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@ foyles.co.uk 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.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine