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.

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