A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Topics may vary. Correspondence and criticism welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week: Novels by presidents and prime ministers; preceded by a note about a possible live event, and a grateful salute to recent correspondents.
I have had a serious argument with the writer Henry Oliver. It was a pre-arranged argument, I hasten to say. We wanted to be sure that we did indeed disagree. And we do.
Henry thinks that George Orwell's rules for writers ("Never use a long word when a short one will do", etc) are just plain bad: Bad for writers, bad for readers, bad for society in general. I think Orwell's rules are generally good, generally useful, and certainly the best such rules of which I am aware.
Here is Henry on the subject, previously. And here is me. Henry and I both received lively comments on our respective articles, enough to suggest that the topic was one of broader interest, and we are wondering now whether we might attempt to deepen our differences by means of an in-person argument before an audience of friends.
Practical considerations would require that we do this, at least initially, in London, though we would post a video recording. Our apologies to friends who might like to attend but would be prevented from doing so by distance. As a first step, may I ask whether such an event would hold any attractions for readers of this letter?
I imagine that Henry and I would want to organise the evening as an argument around the title "Orwell was wrong about writing" or some such; it would happen somewhere in central-ish London; and it would last for about 90 minutes, with drinks before and after.
If you think that you might like to attend such an event, perhaps in late April, would you be so kind as to drop me a line? If you happen to have any experience of organising or hosting such events, I would be doubly pleased to hear from you. Henry and I would happily place ourselves in hardier hands than our own. I am email@example.com.
My thanks for your generous comments on my recent letter about doctors in literature. My particular thanks for alerting me to two errors in the piece (and if those were the only errors then I got off lightly):
— I mis-spelt Iain McGilchrist's name (giving him an "Ian" at first reference). Let me atone by recommending at least an exploratory foray into The Matter With Things (2021), McGilchrist's two-volume magnum opus developing the argument begun in The Master And His Emissary (2009) that much of what we think about the world, and of how we think about the world, is the result of our having a divided brain.
— I listed Socrates as a writer, when, as far as history records, Socrates never wrote anything at all and may even have nursed an active hostility towards the written word. Thus: Socrates was a writer who did not write.
As for omissions, I learn that there is much more to be said for Richard Gordon than I had previously imagined. Behind the farcical fictions there was a highly accomplished doctor who wrote several technical books, served a year as a ship's surgeon, and was deputy editor of the British Medical Journal.
I should have found room to mention The House of God, that deliriously funny novel by "Samuel Shem", who was in civilian life the psychiatrist Stephen Bergman. And I cannot think what transient dysfunction caused me to neglect the writing of Atul Gawande, Abraham Verghese, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Jerome Groopman, Perri Klass and Rebecca Skloot.
For these and other points, to which I hope to return, I am indebted to Ramesh V, Roman J, Iain B, Reed H, Loren W, David B, Galen S, Judyth R, Matthew N, Mike D, Jamie P, Meena A, Charles T and Anne P.
AFTER THOSE recent ruminations about doctors as authors and doctors in fiction, my long-time friend and correspondent Reed Hundt wrote to ask: What about presidents and prime ministers? Has anybody ever run a country and written a decent novel?
My thoughts turned to Winston Churchill, the first world leader since Julius Caesar to have written books for the ages. Was there a novel buried somewhere among Churchill's histories and memoirs? Indeed there was. It was the first book Churchill wrote, at the age of 24. The trouble is, it is not much good.
The novel in question, Savrola: A Tale of the Revolution in Laurania (1898), is an action thriller set in a fictional European state vaguely resembling Spain. The plot turns on the overthrow of a dictator. In later life Churchill said of Savrola: "I have consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it."
Response to Savrola was mixed. Some critics claimed to quite like it. One newspaper bought the serial rights. On the strength of that reception lesser authors might have tried their hand at a second novel. But Churchill, with a clearer view of his own relative strengths, abandoned fiction in favour of the fighting of wars, the running of governments, and the writing of history.
Having looked in briefly on Savrola, I am inclined to follow Churchill's advice, and abstain. In case you might feel differently, here are some sample lines.
Savrola begins with a crowd of protestors gathering in front of the Lauranian dictator's palace:
Wild passions surged across the throng, as squalls sweep across a stormy sea.
The army fires on the crowd. Many are killed. Others flee:
The President remained unmoved. Erect and unflinching he gazed on the tumult as men gaze at a race about which they have not betted.
