Dystopia and Providence in Five Novels

Eve Tushnet

The political upheavals of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries bore all kinds of names, from the euphemistic “people’s republic” to the dystopian “total war.” It’s hard to name precisely what was born of these upheavals—“modernity” is too abstract, “the American century” too specific; “democracy” too depressing. But the difference between the world before and the world after is easily seen. Before, cavalry; after, nylons. Before, peasants; after, P.R. For a series of reactionary novels, published in the 1930s through the 1960s, the collapse of the previous order was not merely an economic and political transformation but an existential cataclysm which shattered men’s understanding of their place in the world. For these novels the death rattle of premodernity meant not merely revolution, but apocalypse.

Four of these novels are classics of revolt against the times: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Russian Civil War novel White Guard, and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. The fifth, Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, is an experimental science-fiction collage novel which at first seems to sit oddly among works otherwise set in some version of a real, historical world. Yet to read these books not in order of publication but in the order I’ve just named them—slotting Hesse in right before Waugh—is to watch the apocalypse in slow motion. The post-apocalyptic world is recognizably our own, as the vanished world is recognizably alien. By exploring these novels’ common ground, we can see what we’ve lost—and what we’ve forgotten.

The Leopard is the book set in the earliest period, and with the most feeling for the vanished world. (Its author bears the utterly twentieth-century title, “the last Prince of Lampedusa.”) Posthumously published in 1958, it concerns the social changes brought by Italian unification. Unlike the more purely nostalgic 1963 film from Luchino Visconti, Lampedusa’s work has a medieval cynicism—it is carnival and grotesque, loping and digressive. The Leopard has a romance novel’s heady bluntness, a submissiveness to the reader’s lower tastes: “Restless and domineering, the Princess dropped her rosary brusquely into her jet-fringed bag, while her fine crazy eyes glanced around at her slaves of children and her tyrant of a husband, over whom her diminutive body vainly yearned for loving dominion.”

One of the most consistent features of pre-apocalyptic characterization is the importance of clothing. When the bourgeois mayor turns up in a tailcoat, some might laugh, but Don Fabrizio the Prince “saw revolution in that white tie and two black tails moving at this moment up the stairs of his own home.” The Leopard also displays the full range of social classes. There are peasants here, and their opinions about what is owed them matter to Don Fabrizio if not to his successors. The obligations that tie rich and poor together are already weakening, but still mutual to a degree we will not see again in any of these novels.

These seemingly distinct issues of clothing and class are really the same issue. The older classes of The Leopard have duties proper to their station in life, which are represented by their costumes. Like Harlequin and Pierrot they tell you who they are by what they wear, and they fulfill these roles no matter how ridiculous they become in their own eyes. The new middle class has desire in place of duty, and they don’t have to care if their fashions make them ridiculous in the eyes of the fossilizing ladies whose “dresses would arrive from Naples in long black cases like coffins.” The Leopard hymns “that annihilation, however temporary, of one’s own personality without which there is no love.” This is the most feverish rendition of a tune almost all of these novels eventually play: individualism, self-assertion, satisfaction and success are no match for the joys of devotion, subordination, and self-surrendering duty.

Many of these novels, rather than aiming for strict realism, have a hallucinatory quality. Mere realism would not allow readers to feel the way social and political revolutions have unsettled the nature of reality itself. The given truths of the old world become mere dreams and visions, as even the most conservative characters are subjected to their own subjectivities. The Leopard’s characters swelter under “the drugging sun,” but its most dreamlike sequence is Tancredi and Angelica’s spelunking through the shuttered wings of the vast palace at Donnafugata. The young lovers pass stray cats’ corpses and abandoned musical instruments, and find at last the two strangest rooms, both featuring a whip: one used for sadomasochistic pleasure, the other for ascetic penance, where “the Saint-Duke” of the seventeenth century had scourged himself “in sight of his God and his estates.” A rich man’s playground, and a rich man’s cell—two places where one could find release from boredom, from the comfort-ridden self. They’re strange hints of the extremes avoided by our diffident, ambivalent antihero, Don Fabrizio. This is the most blatant example of the way the novel’s August sensuality often lies alongside penance and renunciation, as if thirst and remorse are the only human emotions.

