Since I have a bit of previous when it comes to ‘top tens’ I was happy to answer a request from the Nudge book-lovers website for a list of my ten favourite fictional politicians in literature: that rundown is online here, and I daresay it jams in most of what are considered the classics in this field, alongside one or two curios and/or amusements.
I must admit I don’t think I could have made it up to 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 impossible complexity, and the politician as a realistic human being rather than a straw man ‘leaking sawdust at every pore.’
I don’t believe Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men can be bettered as a poetic vision of politics, how it works, and what it does to us – but I do really love Mishima’s After the Banquet, inter alia for a special insight it shares with Tolstoy’s great novella The False Note, in which the Tsar, wrestling alone with an ethical problem, is shown to realise that:
'he could not give himself up to the demands of the human being because of all the demands that are made on a Tsar from every side; as for admitting that the demands of the human being might be more binding than the demands made on him as a Tsar - he did not have the strength to do that.'
This, I think, is one of the great dilemmas facing the senior politician, whatever his/her ideological stripe.
My interest in this topic has been sharpened of late since, as mentioned at the head of the top ten, the novel I’m now working is about a senior politician of my invention. As is my wont I’ve been researching the world of the novel as actively as if it were to be a piece of non-fiction, and all of that legwork has been fascinating. Where I am not bound by the Chatham House Rule I hope to share a few odds and sods of that research here as I go along.