer has this philosophy in dialectical materialism. He believes that men are motivated by forces and he also believes that men can shape these forces. He believes in hope rather than hopelessness, in direction rather than confusion, and most basically, also, he believes in mankind. Thereby he can create heroes to fight within a framework of humanism and extract from the endless richness and complexity of life those basic and real factors which enable man to understand his world and to advance it.
I know of no better way to illustrate this thesis than to examine the current best-seller by Simonov, Days and Nights.
Here is a book which, to my mind, has caught more of the reality and the horror and the terror of modern warfare than any other I have read out of the current struggle. As you read the book you live and suffer in Stalingrad. So close is your identification with the hero Saburov, with the men who fight under him, with the city, and with the whole of the Russian people, that you react with the fullest understanding of their emotions, their motives and their courage.
Reading it you cannot doubt that Simonov has distilled from the grim reality of warfare both understanding and truth. In other words, he saw clearly what went on in Stalingrad in terms of men, of motives, and of the greater forces concerned; and he was able to impart this understanding to his readers. Withal, the book glows with such compassion as one finds in almost no American war writing. You get that curious counterpointed effect of extreme and humane gentleness along with the fierce savagery with which the Russian soldier defended his native soil. This, too, is the reality. Within man is the potential for immense compassion as well as immense hatred; and to bring out both these emotions, and all that flows between them, requires, as I have said before, a most comprehensive philosophic understanding of human beings and of the society which human beings inhabit.
Certainly one does not find in Simonov that technical excellence, that almost decadent worship of craft for craft's sake, that one can discover by turning up at random almost any page of the New Yorker, or the Saturday Review of Literature, or the Times Book Review magazine. The task of the mature writer is to reflect reality, to understand it and to arrange it in terms of a human being, an individual. I do not say that technical excellence is not to be desired. But far more important than technical excellence is the content of the material, and only through an understanding of the world can content mature.
I was amused to find the publishers of Days and Nights, as well as the Book-of-the-Month Club, claiming that this was an apolitical book. What childishness that is! Politics is one of the basic struggles of mankind; war itself, by definition of Clausewitz, is an armed extension of politics.
How, then, could a war book be apolitical? What is this insane nullification on the part of our critics that leads them to shower with praise any man who has no point of view? What sort of a human being can go through life with no point of view?
As a matter of fact, Simonov's new book is intensely political; it is naive to think that a Soviet writer could come to maturity under socialism and write a full length novel of the war, which socialism fought for survival, and at the same time produce a novel with no political content! When you read Simonov's book, you find a constant interrelation of (1) the hero, (2) the battalion he commands, (3) the regiment of which the battalion is a part, (4) the division, (5) the army corps that defends Stalingrad, (6) The Red Army that defended the whole of the Soviet Union, (7) the Soviet people who stand behind the Red Army, and last Stalin, the commander in chief. Woven into this, and through it, is the role of the Communist Party of Russia as the coordinating force. It is the philosophy of the writer, his relation to his own society, that enables him to integrate all these parts in a fluid, exciting and dramatic whole. At times he does this overtly, as for example when, dog-tired after a battle, he and his political commissar listen to Stalin's speech on the twenty-sixth anniversary of the October Revolution. At other times he does it far more subtly, but emphasizes over and over the bond that connects the Russian soldier with the Russian people. You never feel that Saburov, the hero, fights alone; he fights as part of a people, as part of a society, of an idea, of a plan. This is the reality of life, the dialectic reality of many, many forces always in motion, always affecting each other.
Yet it's rather pathetic to note obliquely that even the translator of this book, Joseph Barnes, stated in a publicity release that three kinds of Americans would not like Simonov's book: reactionaries, Trotskyites and Communists. There's the parting note in a discussion of reality and the Soviet writer. A Soviet writer, who is a member of the Communist Party, writes a book about the greatest life and death struggle the Communist Party of any land ever led--and yet this translator has the gall to predict that Communists of other lands will dislike the book!
The world we live in is a very real world. A writer who approaches it on any other basis than an understanding of its many complexities will always to a degree fail; the lesser writer who approaches this same world with both humanism and a scientific approach to the forces concerned will, to a larger degree, succeed.