Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Good Out of Bad: The Best Novels about Politics

Strange bedfellows: Gore Vidal, Anthony Trollope, Yukio Mishima

'What we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.' Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men

In 2011 I wrote up a list of my ten favourite fictional politicians in literature for the book-loving Nudge website. That list has now disappeared into web ether so I’m re-posting it below, ‘remixed’ to the extent of one substitution. My special interest in this topic is that for the last three years I’ve been at work on a novel about a senior politician and his personal and professional travails. As is my wont I researched this novel as actively as if it were to be a piece of non-fiction, and all that legwork was highly absorbing. The books in my list constitute an argument that you can't entirely make this stuff up.

I must admit I don’t think I could have made my list go as far as a top fifteen – there’s not an embarrassment of riches in the literary rendering of politics and politicians, unless you’re really keen on varieties of stage villainy writ large across a page. The challenge, as I see it, is how to render accurately both the politician’s trade in all its defeating complexity, and the politician as a human creature rather than a straw man ‘leaking sawdust at every pore.’ Here are ten fine examples of rising to said challenge – or nine, let’s say, and one black joke straight in at #10.

10. Sir Danvers Carew MP in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
Sir Danvers is a mere cameo in this, the greatest of all supernatural tales, but he looks like the sort of politician we could approve of: a ‘beautiful gentleman with white hair’, exuding an ‘old-world kindness of disposition.’ This before Edward Hyde beats him to death with a walking stick – the sort of punishment that the public has, at times, seemed to think appropriate for its less reputable tribunes…

9. Roger Quaife MP in The Corridors of Power by C.P. Snow (1964)
Since so many political fictions are about the unprincipled and/or nakedly populist pursuit of power, there remains novelty in C.P. Snow’s tale of one politician who commits career suicide. Roger Quaife is a rising star in a Tory government, who lands his first big job in Defence yet confounds his admirers by seeming initially to be ‘a trimmer and a time-server’. However Quaife has set his heart on a sole accomplishment in office, namely the voting down of Britain’s nuclear deterrent – which Snow’s novel quite properly imagines as a high-risk game of stealth.

8. Senator James Burden Day in Washington D.C. by Gore Vidal (1957)
Gore Vidal was always considered to be ‘of the Left’ but you could argue he was really a party of one. The politician he admired most was his own grandfather, Oklahoma senator Thomas Gore, whom he described as ‘a genuine populist [who] did not like people very much.’ And in Washington D.C., Vidal’s contemporary-set political fiction, the character who commands most readers’ (as well as the author’s) sympathies is Burden Day, a reactionary southern Democrat senator, fiercely opposed to Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, as was Senator Gore of Oklahoma...

7. Tom Fool in Tom Fool by David Stacton (1961)
Stacton’s protagonist is a loose likeness of Wendell Wilkie, the beaten Republican presidential candidate in 1940: a liberal conservative (once a Democrat) who stood against Roosevelt while sharing his readiness to enter the war against Hitler (though wishing to annul the New Deal.) In the novel’s first half Tom stumps across America by rail, failing to cut through with the electorate and sensing the team at his back, especially the husband-and-wife PR duo known as ‘the Pattersons’, have their sights fixed on future campaigns with better-fancied candidates. In Part II the defeated Tom is a sort of global ambassador dropping in on the world’s new powers in a converted US Army bomber, brooding over which of them ‘would get the world’ if not the USA. Faber were sufficiently afraid of Stacton having libelled the living (if not Wilkie himself, who died in 1944) that they consulted the not-then-infamous Peter Carter-Ruck but he gave the novel a clean bill.

6. John Strickland in A Married Man by Piers Paul Read (1979)
Strickland is only an MP for the last 30 pages of the novel but his journey is the novel’s personal/political core: that of a solid bourgeois barrister, uneasy in midlife, who is revisited by ‘unfulfilled ideals’ from his Labour-supporting youth and wonders if there is still ‘time enough left to serve them.’ This vague yearning acquires focus when an old friend alerts Strickland to the imminent vacancy of a safe Labour seat in Hackney & Harringay. But is this serendipity or siren-call? Read’s severe Catholic conservatism allows only one answer.

5. Governor Arthur Fenstemaker in The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer (1961)
William Brammer composed this roman à clef, a collected trio of novellas, not long after an exhausting stint as speechwriter for Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, who reportedly read the book with a deal of distaste: a case of not caring for the mirror’s reflection, since the rest of us can only be compelled by Arthur ‘Goddam’ Fenstemaker, a canny Texan who keeps himself at the heart of his home state’s politics. ‘You want to overturn the existin' institution, that's fine’, he tells a young protégé. ‘The thing to do is work through the institution… An' I'm that institution currently...’

4. Plantagenet Palliser in The Prime Minister (1876) and others by Anthony Trollope.
Trollope’s compendious cast list offers a wealth of choice but I will take Palliser, political ‘big beast’ whose career spans the posts of Chancellor, President of the Board of Trade, and finally Prime Minister of an ill-sorted coalition government – a role for which he is nonetheless well suited, especially given his smart conviction that ‘the idea that political virtue is all on one side is both mischievous and absurd.’

3. Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe in Democracy by Henry Adams (1880)
Bertolt Brecht’s legendarily sardonic suggestion that unpopular governments ‘dissolve the people / And elect another’ seems to tell a perennial truth about how politicians can lose their sense of the populus who voted them into power. No such delusion afflicts the pragmatic Illinois schemer Silas Ratcliffe in Adams’ great novel. ‘No representative government’, Ratcliffe instructs clergyman’s daughter Madeleine Lee, ‘can long be much better or much worse than the society it represents.’

2. Yuken Noguchi in After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima (1960)
Readers familiar with the gory extremity of Mishima’s real-life politics will likely be surprised by this deft novel about the elegantly middle-aged Kazu, proprietor of a restaurant popular among government officials, who finds herself charmed by the grace and gravitas of ex-cabinet minister Noguchi. No sooner are they wed, though, than she is pulled into ‘the whirlpool of politics’ as he seeks office once more. Noguchi is a figure drawn from life all too adroitly: the retired politician Hachiro Arita sued Mishima successfully for invasion of privacy.

1. Governor Willie Stark in All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
Stark, famously, is a re-imagining of the Louisiana demagogue-populist Huey ‘Kingfish’ Long, autodidact farmer’s boy who build his career on massive public works, pledges to redistribute wealth, and mastery of the black arts. The grand theme of Penn Warren’s magisterial novel is that, politically, ‘the good’ is not necessarily brought about by politicians who are pure in heart. Willie Stark knows himself to be a fallen creature, ‘conceived in sin and born in corruption’. In power he resolves to improve the lives of the poor – but, necessarily, by foul means. For in Stark’s view the good must be made out of the bad, ‘because there isn’t anything else to make it out of’ – an unsettling analysis that gives this novel its drama and grandeur.