Alex Massie

Four Characters in Search of an Author

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In his latest Life&Letters column for the Spectator, my father has some fun imagining how different novelists might have treated the Curious Affair of Mandelson, Osbourne, Deripaska and Rothschild. For instance:

Somerset Maugham, for instance, would have told it straight, dead-pan, through his favourite disillusioned, mildly cynical, narrator — old Mr Maugham himself, scarcely disguised — and would have presented it as an example of human folly. His focus would have been on Osborne, depicted as a callow young man of dangerous sincerity.

However as the story unfolded in the newspapers — Osborne’s account of the conversation with Mandelson in the Greek taverna, Rothschild’s letter to the Times, the revelations of Mandelson’s previous dealings with the oligarch — it seemed as if we were reading an episode from Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion series. It had the familiar gamey Raven ingredients: betrayal of confidences, the desire for revenge, unfaithful friends. Money floated in the air, forever just out of reach of the English public-school product eager to get his hands on it. Only a sexual element was lacking, but Raven would have supplied it. Perhaps the Mandelson figure had taken a fancy to the youthful Osborne one as an undergraduate, charmed him, seduced him, and then abruptly dropped him? Something like that. Meanwhile the Rothschild character might himself be a discarded lover of the Tory politician and now besotted with the Labour one. There ought to be a Greek boy somewhere, but I don’t quite see where he is to be fitted in...


[Or it could have been written by] Disraeli obviously. The story has all the ingredients of one of his glittering political romances: the idealistic ‘Young England’ Tory, the scion of a great Jewish house, the sinister foreigner whose dark ambitions are never fully disclosed (for any such disclosure would strain the reader’s credulity), and at the heart of the novel the master-intriguer M, motivated less by malignity than by the sheer delight he takes in his ability to lure the innocent O to his doom. The novel would reek of great wealth, subject of fascination to one as habitually and heavily in debt as Disraeli. Almost every page would be enlivened by sparkling epigrams, such as may never fall from the lips of the originals, paradoxes and political maxims, and the denouement would be fantastic.

‘When I want to read a novel, I write one,’ Disraeli said, and it’s a shame he is not still about to write this one. Mandelson certainly is a character who cries out for a novelist with his gifts.

Whole thing here.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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