A wise person once told me that, if ever I wanted to figure out whether or not it was worth chatting somebody up, I should ask him what his favourite book was. This, I was advised, “gives you a glimpse into a man’s soul”. So what does it tell us about Michael Howard that, as he revealed last month, his favourite novel is Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald, and that he sent it to his wife, Sandra, after their very first meeting?
Fitzgerald’s work is generally thought to be leftish, in so far as he is political at all. In This Side of Paradise, the sympathetic central character talks high-mindedly about democratic socialism. All his novels depict the miseries that accompany wealth. So can the later book really be a Thatcherite’s favourite read?
But although Tender is the Night shows the indolence and self-obsession that often accompany wealth, it is also a hymn to the lifestyle that wealth brings. The wealthy are venerated, even as they are pitied. Servants have no more personality – or even physical attributes – than the furniture. The non-rich are invisible to Fitzgerald’s eye, as they are to Howard’s politics. No wonder Howard opposed the minimum wage: his gaze is fixed on Dick and Nicole Diver; like them, he does not see those who scrub the floors.
To read Fitzgerald as a critic of capitalism is wishful thinking. Tender is the Night is suffused with grief for the lost world of aristocratic stability before the Great War. Fitzgerald was obsessed, as he wrote the novel, by Oswald Spengler’s hard- right text The Decline of the West, which warned that western civilisation was on the point of disintegration. A sense of the fragility of wealth pervades his novel, with looming, if unmentioned, threats to the world order of the rich. Howard’s social conservatism – his lectures about the threats to the social order from single mothers, for example – chimes neatly with Fitzgerald’s sense of an unseen danger from below.
Fitzgerald’s elegiac vision is underpinned by a conservative sense of nationhood and war. When Dick Diver visits a cemetery for those killed in the First World War, he laments: “This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time . . . This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between classes . . . You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember . . . Why, this was a love battle – there was a century of middle-class love spent here.”
It is not hard to see why Howard – who has a telescope that looks out to France from his Folkestone constituency, so he “can keep an eye on them” – is drawn to this romantic, almost Powellite sense of nationhood.
So are the choices of the other leaders equally revealing? Tony Blair’s choice is almost comically conservative: Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. In this novel, published in 1819, the knight Ivanhoe returns home from the Crusades to collect his feudal inheritance and his Anglo-Saxon princess, Rowena. He becomes indebted (for reasons far too tedious to be retold here) to a persecuted Jew, Isaac, and has something of a love affair with Isaac’s daughter Rebecca. Along the way, he encounters Robin Hood and his band of very merry men, and their radicalism becomes co-opted under the strong national leadership of Richard the Lionheart, who welcomes them into his big tent. If Tony had given this weird feudal love story to Cherie after their first meeting, I think we can safely assume that there would be a different Mrs Blair today.
The Arab News website thinks the significance of Blair’s choice is obvious: Ivanhoe “glamorises the age of chivalry, the time in the Middle Ages when it was the raison d’etre of English crusaders to subdue the Muslim world and proclaim the virtues of Christian civilisation”. I think this is a wild misreading of what interested Blair in the novel. To suggest that he is sympathetic to the Crusades is preposterous, given his dedication to trying to persuade the US to support a Palestinian state and to reminding westerners that Islam is a religion of peace.
Dr Graham Tulloch, who edited the most recent edition of Ivanhoe, explains the real appeal: “In addition to its status as a medieval ‘ripping yarn’, Ivanhoe‘s theme – the overcoming of disunity to forge a single nation – would be dear to Blair’s heart.”
And A N Wilson, in an introduction to a 1984 edition of the book, uses language to describe Scott’s philosophy that could be lifted directly from Blair’s rewritten Clause Four: “No society can work without recognising our interdependence and our common good. Inevitably, this will mean that one social group will have predominance, and it will not necessarily be the oldest inhabitants, or the most morally worthy. But the ruling caste trample on [the rights and traditions of the other groups] at the peril of the nation as a whole.”
Like Blair has done, Scott always tried to resolve contradictions in warm words. For him, Catholicism and Protestantism, the Romantic ideas of loyalty to the Jacobites and rationalism, the radicalism of Robin Hood and loyalty to a rich king: all can be harmonised in a bath of fuzzy words and generosity of spirit. This has led to an ambiguity about whether Scott was, at heart, a radical or a conservative. The critic Christopher Hill portrayed him as essentially part of a middle-class radical tradition; Wilson believes Scott was at heart a conservative. Can anyone be surprised that Blair chose as his favourite novelist a man who is considered both radical and conservative at the same time?
As for Charles Kennedy, what can one say? From all the fruits of world literature – rummaging, no doubt, through writings from Aristophanes through Chaucer to Rushdie – he, like Margaret Thatcher, selects one towering genius, one sage whose wisdom shines above the prose of millennia . . . Frederick Forsyth.
The Day of the Jackal has a very basic story. Forsyth summarised it himself: “I invented a character who is a very dangerous assassin, and had him hired by the OAS [a hyper-patriotic French group] to do the job of killing Charles de Gaulle. Then I described how he went about it.”
From this description, you would expect a torrent of cliche and a strong undercurrent of right-wing politics. You would be right. To take a passage at random, a man is held in a “vice-like grip” and “whisked outside”, only for him to “lash out”.
What on earth is the attraction for Kennedy? Here’s a clue: the novel is almost entirely about process. Forsyth has a pedantic focus on mind-numbing detail. The mechanics of the crime take up 95 per cent of the novel. An entire chapter is dedicated to the assassin buying different props for the murder. He goes into a shop and buys a wig. He leaves. He goes into a different shop and buys some make-up. He leaves. He goes into yet another shop and . . . you get the idea. Moreover, the outcome is never in doubt, because we know that de Gaulle survived – and the narrator reminds us of this early on, ensuring that we don’t even have the suspense of thinking that Forsyth might possibly be intending to create an alternative universe. As for the characters, they are not even two-dimensional. As Forsyth’s official biographer, Craig Cabell, explains: “All the characters exist solely to do their jobs.”
I think I know the appeal of this single-purpose monomania to Kennedy. He is, at heart, a process man, a political hack who loves the “how” of politics much more than the “why”. We had him to lunch at the Independent this year, and I was struck by how he only ever became animated when talking about the political process itself. The end point of politics – never mind the philosophy underpinning it – left him cold. When he turns to fiction, he is fascinated not by psychology, motive or depth. He looks for the same thing that interests him in politics: process, process, process.
Perhaps we should stop asking our politicians what their favourite novels are. The answer is always so depressing.
Johann Hari is a columnist on the Independent