Inside every great person is a rotten novel

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Last week I heard the word "Napoleonic" being used to mean mediocre and small-scale. Now, not much about Napoleon was mingy, but in this case it was, as far as I could make out, used absolutely correctly.

It turned up in an edition of Radio 3's Night Waves, in which there was a discussion chaired by Roy Porter on politicians who had had writing ambitions. Napoleon, said one expert, had wanted to be a writer before he ever became a soldier, and had in fact written a long Rousseauesque work, which he had hopefully submitted to a literary competition.

Being not even as good as bad Rousseau, it had failed, and Napoleon had compensated for this by joining the army and conquering half the known world, thus leading to exile on St Helena where, as far as I know, he did not return to his ambition of churning out fiction.

The conversation ranged over other politicians who had tried their hand at writing, notably Disraeli, but then somebody brought up the fact that Winston Churchill had written at least one novel.

"What was it like?" said someone.

"Oh," said the Napoleon expert, "I would say that Churchill's fiction had Napoleonic stature."

Meaning drastically bad, like Napoleon's writing. Nice one. But I was disappointed, as the discussion wore on, that nobody referred to Benito Mussolini's novel.

I have never read it. I do not know what it is called. I only know that I saw it listed in a second-hand bookseller's catalogue about four months ago, and I thought to myself at the time: "Mussolini's only novel! Should be well worth a read. I ought to get that." Which was followed by another thought: "Life is too short to read Mussolini's novels, especially when you haven't read any George Eliot yet ..."

So I didn't buy it, and I haven't read Mussolini's novel, nor indeed any Eliot. As indeed I haven't read Sarah Bernhardt's only novel, which I also saw listed in a catalogue once. But I think there is the beginnings of a programme here: forgettable but possibly fascinating novels by people who turned out to be much better at things like acting Hamlet with a wooden leg or invading Abyssinia. I don't know how many of these lost novels there are, how many forgotten novellas by Bismarck, General Franco or the Queen Mother, but I do know that if anyone turns this into a series, they must not leave out the only novel by Jean Harlow, the blonde bombshell.

It's called Today is Tonight and I bought a second-hand copy of this in what seems to be the first edition, brought out posthumously in paperback by Dell in 1965. The original price was 60 cents and I got it for 15p, but it's worth a good deal more than that, as it is rather a good story about a man and his wife who go crash in 1929 and emerge from it sadder and wiser, especially as the husband has meanwhile gone blind and has to be looked after by the wife, who takes a job as a night-club hostess to support him, but conceals this from him by making him believe that daytime is night-time ...

I have never met anyone who has ever read, or even seen, this novel by Jean Harlow. I did, however, once meet a man at a Punch lunch who worked in Hollywood in the Thirties and whose job, among other things, was to chaperone Jean Harlow to night-clubs.

"She was crazy about Art Tatum," he told me. "She couldn't listen to enough of his piano-playing. But the studio wouldn't let her go out at night alone. So I had to accompany her. Believe me, I got to hear a lot of Art Tatum."

I asked him if he knew about Jean Harlow's novel. He said he believed he had heard about it, but he had never read it. It wasn't his job to read her novels. Taking her to hear Art Tatum was bad enough, he said. I couldn't believe my ears. Taking Jean Harlow to hear Art Tatum and being paid for it would be my idea of heaven.

So, anyway, if anyone knows of any other novels unsuspectedly written by celebrities, please let me know. It could make us both famous.

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