The Leopard’s most famous line is, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” This line starts out as a revolutionary’s promise—Yes, your world is reshaping itself, but what you care about most will be preserved. It’s remembered later with the less optimistic connotation of, Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. By the novel’s end the cynical interpretation has become, with the perversity that is the novel’s hallmark, the most hopeful possibility. The promise of preservation is discarded—the moth-eaten taxidermied dog flung out the window onto a trash heap, the prince’s daughters mummified within their virginity. The best that can be said for the new world is that it might be no worse than the old world, for there is nothing new under that narcotic sun.

What perseveres in Don Fabrizio’s Sicily is the Catholic Church. We’ll see her again in several of these novels: complicit, unhelpful, too clever by half and yet somehow convincing worldly men that she has the right to judge them. Don Fabrizio says plainly, “Holy Church has been granted an explicit promise of immortality; we, as a social class, have not.” Visconti’s Leopard ends sublimely, with a scene that takes place significantly earlier in the book: the Eucharistic procession and Don Fabrizio’s genuflection. Lampedusa’s Leopard ends with open conflict between Church and family, antisocial truth against the social peace of tradition. The Church wins; it’s only due to the novel’s own trust in the Church’s supernatural character that victory does not discredit her.

* * *

White Guard and The Radetzky March make a natural pair: two novels of imperial military defeat, one bitter and the other resigned, both staring a worse world in the face. White Guard takes place in 1918–19 Kiev, where national costumes and military uniforms are donned or shed in mortal terror as a succession of bandits and generals vie for the city in a kind of deadly door-slamming farce. (Bulgakov wrote in a 1923 essay, “By the account of the Kievans, they’ve had eighteen coups,” although he could only vouch for “fourteen, ten of which I personally experienced.”) The novel is frequently hallucinatory, yoking nouns to verbs that in normal Russian speech wouldn’t go together: A frigid night blossoms, a city swells, shop windows are furry with flowers.

Bulgakov adapted White Guard into a play, “The Days of the Turbins,” which Joseph Stalin adored and championed. And yet in White Guard, the novel, the aristocratic family at the novel’s core is basically good, its way of life unquestioned. The Whites are not defeated due to the inevitable working-out of larger social forces—the aristocracy is not a class whose time has passed—but due to betrayal by their craven leaders. (In the play version, an embittered character gets some lines suggesting that the Whites’ failure has left him ready to join the Red Army; that plus a closing chorus of “The Internationale” made the story politically palatable.)

Orthodox Christianity appears in two guises, the weaponized and the prophetic. St. Sophia’s Cathedral becomes the site of a rally for the Ukrainian leader Petlyura, a mob scene of people “crushed and maddened,” turning on one another in confusion. But Christianity also pierces through the novel in sudden desperate visions, at best a half-step from madness. In White Guard “the Church” as an institution is a political prisoner, and Christ appears alone to the lonely supplicant: “perfectly resurrected, and benevolent, and barefoot.”

Radetzky is a calmer, sadder novel. Its two central symbols are the portrait and the uniform: the official versions of men who could not live up to their public selves. The ubiquitous portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph I, which hangs even on the wall of a brothel, holds the Holy Roman Empire together. The portrait of Carl Joseph Trotta’s grandfather, who saved the Emperor’s life in their youth and then lived to see his action turned into a George Washington cherry-tree tale for children, broods and judges the later generations. The emperor is the head of a long line of fathers in this novel’s romance of patriarchy: “It was his father’s left hand, so long familiar to the son. And yet it was as though he were only now coming to understand that it was his father’s hand, the paternal hand. Carl Joseph felt the urge to clasp this hand against his bosom.” But he doesn’t, of course, because every romance in this book is thwarted to a degree that’s almost comic.

