Thomas W. Hodgkinson

Why do so many writers become dictators?

It’s all about control

  • From Spectator Life
Gabriele d'Annunzio (Alamy)

The list of writer-politicians goes back as far as Julius Caesar, who wrote a robust account of his campaigns. More recently, Boris Johnson has published fiction, as has former culture secretary Nadine Dorries, although neither to much acclaim. Inevitably, the names on this list tend to be either minor politicians or minor writers. Often both. 

In fact, if you’re in search of a major literary figure, who also made a significant contribution to the politics of their country, and even rose to be a ruler in their own right, there’s only one answer. That is the Italian author, soldier, womaniser, coke-addict and career egomaniac, Gabriele d’Annunzio, who briefly became dictator of his own tinpot state on the Adriatic coast. 

Novelists in particular are often raging egotists

That episode, which took place a century ago, forms the highlight of Engineers of Human Souls, a compelling new book by Simon Ings about the corrupting effect of power on literary talent. In the case of d’Annunzio, of course, most of that corruption had already taken place. A shameless self-promoter, he boosted the success of his first book of poems by sending an anonymous postcard to a newspaper, claiming that he had died in a riding accident. The presumed tragedy inevitably led to a spike in sales. 

The 5ft 4in author had such an appetite for women that one of his friends – the painter Romaine Brooks – suggested that, in heaven, he would be rewarded with ‘an enormous octopus with a thousand women’s legs (and no head)’. There were even rumours, albeit unsubstantiated, that the great man had had a rib removed.

By the time Italy entered the first world war in 1915, the 50-something d’Annunzio, who had published poetry, novels and plays, was hailed by some as his country’s most important writer since Dante. Not content with this lofty reputation, he now became a war hero by a combination of luck, courage and canny publicity stunts.

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