Public Sector Informant: A well-written political book? What a novel idea

The Clintons lacked self-reflection in their writing. Picture: Shutterstock
The Clintons lacked self-reflection in their writing. Picture: Shutterstock

An exiled Czech writer, Milan Kundera, reckoned "the novelist demolishes the house of his life and uses its bricks to construct another house: that of his novel".

As for politicians, they cannot be trusted to describe, let alone demolish, the houses of their lives. Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom remains a most honourable exception. Most of his counterparts, though, are surprised to find their careers end badly. Writing a memoir therefore becomes a final chance to have the last word.

In seeking vindication, Bill Clinton and David Cameron might have noted self-absorption is the enemy of self-knowledge and self-criticism. Waxing ironical about your victories does not equate to introspection, as Barack Obama could have learned.

The few politicians prepared to recognise their flaws usually transform those failings into virtues. The former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, for one, records his own impatience, rudeness and vanity, then converts those attributes into ambition, passion and guts. Angela Merkel may never write a memoir since the genre would be anathema to the scientific method - methodical, meticulous, accurate, humble - she cherishes.

Even the lives of politicians like our prime ministers contain compelling material for a good story. Drama and melodrama may occupy the foreground but fantasy, theatre of the absurd and black comedy lurk on the sidelines. Why, though, are such rich narratives so rarely turned into decent prose?

Ego is one obvious but obviously critical obstacle. So, too, is the difficulty in switching to solitary, secluded writing after a lifetime of rush and fuss, bluff and bluster. We citizens need a different angle of view on politics. Sadly we have no cruel but wise Tacitus to guide us, as he steered Romans through the sins and crimes of their imperial rulers.

The former British minister, Roy Jenkins, provided one option. Eventually a political failure himself, Jenkins nonetheless doubled as the author of admirable biographies of other political figures; Gladstone and Churchill especially.

While many political minders remain sycophants and acolytes, two minders' memoirs are first-rate. One is by the former chief of staff to a French Prime Minister (Michel Rocard), the other by the speechwriter for an American President (Ronald Reagan). Jean-Paul Huchon and Peggy Noonan manage to be confiding without gossiping, incisive but not intrusive.

Both love their craft and still admire their old bosses. The two of them saw a lot, and saw through a lot more. Huchon's account of his first hour in power at Matignon reveals more that matters about politics than do many books. Noonan's recollections about writing a speech on the "Challenger" tragedy are a master class in both grace and eloquence under pressure.

After considering biographies and minders, we might turn to diaries, encouraged by Jock Colville's wonderfully intimate portrait of Churchill at war and the first President Bush's attempt to make sense of his own reactions to daily developments. Beyond those books, though, lies a wide swamp of foolishly self-important, viciously catty, bitchy diaries. Samuel Pepys, James Boswell and Anne Frank can certainly stay, but "Chips" Channon and Alan Brooke should be left to rest in peace.

We could then seek out a novel which successfully explained the politics of politics. One durable choice might seem bizarre. Although Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now was first published 146 years ago, few better guides to rogue capitalism and raw ambition exist. The closest competition in the same timeframe might be Balzac's Lost Illusions (1843), a tale still more riddled with duplicity and hypocrisy.

Readers looking for more modern interpretations of politics should return to three modern fables, Joseph Heller's Catch 22 (1961), Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954) and George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945). Pigs, a draught horse and vicious dogs occupy the abandoned Manor Farm. A group of English schoolboys tear each other to pieces with the looming spectre of "the beast" haunting them. An American bombardier decides no sensible person would continue to fly bombing missions.

We trust fables to tell us truths. Although that trio of books were inspired by the horrors of Stalin, Nazis and the Korean war, they exist and resonate outside of any particular place or time. As Aesop and la Fontaine already knew, fables teach us lessons we would not otherwise have digested - about our characters, our morals and, as Trollope would say, the way we live now. We learn more from fox and the grapes, hare and the tortoise or ass in the lion's skin than from any political commercial or slogan.

Novels written by politicians offer an even more emphatic opportunity for self-justification than memoirs. Unlike a memoir, nobody can contradict the story, let alone launch a libel suit. A different ending, a happier one, can easily be contrived and controlled.

We should exclude novels written on the way up because they are so often overblown (Boris Johnson's embarrassing Seventy Two Virgins) or jejune (Winston Churchill's atrocious Savrola). Both those authors reserved their best political fictions for public life.

That brings us to the Clintons: Hillary and Bill. The two of them have created figures (oddly, a President and a Secretary of State) who save the world. Their principles are unsullied, their commitment unquestioned, their success unequivocal. Narcissism is dressed up as statecraft; the novels assume individuals can somehow rule and run the world. The right-wing "leeches and minions who had metastatised" (Hillary's phrase) should beware; their betters intend literary revenge.

  • Mark Thomas is a Canberra-based writer.
This story A well-written political book? What a novel idea first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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