There’s sympathy here for these silent, helpless German stereotypes (you imagine everyone in this novel is on time for their adulterous liaisons), sympathy for the familiar rhythm of music, church festival, homage, duty; for the late-spoken love. This is a world where everybody you see all day, from the porters to the postmen, works for His Majesty, and parents think of their children by their military titles. Even the spirituality is military, the Emperor submitting to the inscrutable judgments of God because it’s not his place to criticize his Superior. And even the similes are imperial: Stars “had been punched into the close heavens by human hands like pins in a map”; Carl Joseph has a “mouth like a long-healed sabre cut.” Jews in their prayer-coats receive their Emperor, bowing before him “like a field full of strange black grain in the wind,” their beards like pennants—a part of this world, unavoidable even for those who might want to avoid them. (The Jews provide their own line of forefathers, an alternative to the imperial line; and their sons, like poor Dr. Demant the remorseful duellist, find this patrimony equally impossible to live up to.)

Where The Leopard is all flesh and smells, “vanilla, wine, chypre,” Radetzky clothes itself in simile: The past is hidden from our understanding “as by the fresh graves of the fallen”; a man is “an embodiment of love of country, like a banner that wants to be hung out somewhere, but can’t find a suitable roof ledge.” Its sensuality, repressed, emerges as public ceremonial. In this kingdom organized on the principle of the microcosm, where the Emperor is made up of all his peoples, every official banner snaps at the rhythm of a human heart; even the birds move with the fortunes of the Emperor, the wild geese leave and the ravens come.

Radetzky builds to its famous climax, in which a messenger rides through a thunderstorm to bring drunken partygoers the news that the heir to the throne has been assassinated in Sarajevo. But this spark reveals that the whole room is made of gunpowder. On the one hand Roth depicts a world of slow handwork, not yet a consumer economy but a place where “Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.” But Carl Joseph is posted to a border town where the brush-factory workers, who for years inhaled bristles and died coughing up blood, have finally gone out on strike. Carl Joseph’s major military adventure is the violent suppression of that strike. Rerum Novarum, the 1891 papal encyclical “on capital and labor,” applied the premodern philosophy of mutual obligation to a global economy characterized by open class warfare. And Roth suggests that Pope Leo XIII should have known that the class he called to repentance and charity no longer existed—that he wrote an encyclical for knights in an age of Pinkertons.

This is the last novel in which a peasant speaks—the last novel in which widely disparate classes intertwine their lives, the upper commanding and the lower correcting. There’s a brilliant passage on Carl Joseph’s servant Onufri: “He did not understand, Lieutenant Trotta, that rough peasant lads with noble hearts really existed, and that many things that really exist in the world were copied and put in bad books; they were bad copies, that’s all.” By proving against Carl Joseph’s cynicism the reality of the loyal peasant, Radetzky exposes feudal hierarchy as something which needs proving: Conservatism has emerged, the paradoxical defense of the given, the attempt to convince us that we should accept what does not, on its own, convince us. Conservatism emerges only after its defeat. Radetzky is a loving portrait of the lost world, but it never suggests that world could have lasted. The Empire is already hollow and teetering by the time it becomes obvious that its replacement will be much worse.

As in most of these novels, the Catholic Church permeates and persists; but the Church is neither critic, as in The Leopard, nor confessor. The Church feels more fragile in Roth’s book, too tightly tied to the Catholic Empire: “Our emperor is like a worldlier pope … and no other royal family in Europe is as dependent on the grace of God and the people’s belief in that grace.” At the Corpus Christi procession the military honors and anthems are gorgeously described but the Host is not even mentioned. Where Catholic temporal power is greatest, the Church’s ability to humble and console men by enduring where they falter is most obscured.

