Disraeli or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young: Personality before policy

Hurd and Young try to separate the public and private strands of Disraeli's career to work out how he made it to "the top of the greasy pole", writes Michael Prodger.

Disraeli: or the Two Lives
Douglas Hurd and Edward Young
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 320pp, £20
 
If ever a politician exemplified the precedence of personality above policy, it was Benjamin Disraeli. He may be remembered as the founder of One Nation Toryism (a phrase he never used) and the imperialist who made Queen Victoria Empress of India, but the rest of his political beliefs have been obscured by the vividness of his character.
 
As a novelist, dandy and orator he makes his great opponent, William Gladstone, seem dully one-dimensional. Admittedly, few people read his novels today but the idea of a prime minister producing 18 popular works of fiction seems, in this narrowminded age, nothing less than extraordinary.
 
The aim of Douglas Hurd and his established writing partner Edward Young is to separate the public and private strands of Disraeli’s career into a pair of brief lives in order to see how he made it to “the top of the greasy pole”. The phrase is, of course, one of Disraeli’s innumerable quips: indeed he has 88 entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations while his nearest challenger in terms of cultural roundedness, Winston Churchill, has just over 50. This verbal sprezzatura, as the authors point out, was one of the cornerstones of his character – a Boris Johnson but with substance.
 
Disraeli stated his political position early when he first stood for parliament as a radical in 1832: “Toryism is worn out & I cannot condescend to be a Whig.” So he helped mould a new Conservative Party – and led it twice to government as prime minister – when the Peelites split in the wake of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. It was helpful that he possessed a valuable attribute: he was “almost immune to slights on his personal honour”. Hurd and Young track the complexities of his career deftly while pointing out that although his governments did much to help the working class, Disraeli himself was no democrat.
 
They are perhaps more interesting, though, on his personality, one that sought “emotional support and political encouragement” rather than love or intellectual equality. Theirs is a concise but balanced assessement, full of bracing comment, on a man who “was always less interested in other people than he was in himself”.
 
Michael Prodger is former literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph
 
Disraeli at rest: The idea of a prime minister who is also a popular novelist would be pretty hard to imagine today. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge