The Karl Marx of AEsthetics
The Historical Novel. By Georg Luktics. Trans- lated by Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. (Merlin Press, 36s.) GEORO LUKACS, who will be seventy-seven next April, is hardly more than a name in this country. He is one of the great figures of European letters, yet The Historical Novel is only his second work to appear in English. It is somewhat disturbing that the 'Preface to the English Edition' which precedes it and which is dated 'Budapest, Sep- tember, 1960' is in fact identical with the 'Preface to the German Edition,' dated March, 1954: only the phrases 'German readers' and 'sixteen years ago' have been changed into 'English readers' and `more than twenty-two years ago.' It would be in- teresting to know whether Lukacs really wanted to leave that old, and by now misleading, preface unchanged or whether he had to do so. The Historical Novel, fascinating though much of it is, could certainly have done with a thorough re- vision and bringing up to date.
Yet three-quarters of the book remains as valid as when it was first written in the winter of 1936- 37. Dealing with a subject more concrete and less theoretical than most of Lukacs's other works, it should be more accessible to English readers than the bulk of his output. It is an inquiry into the nature of the historical novel rather than a history of the genre; and although, or because, it strictly adheres to Marxist doctrine and method, the book abounds in brilliant insights. The rise of the historical novel is explained by the dis- covery and experience of historical change, the otherness of the past, by the masses in the wake of the French Revolution, when more political and cultural changes took place within two de- cades than in several preceding centuries. The `classical' masterpieces of the genre are traced from Sir Walter Scott to Balzac, Manzoni's Pro- niessi Sposi, Stendhal, Pushkin and Tolstoy; in all these writers Lukacs finds the essence of greatness In the manner in which history is brought to life in the fate of individual characters who are not 'world historical personalities,' while the latter, who to the true Hegelian embody the workings of the Spirit of History, only appear in relatively minor roles at climactic moments. For to the Marxist Luktics the historical novel which is a mere fictionalised biography of a great man misses the vital point : by concentrating on the great in- dividual it inevitably neglects to depict the broad social and economic forces which drove the great man to act as he did. This leads Lukacs to the conclusion that Sir Walter Scott, 'the moderate Tory,' was nearer to a Marxist concept of history than so left-wing a modern novelist as Heinrich Mann, who made Henri IV the centre of a biographical novel.
There is a fascinating chapter defining the difference between the historical novel and the history play, where indeed the 'world-historical personalities' hold the centre of the stage. Lukacs shows that drama deals with essences, presenting the clash of historical forces abstracted from their background—and this can only be done by con- fronting the protagonists of history; while the novel can and should be circumstantial, and there- fore has to develop the actions of great men from the fabric of the daily lives and sufferings of more humble individuals,
Georg Lukacs exemplifies the best in a true Marxist (as distinct from the cheap party propa- gandist) approach : the breadth of vision and in- tellectual vigour that spring from a large and exhilarating conception, the advantage of argu- ing from a definite position a-nd by a firmly de- fined method of thought, the constant presence of a background of reality, social, economic, political, which is refreshing in a field so often as barren, remote and self-centred as literary criticism. Marxism gives Lukdcs, on the other hand, a solidly old-fashioned, Victorian quality (Victorian in no pejorative sense)—somewhere in the neighbourhood of Ruskin or William Morris, but expressed in the heavy terminology of Hegelian philosophy, which is not lightened by a translation of devastating literalness.
Being a Marxist in the great tradition, Luluics regards the relationship between the social reality which is the basis of artistic creation and the con- sciousness of the artist in which that reality is mirrored as infinitely subtle and indirect. That ,is why with him the Marxist method is never crude, always illuminates, and never obscures the under- standing of the works he discusses; that is why he prefers Sir Walter Scott's novels to the work of some party hack. But this very subtlety and depth is also the cause for Lukacs's present dis- grace, which only recently led to the publication in East Germany of a volume of attacks on him that treat him as `disgusting,' treacherous' and `criminal.' It is also the reason why he, in the works recently published in the West, confesses that he had to pepper his writings with Stalin quotations to make them acceptable, and to ex- press his views on certain subjects in an 'Aesopian language.' LukAcs thus shares the fate of so many subtle and sincere minds who tried to serve the cause of Communism. The words of Gorky he quotes in The Historical Novel when discussing the work of James Fenimore Cooper, and which refer to the tragedy of the pioneer who opened up the American wilderness, also apply to him- self : •'As an explorer of the forests and prairies of the "New World" he blazes new trails in them for people who later condemn him as a criminal because he has infringed their mercenary and, to his sense of freedom, unintelligible laws.'