A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Topics may vary. Correspondence and criticism welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org
This week: Political novels
A relatively brisk letter this week, because I have been travelling these past few days and I will be catching a plane to Riga this afternoon. I apologise in advance for what will doubtless prove to be a high incidence of uncorrected typos and malformed links in the paragraphs which follow. On the upside, I return home with my ideas about the world refreshed, and with my thoughts about my future reading enriched by conversations with friends in person, adding to the recommendations which friends and readers of this letter have been kind enough to share with me by email.
Today's letter consist primarily of a question: What was the last great — or even truly good — political novel that you read?
I have in mind a fairly strict definition of a "political novel". I mean a novel whose main characters are for the most part embroiled in the business of government; and where the business of government looms large in the plot — a genre exemplified within Trollope's Palliser novels and C.P. Snow's Strangers & Brothers.
The difficulty of writing comparable novels today struck me with some force when I started to read Jonathan Coe's latest book, Bournville, which opens with Brits abroad in the Europe of 2020, when Brexit has already dealt a seismic shock to the political order and Covid is about to deal similarly with the social order.
Novelists are on a sticky wicket here. Can anyone hope to write a realistic story of any kind set in the past two to five years without making Trump and Covid (and in Britain, Brexit) strong if not dominant factors? If not, and if the writer must deal in some proportion with the reality available, how can one configure it in a distinctive way?
Based on my reading of Bournville's opening chapters, I don't think Coe manages the business of Covid and Brexit very well. But I have already warmed to Bournville's principal characters, I have enjoyed every one of Coe's novels to date, at least one of which counts as a fine political novel even by my own strict definition, so I will finish Bournville and then think again.
Of course it takes time to decide which of life's novelties need to be taken seriously, which of them will have staying power, which of them will be consequential. It took novelists about a decade to normalise the use of mobile phones in literary fiction, for example. Mobile phone usage in 1990s novels was a tiny fraction of mobile phone usage in 1990s life.
But Covid, I think, admits of no such evasion. Everybody in the reading world experienced Covid. Covid dominated the life of every reader of literary fiction for two to three years. The Covid experience was much the same for everyone: fear, boredom, illness, and death at some remove.
I suppose it may yet prove possible to write a novel about some protagonist who experiences the Covid years in some new and thought-provoking way, thereby revealing unique and yet universal aspects of the Covid zeitgeist which were overlooked at the time. But I would not like to be called upon to write the jacket-copy for such a book. To succeed at all it would probably have to be written in German and Michael Hofmann would have to translate it.
At a more prosaic level, Amazon offers any number of lockdown novels about ordinary people suddenly thrown back on their own resources. But one can only cope with so many stories of people constrained to behave in much the same way as everybody else in the circumstances. We all resolved to write a novel, or keep a diary, or learn a language; we struggled to use Zoom and cursed at the dropped calls; we despaired of our politicians; we followed the latest infection numbers with a diligence once reserved for the stock market or the football results. Parents saw more of their children, and vice versa, than even the most devoted of parents and children might have wished. I for myself found no silver linings in any of this. It was all deadweight cost. If you are gripped by lockdown nostalgia, I suggest watching Bo Burnham's Inside as a better salve.
I believe a great American novel must emerge in due course from the excessively rich material of the Trump era — but only when Trump has ceased to be a breaking news story and when his part in American life can be reimagined in ways that are not obvious to us now. Rachel Kushner might do it. Jonathan Franzen might do it. But they must not do it too soon, otherwise we will end up with something brittle and derivative — something a bit like Primary Colours (1996), perhaps, but without any of the pleasure of Primary Colours, all of which came from channelling Bill Clinton's charm.
I would prefer to wait for a novel that is "about" Trump's America in much the same way that Curtis Sittenfeld's Rodham (2020) is "about" Clinton's America. Rodham brings hindsight and perspective to the Clinton years; it explores the tensions between private and public behaviour, private and public values; it does all this within a counter-factual version of history which was unimaginable at the time. Everything you remember about the 1990s is present and correct in Rodham, but it has been rearranged in such a way that everything appears in a new and revealing light. Warmly recommended.