* * *

The Glass Bead Game is rarely named with these other decline-and-fall novels—and yet its form and themes make it almost too obvious a member of their class. Hesse’s 1943 tale takes place in a future where Westerners, fleeing the triviality and corruption of our own “Age of the Feuilleton” (which a demotic translator might render as “hot take”), create a protected country of impractical scholarship. Hesse captures the gawky literal-mindedness of self-conscious restorationists: In “Castalia” there is no art, only truth, and even the most obscure truths are treated reverently. But if the air is a bit too thin in Castalia it’s still strangely sweet. The Castalians compose no new music, but they perform the old melodies with a delight and humility which glow through the page. Their hierarchies are strict (“What a master did was always more than personal”) and sheltering.

Hesse tells the same story played out in every single children’s movie of the past twenty years: a misfit confronts a rigid establishment that won’t let him be who he truly is. But Hesse, unlike Disney/Pixar, doesn’t laud the heroic rebel. Joseph Knecht knows and longs for the peace of surrender to a hierarchy. The sequence where Knecht solves his friend Plinio’s family problems is practically self-help literature; and this passage, with its gauche unconcealed yearning, could stand in place of half the steps and traditions of AA:

“Previously, [the Music Master] had given Knecht a paragraph from the rules as the subject of a meditation exercise. It was the familiar passage: ‘If the high Authority appoints you to an office, know this: every step upward on the ladder of offices is not a step into freedom but into bondage. The higher the office, the tighter the bondage. The greater the power of the office, the stricter the service. The stronger the personality, the less self-will.’”

Knecht confronts Castalia not to condemn her in the name of individuality, but to protect her order from a threat only he can see. Hesse’s book is all ironies: a paean to humility whose hero must assert himself against the superiors he loves; a novel pretending to be a biography by an unnamed author for whom invention is impossible and individuality embarrassing; a novel whose childlike characters exemplify leadership and responsibility; a nostalgic work about a dying way of life, set in the far future.

Hesse elides the body’s hungers. All the food is paid for, there are girls in town but nobody ever gets them pregnant, a sage’s death is practically an evaporation. The novel’s sensuality is crystalline, extraterrestrial. Its harmonies are sublime but not quite human—too pure for the novel’s Catholics, who in one of the Church’s recurring paradoxes are diplomat-monastics.

The Glass Bead Game is almost a programmatic reactionary novel. Service, loyalty, discipline, obedience, piety are its refrains. Like all reactionary novels the book ends in defeat, and the prospect of greater defeats to come.

* * *

Like The Leopard, Sword of Honour has its one iconic line, which sums up the book to people who misremember it: Hitler allies with the Soviet Union, and our hero Guy Crouchback rejoices, “But now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.” This is so ringing and almost-right that everyone forgets that it’s exposed as a mistake. Sword of Honour’s title is bitterly ironic: a premodern weapon, a premodern ideal, and a novel whose characters are all so permeated with modernity that they can’t even imagine the lost world correctly. The central symbol is an actual sword—made for “the steel-hearted people of Stalingrad,” to honor the British-Soviet alliance. But, as an American lieutenant notes, “the escutcheon on the scabbard will be upside down when it is worn on a baldric.” This whole sentence is ridiculous (“I don’t suppose Stalin will wear it on a baldric”) and everyone huffs indignantly at the foreigner’s cheek. But all the English have become, at last, as modern as the U.S.A.

Waugh’s trilogy traps its characters in modernity in a way Brideshead Revisited, for example, doesn’t quite. (Not coincidentally, Brideshead has monks—not everybody is middle-class.) Out of all these reactionary novels Sword is by far the least sensual, and the one with the least class-mixing. All its characters—with the exception of gentle Gervase Crouchback, Guy’s father, the saint of the seaside hotel—are double-minded, complicit, and chameleonic. Gervase alone still sounds the feudal note. That’s why his funeral provides the trilogy’s sole cross-class community, “three pews full of farmers in black broadcloth,” the nuns and the villagers and the Knight of Malta.

