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Summer Reading 2017 – Political Fictions


Britta Böhler, Contributor

Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar
(translated from the French by Grace Frick)

Through most of highschool politics remained an abstract concept for me. In history class, we discussed Marx’ political theory and Plato’s Republic, we learned the names of kings and queens and we memorized battle dates, but it wasn’t until I read Memoirs of Hadrian that I understood that politics is, in fact, about people.

Heavily relying on two historical sources – the Historia Augusta (a collection of biographies) and Cassius Dio’s Historia Romana – Yourcenar’s book is a fictional autobiography of the man who ruled the Roman empire for over two decades, until his death in 138.

The book opens with a lengthy letter from Hadrian to his cousin (and later successor), Marcus Aurelius, in which the emperor, now in his early sixties and in bad health, reflects on his life and his political views:

For my part I have sought liberty more than power, and power only because it can lead to freedom. What interested me was not a philosophy of the free man (all who try that have proved tiresome), but a technique: I hoped to discover the hinge where our will meets and moves with destiny, and where discipline strengthens, instead of restraining, our nature.

Following the letter, Hadrian gives a detailed and vivid account of his upbringing, his military endeavors, his political career and his travels. The chronology of events is often interrupted by his musings on love, marriage, philosophy and the meaning of power:

We emperors are not Caesars; we are functionaries of the State. That plaintiff whom I refused one day to hear out was right when she exclaimed that if I had no time to listen to her, I had no time to rule.

Yourcenar succeeds in rendering an intimate, yet vivid and believable portrait of the Roman ruler. And for me, the novel is also one of the best examples of politics come alive.

Jennifer Helinek, Contributor

Murder in Amsterdam, Ian Buruma

When Ian Buruma was named the new editor of The New York Review of Books in May of this year, I was inspired to reread his 2006 nonfiction title Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance. I remembered it as immensely readable and insightful. I was unprepared the second time around for my Kindle’s highlighting function to become completely redundant.

In 2004, the provocative Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim extremist for directing a film that featured violent verses from the Koran projected onto the bodies of naked, battered women. His murderer, Mohammed Bouyeri, was the son of Moroccan immigrants and had been born and raised in Amsterdam. Living abroad at the time of the incident, Buruma decided to return to the country of his birth:

There was something unhinged about the Netherlands in the winter of 2004, and I wanted to understand it better. Hysteria, after all, is the last thing people associate with a country that is usually described by lazy foreign journalists as “phlegmatic.”

Murder in Amsterdam is a piece of investigative journalism that often reads like a novel in its attention to character backstories and criminal psychology. Van Gogh and Bouyeri are far from its only subjects. The majority of the book features interviews with all different kinds of Dutch citizens: Turkish, Moroccan, and Somali immigrants of various ages, socioeconomic classes, and religious beliefs; progressive and conservative politicians, ranging from the traditionally complacent to the fashionably enraged; performers and teachers and journalists trying to define who constitutes “us” and “them.”

These interviews present a series of endlessly fascinating questions: What is the place of religion in a civil society? Can Islam be considered a European religion, or will it always be seen as alien? What are the limits (if any) of free speech in a democracy? Does the legacy of the Enlightenment instruct or blind contemporary Europeans? Those being interviewed confidently state their opinions, only to be gently pushed by Buruma to confront the gaps in their logic, the truths that their worldviews don’t account for.

Buruma then sets these conversations against the backdrop of his own ruminations on the hidden truths of Dutch culture. He sees its reputation for hospitality and tolerance as both earned and overly simplistic. Its supposed secularism conceals the remnants of “displaced religiosity” – remnants, he claims, that can only be found at football stadiums and the funerals of celebrities. Many Dutch cultural figures hide behind the façade of irony, only to protest when they’re not taken seriously. And all discourse about Islam is filtered through the well-meaning but often unhelpful lens of World War II and the Holocaust.

In the wake of the Syrian Civil War and refugee crisis, the xenophobic (especially Islamophobic) tenor of recent Western elections, and continued terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists, it’s tempting to read Buruma’s book in light of later times, with other countries in mind. Readers will find plenty of parallels between Pim Fortuyn, another murdered Dutch figure, and Donald Trump. But Murder in Amsterdam’s main strength is its refusal to sacrifice specificity for universality – which, paradoxically, makes this quintessentially Dutch book necessary reading, no matter your nationality.

Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

Sometimes the most politically powerful books don’t at first seem to be about politics at all–or at least they are not overtly about governments. But governments are only the institutional form taken by ideas–ideas about power, about governance, and about the kind of world we hope or fear to live in. These ideas, and arguments about them, have never been confined to the formal apparatus of the state. Very often, they take shape in fictions that expose and critique the way our world actually is, or that test and expand our understanding of what our world could be. Thus, for example, Jane Austen’s novels are political because they imagine a world in which young women without family or fortune are entitled to pursue their own happiness, and Charles Dickens’s novels are political because they insist on the value of the poorest and weakest in society, and on the obligation of the richer and stronger to care for them.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is a novel many readers love for the power of its personal story. Plain, smart, unloved, rebellious, its heroine endures first physical then emotional privation only to rise triumphant and adored from the ashes of her miserable past. Jane’s story thrills everyone in what Anita Brookner aptly, if somewhat acidly, called “the tortoise market”: “in real life, of course” Brookner observes, “it is the hare who wins,” but in Brontë’s novel, Jane fights for and wins a happy ending worthy of her proud spirit and passionate heart.

That her victory is a political one was recognized immediately by Brontë’s contemporaries. “We do not hesitate to say,” wrote the critic Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake in 1848,

that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.

Eastlake particularly objected to Jane’s insistence on her own individual worth and dignity. Throughout the novel, she complained, “there is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man,” as well as a “pervading tone of ungodly discontent.” She’s absolutely right. “Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine,” Jane reflects as she paces the rooftop at Thornfield Hall, yearning for a life that would “overpass that limit” set for her by class and custom;

and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. . . . Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer. . . . It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

When Jane’s seemingly callous employer, Mr. Rochester, proposes sending her away to Ireland when her term as his daughter’s governess ends, she confronts him with breathtaking audacity:

Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?–You think wrong!–I have as much soul as you,–and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh:–it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal–as we are!

What Brontë understood, and dramatized for us through Jane, is that it’s only by voicing our “ungodly discontent”–at the limitations of of sex, at the arrogance of class, at all the injustices of the world in which, like Jane, we so painfully make our way forward–that we have any hope of bringing about the changes our world still so desperately needs.

Greg Waldmann, Editor-in-chief

Dubliners, James Joyce

In 1799 Dublin was the second-largest city in the British Isles, and one of the largest in all of Europe. The next year saw the passage of the Act of Union in the parliaments of both Great Britain and Ireland, dissolving the latter, uniting the two lands, and formalizing English rule.

A hundred years later Dublin couldn’t even claim to be the largest city in Ireland. Globalization of commerce and the transformation of industry had taken their toll, but so too had the self-reinforcing effects of English domination of Ireland’s politics and economy. Catholics hoping to better themselves made little progress, and most those few who achieved some small measure of success emerged transformed, and scarred, by the enervating effects of obsequity and competition. The poor had nothing to look forward to; the lower middle class was forced to cling to the lowest rungs of a Protestant-dominated social and economic hierarchy. Naturally, the Irish factionalized, turning on each other as often as they turned on English.

This is the context in which Dubliners was written and the world in which its characters live. James Joyce’s collection of short stories is famous, among other things, for its beguiling prose and its Ibsen-esque commitment to realism. It is also a very angry, very political book.

Sometimes politics drives the story, as in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” where a group of dilatory election canvassers snipe at each other and contemplate the fall of nationalist hero Charles Parnell. They are not especially principled characters and they’re not doing much of anything; that’s what Joyce thought of most nationalists in his day.

Usually, though, politics is context, a hidden engine thrumming in the background. In “A Little Cloud,” a timid office worker named Chandler is preoccupied with an upcoming reunion. His friend Ignatius Gallaher has found success “across the water,” in London. Chandler thinks of his own fading, unfulfilled ambitions, and for a moment they’re rekindled and he dreams vaguely of publishing “Celtic” poetry, which was fashionable in London at the time. Chandler hopes Gallaher will help him but he finds his friend is not particularly interested in him at all.

Three small whiskies had gone to his head and Gallaher’s strong cigar had confused his mind, for he was a delicate and abstinent person. The adventure of meeting Gallaher after eight years, of finding himself with Fallaher in Corless’s surrounded by lights and noise, of listening to Gallaher’s stories and of sharing for a brief space Gallaher’s vagrant and triumphant life, upset the equipoise of his sensitive nature. He felt acutely the contrast between his own life and his friend’s, and it seemed to him unjust.

In “The Dead,” two Irish sisters maintain the pretense of their former status once a year at their annual Christmas party, doling out middle-class hospitality as if nothing has changed. Their beloved nephew Gabriel, a mildly prosperous teacher and writer, is harangued by a glib nationalist:

—And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with– Irish? asked Miss Ivors.
—Well, said Gabriel, if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.
Their neighbours had turned to listen to the cross-examination. Gabriel glanced right and left nervously and tried to keep his good humour under the ordeal, which was making a blush invade his forehead.
—And haven’t you your own land to visit, continued Miss Ivors, that you know nothing of, your own people and your own country?
—O, to tell you the truth, retorted Gabriel suddenly, I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!

Joyce was sick of it, too. It took a decade to get Dubliners past the timidity of Irish publishers and into publication, by which time he was, as Ignatius Gallaher would put it, “across the water,” in permanent exile from the land whose people and politics he so memorably described.

Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor

Phineas Redux, Anthony Trollope

Continuing with a little project of reading the entire works of Anthony Trollope on my iPhone, I just recently finished a re-read of the “Palliser” novel I’ve always liked least: Phineas Redux, the 1874 novel that was the fourth in a sometimes only loosely-connected series and a direct sequel to the second book in that series, Phineas Finn. Trollope himself later wrote that it was unreasonable of him to think anybody picking up Phineas Redux would remember the particulars of the earlier book, in which our eponymous young hero, an extremely handsome Irishman, leaves his position in the cabinet of the current English government, takes a civil service position back in Ireland, and settles down to live with his father and marry his childhood sweetheart.

Trollope fixes the problem of readerly recall in his usual straightforward way: he summarily kills off the father and the sweetheart before Phineas Redux even opens, and he deals with the job by offering Phineas a much better one. In the midst of his grief and boredom, our hero gets a letter from an old political crony back in London, telling him his Party is going to make a concerted try for power in the upcoming election. They want all their reliables back in harness, and it happens there’s a vulnerable borough Phineas might try, a dirty, forsaken place called Tankerville whose long-standing member will buy the votes he needs to win, leaving him open to a judicial contest that Phineas will certainly win.

He’s missed what Trollope here and elsewhere refers to as the sound of trumpets. “A drunkard or a gambler may be weaned from his ways,” Trollope tells us, “but not a politician”: Phineas instantly loathes the sight of Tankerville, but he makes a strong impression with his speeches against church disestablishment. And when he wins his recount and claims his seat, he’s happy at the thought of not setting foot again in Tankerville for a good long time – and virtually the first thing he’s called upon to do in Parliament is take the exact opposite position on church and state, which he does after the briefest and most facile of phony justifications.

It could scarcely be a more cynical picture of the lure of professional politics, and it drives the whole novel. Even while Trollope is concentrating on the fairly absurd murder plot that ensnares and seems to doom Phineas, he’s constantly, compulsively glancing back at the brawling world of national government. And when Phineas miraculously survives his ordeal, he solemnly tells all his friends that he’s been too traumatized even to think of returning to the trumpets; “I look upon the whole question of office with altered eyes,” he insists, even after his Tankerville constituents have sent a delegation to London assuring him they want to keep re-electing him. At first he seems too damaged; he turns down the Prime Minister’s offer of a plum post. But Trollope doesn’t leave us with much doubt about the future. “Of Phineas every one says that of all living men he has been the most fortunate,” readers are told during a classic Trollopian thread-gathering conclusion. “The present writer will not think so unless he shall soon turn his hand to some useful task. Those who know him best say that he will of course go into office before long.” And in the next “Palliser” novel, 1876’s The Prime Minister, he’s back in harness once again.

Re-reading Phineas Redux didn’t warm me much more to it this time around. The lurid murder plot feels like a ridiculous imposition, and Trollope himself explodes any tension it might have by telling us immediately whodunit; likewise the book’s tangled love story collapses into happiness the instant Trollope loses interest in it.

But the element of it that struck me with new force in this reading did so because the political headlines in the United States underscore it: the pernicious habit of professional politics, and by extension the fact that a nation’s politicians are sick, addicted to the sordid source of their power and willing to say or do almost anything in order to feed their addiction. In 2017 we’d substituted golfing for fox-hunting, but that isn’t much consolation.

Sam Sacks, Founding Editor

All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren

It’s beyond me why All the King’s Men, the saga of a crooked, rabble-rousing drain-the-swamp populist who rises to unimaginable power before being felled by his avarice and appetites, has failed to return to the spotlight at time when critics are ransacking the classics shelves for books that seem relevant to the current political moment. Maybe familiarity (and an unwatchable Sean Penn film adaptation) has bred contempt? For decades Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 fictionalization of the life of Louisiana governor Huey Long, here rechristened Willie Stark, has been spoken of as the greatest political novel in American literature. The boring truth is that its reputation is entirely deserved. Whatever the pretext, it’s always a good idea to read this extraordinary book.

Read or re-read, since the richly layered narrative always provides something new to appreciate. When I first encountered it in high school I was taken by the coming-of-age tale of Jack Burden, our narrator and Stark’s jaded right hand man and opposition researcher, whose family conflicts and fated first love deliver the novel’s aching personal component. When I came to it again in my twenties I fell under the spell of the dark vein of existential philosophy, manifested in the contrast between the cynical greed of the politicians and the Great Depression poverty and backwardness in the rest of the state, and summarized by Stark’s liturgical pronouncement that “man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.”

It was only on my third reading that I really took account of its acute portrayal of politics. Stark is the consummate man of the people and he justifies his dirty tricks as being the only means available to root out the corrupt statehouse establishment. Warren uses every poetical flourish in his arsenal of orotundity to capture the charisma and power that make Stark a cult hero with the working-class electorate. The “Boss,” as he’s known, appears in fewer scenes than you might imagine, but his presence is always palpable, affecting the gravitational fields of every character who passes through the book. And when he is there in person, as when he defends his practices to his uneasy attorney general, his oratory has the force of imparted truth:

“I’m not a lawyer. I know some law. In fact, I know a lot of law. And I made me some money out of law. But I’m not a lawyer. That’s why I can see what the law is like. It’s like a single-bed blanket on a double bed and three folks in the bed and a cold night. There ain’t enough blanket to cover the case, no matter how much pulling and hauling, and somebody is always going to nigh catch pneumonia. Hell, the law is like the pants you bought last year for a growing boy, but it is always this year and the seams are popped and the shankbone’s to the breeze. The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind. The best you can do is do something and then make up some law to fit and by the time that law gets on the books you would have done something different. Do you think half the things I’ve done were clear, distinct, and simple in the constitution of this state?”

“The Supreme Court has ruled—” Hugh Miller began.

“Yeah, and they ruled because I put ‘em there to rule it, and they saw what had to be done. Half the things weren’t in the constitution but they are now, by God. And how did they get there. Simply because somebody did ‘em.”

As a study of corruption on both the political and spiritual level, All the King’s Men makes for oddly appropriate reading during the steamy, stagnant summer months. Unholy heat and humidity are written into the book’s moral climate, and its famous opening passage presages the mesmeric, almost hallucinatory quality of the storytelling. Few novels since Bleak House have introduced themselves as memorably:

To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won’t make it, of course.

Justin Hickey, Editor

March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

Congressman John Lewis, representing Georgia, is the last person alive to have spoken at the 1963 March On Washington. He spoke sixth, and Dr. Martin Luther King spoke tenth, giving his “I Have a Dream” speech. This makes the congressman a precious link to a time that seems both steeped in legend and frighteningly similar to our horrendous present. The gains of the Civil Rights Movement helped elect Barack Obama president in 2009. Yet in 2015 alone, police killed more than 100 unarmed black people.

March is a series of three graphic novels written by Lewis, congressional advisor Andrew Aydin, and drawn by Nate Powell. This first volume covers Lewis’ childhood and teen years in rural Alabama, where caring for chickens on his family’s Pike County farm sparked in him a need to protest injustice. As a child, he spoke to the chickens, saw them as individuals, and eventually refused to eat them when his parents served them for dinner. Teenage Lewis channeled his commitment to protecting those among us with the least power into preaching. The novelty of a boy preacher soon got the attention of Dr. King himself.

An excellent artist can guide the reader through shifts in time and place with little or no dialogue, tapping our love for narrative with atmosphere and facial expressions. Though much of March: Book One is intellectually grounded, it opens on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where on March 7, 1965 law enforcement met Civil Rights workers with batons and tear gas. The word balloons are jagged like buzzsaws (“YOU HAVE TWO MINUTES TO TURN AROUND AND GO BACK TO YOUR CHURCH”), and when the violence begins, Powell slants the panels to emphasize a world tilting people into the abyss.

From that nightmare, we rise with Lewis in his Washington, D.C. home, preparing for work on the morning of January 20th, 2009, President Obama’s inauguration day. The rest the story’s flashbacks are framed by Lewis as he tours a mother and her two young sons around his office. The African American boys, Jacob and Esau, notice the congressman’s many chicken tchotchkes, but they also learn about the birth of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s, including watershed events like the murder of Emmett Till, the determination of Rosa Parks, and the department store sit-ins. As a teen, Lewis heard Dr. King on the radio and, “The message hit me like a bolt of lightning. He applied the principles of the church to what was happening now, today. It was called the Social Gospel—and I felt like he was preaching directly to me.”

My first time through March: Volume One, I’d intended to read just a few pages before bed. I didn’t realize the fusion of two of my favorite things, American History and graphic storytelling, would jolt me into downing the volume whole. The feathered shadows of Powell’s art, the haunted expressiveness of his figures, helped. Lewis and Aydin’s text never bulks up, which is important to keep their main audience, young people, interested. Volumes Two and Three still await me, though it’ll be heartbreaking to read them in this time and place, the country’s giant step backward.