Michael Denning on “The Novelists’ International”

Michael Denning, “The Novelists’ International” Culture in the Age of Three Worlds (2004):

In the middle of the age of three worlds (1945-1989), the novel looked dead, exhausted. In the capitalist First World, it was reduced to increasingly arid formalisms alongside an industry of formulaic genre fictions. In the Communist Second World, the official conventions of socialist realism were ritualized into a form of didactic popular literature. Into the freeze of this literary cold war erupted Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude] (1967), the first international bestseller from Latin America and perhaps the most influential novel of the last third of the twentieth century. In its wake, a new sense of a world novel emerged, with Cien años de soledad as its avatar, the Third World as its home, and a vaguely defined magical realism as its aesthetic rubric.

Like world music, the world novel is a category to be distrusted; if it genuinely points to the transformed geography of the novel, it is also a marketing device that flattens distinct regional and linguistic traditions into a single cosmopolitan world beat, with magical realism serving as the aesthetic of globalization, often as empty and contrived a signifier as the modernism and socialist realism it supplanted. There is, however, a historical truth to the sense that there are links between writers who now constitute the emerging canon of the world novel – writers as unalike as García Márquez, Naguib Mahfouz, Nadime Gordimer, José Saramago, Paule Marshall, and Pramoedya Ananta Toer – for the work of each has roots in the remarkable international literary movement that emerged in the middle decades of the twentieth century under the slogans of “proletarian literature,” “neorealism,” and “progressive,” “engaged,” or “committed” writing…. And though the novelists of this movement were deeply influenced by  the experimental modernisms of the early decades of the century, they rarely fit into the canonical genealogies of Western modernism and postmodernism. Though the royalties were small, the writers not all proletarians, and the audience often more a promise than a reality, the movement transformed the history of the novel. By imagining an international of novelists, it reshaped the geography of the novel. It enfranchised a generation of writers, often of plebeian backgrounds, and it was the first self-conscious attempt to create a world literature. From Maxim Gorky to Gabriel García Márquez, from Lu Xun to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, from Richard Wright to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, from Patrícia Galvão to Isabel Allende: the novelists’ international spans the globe and the century….

The turning point was the world upheaval of 1917-1921. In the wake of the European slaughter, regimes and empires were challenged: there were revolutions in Czarist Russia and Mexico, brief lived socialist republics in Germany, Hungary and Persia, uprisings against colonialism in Ireland, India, and China, and massive strike waves and factory occupations in Japan, Italy, Spain, Chile, Brazil, and the United States. The “imaginative proximity of social revolution” electrified a generation of young writers who came together in a variety of revolutionary and proletarian writers’ groups….

Their books were experiments in form, attempts to reshape the novel. Several challenges immediately presented themselves: the attempt to represent working-class life in a genre that had developed as the quintessential narrator of bourgeois or middle-class manners, kin structures, and social circles; the attempt to represent a collective subject in a form built around the interior life of the individual; the attempt to create a public, agitational work in a form which, unlike drama, depended on private, often domestic, consumption; and the attempt to create a vision of revolutionary social change in a form almost inherently committed to the solidity of society and history. The early novels are often awkward and un-novelistic….

The worldwide migration from country to city was one of the central historical events of the age of three worlds…“the death of the peasantry”…. Out of the clash of peasant and proletarian worlds came the most powerful new form to emerge from the proletarian literary movements: magical or marvelous realism. Though magical realism is often considered as a successor and antagonist to social realism, its roots lay in the left-wing writers’ movements….

[Magical realism’s] insistence on the specific reality of the colonized world at the moment of liberation in India, Indonesia, and China, a moment that finds its historical precursor not in the French Revolution (as the Bolsheviks did) but in the Haitian Revolution.

If this is true, one can see why the notion of magical realism resonates far beyond the Caribbean islands and coasts where it began. The term comes to represent a larger shift in the aesthetic of the novelists’ international, from the powerful censoring of desire in the early novels (the works of the epoch of worldwide depression are novels of lack and hunger, and the utopian novel is rare) to an unleashing of desire and utopia, foreshadowing the liberation ideologies of the New Left. This is why it is common to see magical realism as the antithesis of an earlier social realism….

Magical realism finds its most celebrated avatar in Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad. The 1967 novel, part of the celebrated boom in Latin American fiction, came to stand for the moment of Third World hopefulness in the wake of decolonization…[yet] Cien años de soledad stands as both a sign of the crisis in the literary desire to represent workers that had animated a generation of plebian writers and as an attempt to bear witness to that desire. [The results are mixed at best, and] …nearly a century after the first calls for an international proletarian literature and socialist realism, that desire seems not only defeated, but nonexistent and unimaginable. [Note: It might be of no small significance that Denning is writing here several years before the publication of Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo’s great world novel, Wizard of the Crow.] Yet like the strike story in Cien años de soledad, the aspirations and aesthetics of the novelists’ international remain the forgotten, repressed history behind the contemporary globalization of the novel.

As Andrew Seal notes, Denning argues further that:

rather than a “successor and antagonist to social realism,” magical realism is best seen as “a second stage of the proletarian avant-garde: if the first moment in the wake of the upheavals of 1917-1919 was dominated by a paradoxically ahistorical modernism that tried to document the lived experience of radically new factory and tenement… the magical realism of 1949 [the year Alejo Carpentier published El reino de este mundoThe Kingdom of This World, the preface of which introduced the term “lo real maravilloso,” the marvelous real] is the return of the repressed history” of the deeper traumas of “a history of conquest, enslavement, and colonization.”

This half-mythic past’s return unexpectedly resulted in the “unleashing of desire and utopia” most associated with magical realism, although the general interpretation of that release is highly depoliticized and given little or no context, political or otherwise. “World literature” sells best when shorn of its history of radical sympathies and stances. It sells a whole lot better if “the unleashing of desire and utopia” gets re-coded as simple tropical vitality.

In another post, Andrew asks:

Finally, whither the Left? Engaged leftist writers are, as Michael Denning among others has shown, considerably more transnational and transnationalizable. The special harmony of pursuing similar projects under vastly different conditions encourages comparative reading and vigorous response. If America produces a vibrant artistic Left in the coming years, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about being read all around the world.

While corporate dominance of world markets ensures that tsunamis of status quo and reactionary literature and art continue to deluge the world from the US, more liberatory circles seek left fiction, and vice versa. For example, book length US fiction from the left publisher Mainstay Press is currently virtually unpublishable in the US, apart from self/collective publishing, though it is being translated and published abroad, in France and Turkey, for example, and published by way of left circles or left influence in Turkey and India.

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