Boyd Tonkin: Some literary lessons for today's outcast members

The week in books

Today you have more pressing matters on your mind than the plight of a columnist who must write on the day before a general election for publication the day after. What I can do without tempting the gods of the polling booths is to re-tell a story about failure. Consider the fate of a brilliant politician and diplomat close to the heart of power in Renaissance Italy. A deep thinker and principled reformer, he finds that all his hopes turn to dust when the republican state he subtly serves is overturned and the hereditary old guard storms back to office in a coup. He is jailed; tortured; exiled. A busted flush from a discredited regime, he sits down to take revenge on politics by writing about not what should happen according to the high principles cherished by himself and others – but what really does.

So Niccolò Machiavelli composed The Prince on his farm outside Florence after the Medicis had returned in 1512. No later writer has ever improved on it. In that short treatise lies almost all the truth about the events that will unfold this week. Without his downfall, how would we remember him? As a middle-ranking functionary with literary airs who once worked with Leonardo on an engineering stunt to divert the Arno and so strangle the Florentines' rivals in Pisa? Big deal.

Failure made Machiavelli. What I do know for certain about today's outcome is that a large number of able and ambitious people – many quite familiar with success – have just had to drink down to the dregs the most bitter disappointment of their lives. Let's hope that the most notable do something better with their free time than opt to tap out unreadable and unread memoirs of the sort that publishers used to sign up as a charity contribution to the decayed gentlefolk of Westminster.

Instead, ex-politicians with other gifts should consider ejection as a kind of liberation. Other precedents might encourage them. After all, the total collapse of a career not only led (with Machiavelli) to the most influential work on power and state in post-medieval culture. It arguably bred the greatest single poem of the age. Machiavelli got away with a short spell of torture. After the Restoration of 1660, John Milton almost lost his head. The firebrand intellectual had zealously hitched his talents to the English republic after 1649, and then stayed loyal to Oliver Cromwell. As chief spin doctor and propagandist, he had battled in print with adversaries across Europe to defend a regicidal state that looked to its mighty foes no saner than North Korea today.

Saved from the gibbet – and his head on a spike - by family connections, Milton in his utter abandonment hatched his great masterpiece. Paradise Lost simply could not have come to birth without the compelling need to account for the defeat of a seemingly sacred cause and so "justify the ways of God to men" – above all, to John Milton. The blind, despised outcast found his epic voice "though fallen on evil days... In darkness, and with dangers compassed round".

More recently, a major novelist was saved at the last ditch from the yoke of high office in a time and place when derision and contempt might have wrecked his name. As candidate of a centre-right coalition, Mario Vargas Llosa actually won the first round of Peru's presidential elections in 1990. Thankfully, he bungled the run-off. His half-dozen books over the next two decades include perhaps the finest novel of his career: The Feast of the Goat.

So take heart, ousted members. There is life after humiliation, but only if you make a bonfire of your delusions and use the ashes to fertilise new growth. How timely that Nick Clegg recently selected Samuel Beckett as his literary icon. No modern author makes failure and frustration shine and sing as Beckett does. Those hammering words from his prose piece Worstward Ho (first published, amazingly, as late as Margaret Thatcher's glory year of 1983) ought to be etched on every parliamentary wall: "Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Hear, hear.

Meet the creative candidates

For the past month a decision with truly global ramifications has been preoccupying me. Forget yesterday's choice. The winners of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize will be revealed next Thursday from a top-flight shortlist that features books by Philippe Claudel, Julia Franck, Pietro Grossi, Alain Mabanckou , Sankar and Rafik Schami. On Wednesday 12 May, at Foyle's in London, two of our candidates – Grossi and Franck (above) - will be reading. Appearing also will be leading translator Anthea Bell, shortlisted twice this year and a former IFFP winner, along with Daniel Hahn: a judge this time, but the victorious translator in 2007. Email events@ to reserve a (free) place.

Amazon knows what you like

Ever since the Reformation, the private reading of printed books has helped unleash wave after wave of progress. Free-thinkers, path-breakers and rebels of all sorts first came across forbidden ideas in books that functioned as their secret friends. As we lose the print to electronic devices, will we lose the privacy as well? Many sinister signposts point exactly that way. Amazon, which recently deleted not only whole e-books from the files of Kindle users but their personal notes as well, now boasts of its "Popular Highlights" feature. This harvests and collates information about the passages most often highlighted by Kindle readers. In common with other digital giants, Amazon simply says to doubters: trust us; we won't misuse the data on your tastes we now hold. Why should I trust an overseas conglomerate? Besides, no company knows any more than you or I do about the future relationship between commercial outfits and the surveillance state. If you want to keep your reading confidential, better stick to print.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate