I have just uploaded a list of Wende novels (i.e. novels about the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification in 1989-1990). If you look at the lists of books I have created, you will see quite a few are novels with political/historical backgrounds. Clearly the Wende, as I shall now call it, was the most important event in German history since World War II and it is not surprising that it has preoccupied German writers, particularly those from the former East Germany. It does not, however, seem to have preoccupied writers from other countries, as D G Myers points out in his blog, at least as regards the USA (and I think that few other countries have bothered much with it in their literature). Interestingly enough, the events of 11 September 2001 have preoccupied both US novelists and those of other countries though it would seem to me that die Wende was more important politically than 9/11. C Max Magee, of the Millions blog stated I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a “9/11 novel”, presumably either meaning every US novel or being just supremely arrogant about the importance of the event to the world. If 9/11 is assessed purely in terms of number of deaths, it pales with other events in recent US history. To give just one example, far more Palestinians have died (at US taxpayer expense) than were killed in 9/11. I could also mention the Korean War (which produced several novels) and the Vietnam War (which produced lots more novels), not to mention US support of dictators from Mobutu to Pinochet, from the Shah of Iran to Trujillo, few of which produced any US novels of significance, the Vietnam war excepted. However, the point of this post is not to indicate the relative importance of historical events in terms of death or destruction but how a political event influenced novelists
World War I is probably the event of the past 100+ years that most influenced novelists and poets and, of course, produced many first-class novels, from all the major participant countries. These novels were not just about the conflict itself – though many dealt with the grizzly business of fighting – but also about the social and political consequences of the War, with novels such as Parade’s End, Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers), The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight and Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago). World War I gave us the Russian Revolution, the end of the Ottoman Empire, the beginning of the end of the British Empire and the end of the beginning of the rise of the US Empire, the conversion of countries such as the UK from being primarily rural to being primarily urban, the creation of several new countries and, as many novelists have indicated, a loss of innocence, which may be more imagined than real but was still potent for these novelists. In Britain, at least, it indirectly led to Irish independence, the rise of the Labour Party and women’s suffrage.
I have always thought that politically and historically World War I was more important than World War II, though I am well aware that World War II led to the creation of the Soviet Empire and other huge consequences. However, purely from the literary point of view, I do feel that WWI produced better novels than WWII. I have started a list of WWII novels but it is a long way from completion and I do not know when or even if I shall complete it. There are many other lists out there, such as World War II in Fiction. See my Historical fiction – specific periods for more (towards the bottom of the page). As the picture on the left, a bit above, shows, I consider The Underground City to be one of the best WWII novels, better than, say, The Naked and the Dead or From Here to Eternity. However, there are several other fine WWII novels, such as Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), Catch-22 and several Japanese novels such as 野火 (Fires on the Plain).
A quick look at my My Lists page will show that I have something of a mild obsession with civil wars. This is certainly the case. I have traipsed over many civil war battlefields in the USA and read numerous books on the subject, fiction though mainly non-fiction, as well as studying in some detail the civil wars in Mexico, Spain, Ireland and Russia. If you twisted my arm I would say that The Fathers is my favourite American Civil War novel and I think that Mazurca para dos muertos (Mazurka for Two Dead Men) is a wonderful novel of the Spanish Civil War that deserves to be better-known. Not only is there an English translation but it is amazingly in print in the US and readily available second-hand in the UK. The fascinating thing about civil wars and the literature associated with them is that they are still being fought and written about. Any foreigner who thinks that the American or Spanish or Mexican or Irish civil wars are over is sorely mistaken. All of these civil wars still produce a stream of novels. Indeed, despite the fact the Spanish Civil War ended seventy-four years ago and, therefore, most of the participants are either dead or nearly so, it almost seems that, as a Spanish novelist, at least one civil war novel is obligatory.
A friend commented on my list of Thatcher novels, knowing that my views were not exactly pro-Thatcher. Many of these novels are anti-Thatcher, as she clearly attracted a visceral hatred. The picture at left shows the cover of What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy). The UK title comes from the title of a film mentioned in the book (as does the photo on the cover), which, of course, is a play on words, as the book is about the Thatcherite carve-up of the UK. US audiences, for some odd reason, are clearly not considered able to make this link and given an anodyne and meaningless title. This book and the brilliant Running Wild show that a novel can take a strong political view and still be a first-class book.
Of course, there are many political novels not covered by these lists, from Swift, Trollope and Dickens to Orwell and the recently deceased Gore Vidal. Tim Pears has an interesting list while Christian Science Monitor starts with a writer I plan to read soon, Robert Penn Warren (I have seen the film though!). Margaret Lenta gives a South African perspective, showing that political novels are not limited to Europe and North America. I remember reading Cry the Beloved Country many years ago.
I don’t think that there is any doubt that the political movel will be here for sometime and, while some may infuriate us either because they are so badly written or simply do not reflect my (or your) political point of view, clearly many of the great novels of the past are political. Events like the Wende or our next favourite civil war will produce more interesting novels. I am already looking forward to the great Euro crash novel. Probably in Spanish.