The conflict between role and individual plays out here, though in a comically reversed key. Guy Crouchback spends the entire novel trying to get inside the role of a decent soldier in a noble cause. He longs for uniform and discipline; all he’s wanted to hear is the line, “Gentlemen, these are the officers who will command you in battle.” He wishes with suicidal intensity to disappear into duty and law, and redeem his eight years of divorced, numbed drifting. But he finds the army a welter of blame and bureaucracy, chaos and delay: “They were under orders to await orders[.]” It’s guided—when it’s guided at all—by realpolitik and total war. His military service is mostly pointless, and occasionally both pointless and horrific. Soldiering does no more to relieve his acedia than his dutiful, depressing trips to the confessional. His special care for one Jewish couple becomes the reason for their deaths.

And yet he receives a great gift, which like all grace comes not through his own perseverance. His divorcée Virginia Troy, once Virginia Crouchback, dies in the role she spent the whole trilogy fleeing: a Catholic wife and the mother of the Crouchback heir. She was ferocious to Guy once (“Darling, don’t pretend your heart was broken for life”) and she somehow manages to surrender without ever collapsing. She makes her first confession “fully, accurately, calmly, without extenuation or elaboration”; she calls her child “it” and there’s something perversely appealing in her honest, shocking distaste for her own baby. She’s like a champagne flute with an iron spine. Virginia is shameless and sans-souci: God’s own gossip, the meretrix turned mediatrix. In this novel, which slowly reveals how totally the premodern world has been lost even before the book begins, there is one last link with that lost world, forged on God’s terms and not our own: God the comedian continues the line of the Blessed Gervase through the child of a con man and an adulteress.

* * *

Was it really an apocalypse? Did the world really end, somewhere between the Mayor’s arrival at Don Fabrizio’s in a tailcoat and the bomb that kills the mother of the Crouchback heir?

People are killed every day, their children are taken from them, their city is bombed or burned to ash. In every age the eschaton is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed. The main characters of these novels saw their world ending, true enough. (“Only one world?” as the mother from The Grifters might say.) But did the world end? Is it gone?

It’s hard to bend these novels to a trajectory—to make them episodes in one plot—without doing violence to them. Roth, Bulgakov, and Hesse write with radically different visions of human flourishing; the defeat of their hopes makes those hopes look deceptively similar. But perhaps The Leopard and Sword of Honour are a different case. Perhaps they tell one story: the loss of the merely human.

The palace at Donnafugata is still a human document. It is, itself, a kind of picaresque novel—a welter of ecstasies, good and bad. It has all the particolored character of The Canterbury Tales. The descent is steep from the Prince’s palace to the hideous, stripped prep school where Guy Crouchback does his military training. From ecstasy we fall to discipline (the midway point represented at its best by Castalia, at its worst by that requisitioned prep school), and then to the even lonelier state in which discipline itself has been abandoned to the army’s chaos.

Even the sacraments are thrown into doubt by our actions: Guy’s broken marriage, his skeletal confessions—and his confession to a priest who may be a spy. Nothing is remembered rightly; there are no more memory palaces. Sword of Honour’s God is insistent that going after what we want is the worst way to get it. This is the modern God in arms, budgeted entirely for covert operations. And everything we do to try to right things, to preserve home or family or faith or the literal lives of other threatened people, will become the setup for a divine punchline: I am the only one who saves.

If there is a lineage of reactionary novels, it tells the transition from premodern to modern not as the triumph of humanism, but as the loss of the human. Like the A-bomb, these novels demonstrate that where human power abounds, human powerlessness abounds still more. And the hope Waugh’s trilogy offers, which is not found in Roth or Hesse and flashes like lightning at the edges of Bulgakov’s work, is that we are not in our own hands.  

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos.