Terence Blacker: Nick Clegg's revealing literary fantasy

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The Independent Online

The effortlessly irritating Nick Clegg has done it again. Clegg the would-be writer has stepped forward, as tentative and unsatisfactory as Clegg the politician. In the latest issue of Easy Living, the Deputy Prime Minister reveals that he would like to write a novel one day. "I find writing very therapeutic," he says. "I would love to emulate the style of one of my favourite writers, J M Coetzee, although I don't think I ever could." During his twenties, he embarked on a novel inspired by another of his literary idols, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, but he abandoned it after 120 "shockingly bad" pages.

These are not unusual fantasies, and are normally articulated at the end of a boozy dinner-party, at a book club or after an inspiring talk at a literary festival. In this age of self-obsession, writing fiction has acquired a surprising new social cachet. The ambition to write a novel suggests an emotional hinterland. If realised, it can also, by some happy miracle, have a therapeutic effect, making one a kinder, saner, more contented person. People continue to write in the hope, presumably, of becoming as generous-spirited as V S Naipaul, as sensitive as Jeffrey Archer, as humble as Martin Amis.

In Clegg's case, though, the dream is terribly sad. It points up why he is never that convincing as a political leader. The impulse to create fiction comes from a need to re-order experience, to imagine circumstances and characters away from the mess of real life.

Press reports have described Clegg as "a frustrated novelist", but this interview suggests that the opposite is the problem. It is politics where his frustration lies. In government his position shifts, just as the plot of a novel might change as it is being written. The characters in his political life often "take over"; he is never entirely in control of his material.

It is wrong to suggest that Clegg's favourite authors suggest literary pretentiousness. His enthusiasm seems genuine. What those authors have in common is that they create their own particular and peculiar fiction, in which the detailed and mundane have no place. Politicians who have written novels, from Disraeli to Edwina Currie, have tended to set their stories in a recognisable world. Clegg's imagined literary life is different; the novel he would like to write is ambitious, pared down, stylish.

Since he says he does not care to read about politics, he would be unlikely to write about them. He is dreaming of escape from the reality in which he finds himself. His fantasy reveals more about himself than he thinks.