I am going to say tentatively that Rodham is the most recent political novel with real stature that I have read. I believe Rodham will still be worth reading half a century hence.
That said, Rodham is more a character study, a study of a singular individual who happens to be involved in politics, than it is a study of politics itself — so much of which is form and process. Was it George H. Bush who said that 80% of politics was about showing up? I doubt one could easily sell a publisher on a novel that was "80% about showing up" (although, of course, Samuel Beckett achieved his greatest success with a drama that was 0% about showing up).
I am sure counter-examples are staring me in the face, but I cannot think of any novel more recent that Michael Dobbs's House Of Cards, published in 1989, which immersed me so completely and so grippingly in the process of politics. (Dobbs's later novel, Churchill's Triumph (2006), is also a stunner — but, as with Rodham, a novel of character more than of politics.)
I do remember enjoying Thomas Mallon's Watergate (2012) and his Finale (2015) about the Reagan years; it is probably only my failing memory which forces me to say now that, while I remember that these were very well-made books, they left no lasting impression on me. I should look at them again.
One might also consider Robert Harris's Cicero trilogy, which is a major literary achievement, stuffed full of politics and of much else besides; and Harris's Ghost, which relies upon one marvellous (and utterly original) conjecture out of which a near-perfect thriller is spun. Munich held me rapt, and could very profitably be read in tandem with Churchill's Triumph. Harris may be our living Trollope, the truly popular novelist who will be still be read admiringly in the next century.
Everyone whom I have been quizzing this past couple of days about the condition of new political fiction has converged on the same essential argument — that the genre has found a happier home in film and television. Think of West Wing, House Of Cards (US and UK editions), The Crown, The Thick Of It, The Death Of Stalin ... We may not all agree that all of these productions are masterpieces for the ages, but we can surely agree that they all contain flashes and sometimes sustained runs of genius.
So it may be that political fiction just does work better on screen, given the chance. If so, and if the political novel is to live on, it may have to do so more modestly, as a sub-tenant of spy fiction, say, or historical fiction — as it already does here and there, to good effect. Politics is always a vital force in John Le Carré's novels, revealing itself in sinuous guises (think of Simon McBurney's Lacon). Politics suffuses Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell books, albeit a distant relation of modern parliamentary and presidential politics.
There again, if I were writing a minority opinion dissenting from the TV-is-better argument, I would ask whether the post-West Wing boom is not in fact much more contingent than it might seem.
Could it be that we happen to be living through a period in which a few great screenwriters with a particular gift for political dialogue — Aaron Sorkin, Peter Morgan, Armando Ianucci — are producing their best work? When they are gone, will others take their place? Or are we seeing something rather like an artistic movement in painting, which may flourish for a decade or two and then subside?
Alternatively, could it be that the rise of HBO coincided with a phase of real-life politics in which the West seemed to be doing the right things for the right reasons, and real-life politicians — Reagan, Clinton, Thatcher, Blair, Obama — made the business of politics seem so glamorous and inspirational that it cried out to be adapted into television and film dramas full of moral dilemmas and learning experiences, principled arguments and temporary reversals, in which the good ended happily and the wicked ended unhappily, which, as Oscar Wilde observed, is what fiction means.
If that hypothesis has anything in it, we are long overdue for a paradigm shift towards a darker vision of politics better suited to the complexities of literature than to the simplicity of screenplays.
I suspect that the world may be full of recent political novels that I have neglected or misunderstood or just not noticed; and I note with a proper sense of shame that I have discussed only novels in English. Who knows what masterpieces will soon reach us in translation? In any case, please tell me about your favourite political novels, I will fall hungrily upon them, and we can discuss them in two weeks' time.
Next week, I want to discuss and recommend novels about big business and high finance. I have been much indebted to readers of my letter a couple of weeks back in which I praised Richard Ford's Lay Of The Land for its portrayal of small business, and wondered whether big business could be portrayed with quite the same degree of understanding. My particular thanks to CA, SM, BW, KD, DY for their suggestions. My reading list now includes Kochland; Zero To One; Moral Mazes; The Informant; Shoe Dog; High Latitudes and The Fear Index.