Book Quote Friday: Searching for the Apolitical

     Whilst involved in the conversation about whether writing needs to be political to matter on this blog a few weeks ago, I tried to think of a novel that, rather than engaging with the politics of its era or setting, shunned any discussion of them, and was all the the richer for it. So often the personal struggles of characters are wider political commentary, and on occasion, if they is no political feeling in a novel, it can be unclear whether they were shunning involvement in it or whether there was just nothing going on at the time.

     A thought then came to me, a whisper of a memory of a review, which turned out to be this:

     'The Girl at the Lion D'Or is not only a rare achievement, a supremely accomplished piece of work, but, it seems to me, a glorious justification of the traditional novel. It reminds one that novelists don't have to try to be clever. Instead, they have to look at life with respect and imagination, draw from it, and arrange their material in an aesthetically satisfying shape. Here in this marvellous evocation of a particluar society at a particular time, Sebastian Faulks has done just that. He has also reaffirmed the importance of character in the novel; his Anne and Hartmann are as real, as moving and convincing as Anna Karenina and Vronsky or Colette's Chéri and Léa. It is a novel to cherish and delight in.'

The Girl at the Lion d'Or     This is a review from the Scotsman of Sebastian Faulk's 'Girl at the Lion D'Or', and it was the lines 'don't have to be clever' and 'instead, they have to look at life with respect...and draw from it' that drifted into my consciousness whilst looking for an apolitical book. There is little to draw from this book in terms of political learning apart from a sense of regret and loss associated with WWI and a nervous foreboding with regards to WWII. There is the slightest hint of anti-Semitism and the wearied state of post/pre-war France, but these are nebulous and are used only to explain motive and situation with regards to the characters and why they act like they do. It's about a doomed love affair, and nothing more or less important than that.

     'Anne, like most people, cared little about politics...There were other, far more important things to be considered. The first of these was the visit Hartmann had proposed by telegram for that evening. As she swept the corridor between the kitchen and the back stairs of the hotel she wondered what he would have planned. She would not be free to go until ten o'clock, at which time Pierre had said that he would either shut the bar or take over the service himself. She had arranged to meet Hartmann in the rue des Ecoles at ten-fifteen rather than walk all the way back to her rooms. She wondered if she would have time to change before meeting him. He had once expressed a liking for her waitress's skirt, but she couldn't be sure if he was sincere or merely being polite.'

     I guess the personal is more affecting because we all experience it, whereas overtly cause-based writing unsettles us and provokes feelings of shame and guilt. Sometimes this is a good thing, for sure. But, as one of the comments on my original post said, sometimes we just want to escape.

N.B. I wrote a post this week on the Vintage Books blog about the lovely time I had at their Open Day on Monday. Read about it here.


  1. The book this post reminded me of the most, was Michael Ondaatje's stunning 'The English Patient' in which it would have been all too easy to have Almásy as a political figure in the desert.

    But what Ondaatje does brilliantly is to wrap the political questions of the WWII aftermath, inside the subtext of dialogue spoken by Caravaggio. Allowing our main protagonist Almásy to be completely driven by one emotion: love.

    His all consuming passion for K is what drives the story, to the extent that while the Allies tear up the landscape Almásy thinks of as his own home, his focus remains on K. This allows the reader to question what is happening around Almásy, without having political viewpoints dictated to us. If the Author had chosen to use Almásy to vent his own political stance about what the Allies did to the desert and its people, it would no longer be fiction. Those beliefs would constantly have taken us out of the story and made us feel uncomfortable. For once you encroach on a reader's imagination, you have lost them.

    So by having an apolitical protagonist, it makes for much more compelling drama. Consequently it landed Ondaatje the Man Booker Prize, and for me, remains the greatest love story in literature.

  2. Absolutely, that's a perfect example of what we're looking for. Bravo! Ondaatje could have gone into so much political detail, but that Caravaggio subtext sounds perfect for keeping it in historical context whilst putting the love story centre stage.

    It's not a book I've read yet, but I adore the film, and it's definitely on my list (if only my list wasn't so long!)

    I may continue to add apolitical books to this comment section as I find them...


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