Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

Sociological fiction

2024.05.14 - Tags: , , , ,

My fiction is often set amid upheavals that have changed the world — or attempted to. Revolutionary and counterrevolutionary movements in Latin America, in Welcome to My Contri; the tensions leading to the fall of the Byzantine and rise of the Ottoman Empire in A Gift for the Sultan; or the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune in Rabble!, my most recent novel. This fiction is historical, obviously, but more importantly, it is sociological. That is, it is an attempt to try to understand how these complex events had occurred, and how the various participants experienced them — and what they can tell us about our present predicaments.

Before writing fiction, I was teaching sociology in universities and writing about political and cultural change. In my research, I relied heavily on my interviews of the people affected by major changes, whether as proponents, opponents, victims or opportunists. For example, in my Ph.D.  dissertation, Working-Class Émigrés from Cuba, (Northwestern University, 1975), I sought to discover why working-class Cubans would flee a revolution supposedly made for their benefit; in my book Hispanic Nation, how and why Latinos from many different countries and social backgrounds were forging a new ethnic identity in the United States.

But for events of the more distant past, except where (rarely) some actor has left testimony of how he or she felt and acted, the only way to understand how the participants must have seen their options and to feel their emotions is to imagine ourselves in their place. And this is what I do in fiction.

The story of a complex social event is always the joint creation of all the actors together, with their different and conflicting agendas and possibilities. To see this, we view events in my fiction from different points of view, that is, through the imaginations of different and sometimes opposing actors. Some of these may be well-documented historical figures, for example the revolutionary activists Eugène Varlin and Louise Michel in Rabble!, about the Paris Commune, or the Turkish sultan Bayezid and the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos in A Gift for the Sultan. But to understand the thoughts and actions of the much larger number of anonymous actors, the masses who made the great event possible, we can create fictional characters based closely on known social types.

As did Dickens in, for example, A Tale of Two Cities; Tolstoy, in War and Peace; Stendahl, in La chartreuse de Parma; Flaubert, in Sentimental Education; or Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Balzac in various writings, and many other  authors I especially admire. Through such reconstructed, imagined characters, we want to induce our readers to feel their fears, their passions, their doubts, their joys and, when they occur, great disappointments — which has always been the job of literature. And thus to understand how such complex social changes could have occurred, and what the consequences had been for individual lives — and what may happen the next time. The clothing, customs and technology of the epoch are of course relevant, but they are not the point. My aim is not merely to provide color and sound to an adventure or a love story. Rather, I focus on a historical event to discover why and how it happened, to suggest what it shows us about human behaviors in a crisis and what we confront whenever such conflicts occur.

When, in the 1990s I was writing A Gift for the Sultan, I was anxious to see whether and how a distant historical episode, the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1402, might help us understand current events. As I explained in this video: How and why I wrote “A Gift for the Sultan”, I wanted to understand what was fueling the emotions, ambitions, fears, desires, disgust, and rage in the Balkans wars at the time, especially the brutal siege of Sarajevo, and the relationship and antagonisms between a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic but predominantly Muslim city, and an army of mostly rural, anti-urban and anti-Muslim Serbian Orthodox Christians. In my novel, the point-of-view characters include the real Christian emperor and the Sultan besieging the city, but also fictional figures based closely on what we can know of the Ottoman warriors and their bands, cosmopolitan aristocrats and common tradesmen, foreign mercenaries in the pay of the Christian empire, and a young Christian princess whisked off from the city to be bestowed as a gift to the Sultan’s son.

And in Rabble!, I wanted to understand how working-class people, with no relevant experience and, for the most part, little education, could manage to operate such a sophisticated metropolis as Paris and keep its institutions, including health, education, and even inner city mail service, running for over two months even while suffering a devastating siege. And especially, how and why so many of those Parisian workers felt so powerfully committed to their creation that they were willing to die rather than surrender. I’ve told more about the composition and aims of this novel in this conversation with two intelligent and well-versed interviewers.

For the new novel, I’m trying to understand the reshaping of our world in the 20th century, starting with World Wars I and II and all that followed, by focusing on how Germany, Europe’s most famous center of philosophy, physical sciences, and much else, and one of the great cultural fonts in music, literature, and so on — how it had been possible for such a rich culture to suffer the distortion that produced the extreme and murderous nationalism of the Nazis. And how that extreme generated, in opposition, the bold but often rigidly intolerant resistance movements in Spain and across Europe. And finally how, from Nazism’s ashes, had emerged two Germanies, the Communist regime in the East calling itself the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic in the West.

I think a critical moment, one from which we can view the whole process that led to the failure of the Left and the triumph of what called itself the “Third Reich”, was November 1918, especially the most heated days of the German revolution, November 3 to 18, beginning with the mutiny of the sailors in the Imperial High Seas Fleet in Kiel. And here is where I am beginning the new novel, working title as yet undecided. But it will have something to do with what I see as the shape-shifting Geist, ghost or spirit, that the Germans call Freiheit.

I see this book as a necessary sequel to my novel on the Paris Commune: the continuing life of the spirit that the French called Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, lives on, reshaped in the imaginations of German-speakers as Freiheit, Gleichheit, Brüderlichheit. This spirit became the inspiring vision of Marx and Engels and their followers and rivals, including Ferdinand Lasalle and the leaders of what became the powerful Social Democratic Party of Germany. And it also had powerful effects on internationalists from other lands, including the Poles Rosa Luxemburg and her long-time lover, comrade and later antagonist, Leo Jogiches, and the Russians Lenin, Trotsky and others.