Was it a dark and stormy night? No, oddly enough:
There had been a heavy shower of rain, but the sun was already shining through the breaks in the clouds and throwing swiftly changing shadows on the streets, the houses, and the gardens of the city of Laurania.
I had always been in two minds about the Oxford comma. There again, I had never previously seen the Oxford comma deployed to quite the bewildering effect that Churchill achieves in those final clauses. I am now cured of the Oxford comma.
I suspect, although I have no evidence for this, that another factor in Churchill's decision to abandon fiction so abruptly may have been his discovery, soon after completing Savrola, that his place at table had been taken. The literary world was already lionising an American novelist called Winston Churchill whose commercial success the British Churchill could scarcely hope to rival.
While British Winston's Savrola was finding modest commercial success in England, American Winston's Richard Carvel (1899), a society novel set partly in London, was selling two million copies in the United States. It was the Da Vinci Code of its day.
It fell to the lesser (British) Winston to write to the greater (American) Winston remarking on the possibilities for confusion and wondering how they might keep out of one another's way. It was not going to be easy. They were of comparable age; both had served with some distinction in the military; both were keen painters; and both, it turned out, had political ambitions.
On the naming question they agreed to differ. American Winston would continue to write as "Winston Churchill". British Winston would write as "Winston Spencer Churchill", which he later shortened to "Winston S. Churchill".
The Winstons even met, in 1900, when British Winston, on a speaking tour of the United States, went to collect his post restante mail in Boston, only to find that the the mail had been delivered to American Winston, who lived at 181 Beacon Street.
According to the Boston Globe, American Winston visited British Winston at the latter's hotel for what was described as “an odd meeting”. Conversation cannot have been helped by British Winston's opening line: "How came you by that name?” To which American Winston replied: “It seems that there have been Winston Churchills over here for a good many years”. (I score that point as a win for American Winston.)
British Winston, then 26, was in a buoyant mood. “I mean to be Prime Minister of England", he told American Winston, "it would be a great lark if you were President of the United States at the same time”.
History does not record American Winston's reply. I imagine it was a polite demurral. He already had a perfectly serious political career mapped out in his mind. It was no "great lark".
His immediate target was the New Hampshire House of Representatives, where he served from 1903 to 1905. In 1906 he entered the Republican primary for Governor of New Hampshire, and made no secret of his higher ambitions.
“Watch the Winstons”, wrote the New York Times from London on 9th August 1906:
Here is Lord Randolph Churchill’s son, at one and thirty the most striking and picturesque figure in the Liberal Party — a potential Premier. Across the water is his cognominal double, a man of 34, aiming at a post which is a step upon the way of a man whose goal is the Presidency.
I imagine a counter-factual novel by Robert Harris in which American Winston reaches the White House while British Winston languishes on the back benches. But in reality this was the point at which the scissors of history crossed.
American Winston lost the Republican primary of 1906. He ran for Governor of New Hampshire as the candidate of the Progressive Party in 1912, and lost again. He gave up writing fiction, retired from public life, consolidated his modest reputation as a painter, immersed himself in theology, and died in 1947. As to the course of British Winston's life, I shall not bore you here.
Thomas Jefferson re-edited the Bible. Ulysses Grant wrote the first presidential memoir. Theodore Roosevelt published an account of an African safari in the course of which he and his party killed 11,400 animals for the Smithsonian museum collections. But it was not until 2003 that an American president published a novel. This was Jimmy Carter's lone work of fiction, The Hornet's Nest: A Novel Of The Revolutionary War.
The Hornet's Nest was not a bad book. It was better than Savrola. It was better than the worst of its reviewers claimed. It sold decently. If you read it, you came away better informed about the Revolutionary War, which Carter had studied diligently.
It was not a work of genius; and all first novelists, without exception, hope to be acclaimed for their genius. But I doubt Jimmy Carter pitched his hopes too high. He was almost 80 when the book was published, and no novelist of genius, as Carter must have been aware, had ever revealed themselves so late in life. I hope on balance he was happy with the warm and respectful manner in which his book was received.
There have been two more presidential novels since The Hornet's Nest, both by Bill Clinton "with" James Patterson.
In The President Is Missing (2018), President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan sets out alone from the White House to foil a cyber-attack against America while evading a variety of assassins. In The President's Daughter (2021), ex-president Matthew Keating assembles a posse of pals to rescue his daughter from the clutches of revenge-seeking Middle Eastern terrorists.
Both books were best-sellers. Both received admiring reviews. Both were good books of their kind. I mean no disrespect in saying that nobody will be reading them a hundred years from now, which debars them from greatness.
Greatness hedged Vaclav Havel, the late president of the former Czechoslovakia, but while Havel wrote many acclaimed plays, he wrote no novels. President Léopolde Senghor of Senegal was elected to the Académie Francaise, but as a poet. Mario Vargas Llosa won a Nobel Prize for his novels, but lost to Alberto Fujimori when he ran for president of Peru.
A far as I can see, that leaves only one person whom we might possibly regard as a gold-medal winner in both politics and fiction. I phrase the suggestion hesitantly because the person I have in mind is Benjamin Disraeli, and for myself I cannot quite learn to love Disraeli's novels. A page or two I can manage, five hundred pages I cannot.
But here I will defer to Robert McCrum, a writer and publisher whose judgment is far superior to my own, and who ranks Disraeli's Sybil as the eleventh-best novel ever written in the English language. Here is the nub of McCrum's argument:
Disraeli's plots are far-fetched, and his characters balsa-wood. Yet Disraeli has flashes of brilliance that equal Dickens and Thackeray at their best. With his polemical fiction of 1844-47 (Coningsby, Sybil and Tancred), he more or less invented the English political novel. From this trilogy, Sybil, or the Two Nations, stands out as perhaps the most important Victorian condition-of-England novel of its time. Without Disraeli, Charles Dickens might not have written Hard Times. We are approaching the summit of the mid-Victorian novel.
From what McCrum says here, it sounds to me as though Disraeli at least had the right stuff. He might have made a great novelist if he had only put his back into it, if he had made writing his life's work and his life's ambition rather than dashing books off in his spare time when he needed money.
Viewed with a century or two of hindsight, writing might even have been the better choice. We may speak now of Disraeli as having lived in the age of Dickens; we would never speak of Dickens as having lived in the age of Disraeli.
There again, I doubt Disraeli was overly concerned with posterity. He lived for the here and now. He wanted, more than anything else, to be on top of everything and everyone. This is not generally the condition of even the most triumphantly successful writer, at least within their own lifetime.
And what a life Disraeli had! By the time he was 21 he had made and lost a fortune on the stock exchange. By the time he was 30 he had started a newspaper, written eight novels, had a nervous breakdown, done a Grand Tour of Europe, and run twice for parliament as a Radical. He then switched parties, entered parliament as a Conservative, married money, paid off his enormous debts, wrote more novels, became chancellor of the exchequer, and the rest is, quite literally, history.
Throughout it all Disraeli had to contend with the casual anti-semitism of the British public, and the systematic anti-semitism of the English upper classes who dominated political life. He did so by fabricating an elaborate pedigree for his family, dating back centuries, to equal anything which any English aristocrat could claim. He aligned himself as far as he could in his views and his behaviour with the aristocracy itself. He outlasted his tormentors. Had I been around in the day (and if I had had the vote) I imagine that I would have voted for Gladstone. But I would have greatly enjoyed watching Disraeli.
I rely for this view of Disraeli largely on Adam Kirsch's Benjamin Disraeli, in the Jewish Encounters series, which I recommend as a highly readable and not-too-long account of Disraeli's life with a particular focus on his Jewish identity. Here are a few key lines:
Disraeli had to turn his Jewishness from a handicap into a mystique. He had to convince the world, and himself, that the Jews were a noble race, with a glorious past and a great future. He even had to turn anti-Semitic myths to his own account — to make people believe that, if he was a wizard and a conjuror, he would at least use his powers for England.
Adam Kirsch is marvellous writer, is he not? He resolves one of the most bewildering political conundrums of the 19th century — how Disraeli rose to govern a country which treated him explicitly as an outsider — in an entirely satisfactory and even rather uplifting manner, all within sixty or so words.
All Adam Kirsch's writing is that good, by the way. It is not just the economy of his argument; it is the boldness and vivacity with which he expresses it. When I read Kirsch, he has my full attention. Perhaps more to the point, I feel that I have his full attention. Writing is what he cares about most.
I wonder, on reflection, if this factor of caring accounts for the shortage of good-to-great novels by presidents and prime ministers. When world leaders write, their hearts are not in it; their minds are elsewhere; they have seen too much. To a great novelist, at least when he or she is writing, the writing must be all that matters. The problems of life can be as nothing compared to the problems of fiction. I doubt that anybody who has had a country to run could possibly feel that way, and, I have to concede, they would be right. — Robert