Many of my readers have asked what books I can recommend that offer fundamental insights into the drive for personal power and the way it affects individuals once achieved. Numerous authors have tackled this subject in memoirs, novels and plays. There is a vast treasure chest of books, spanning centuries, that deal with this subject and I’m sure everyone has their favorites.
For those of us who look to novels and biographies to help us uncover the mysteries of the human condition, the psychological impulses that motivate the obsession to seek power, here are just five suggestions that come to mind. What are yours?
The Red and the Black
One has to work hard and long to find a novel with more insight into the complex nature of ambition than this book by the French author Marie-Henri Beyle writing under the nom de plume, Stendhal. Attracting little notice on its publication in 1830, it has exploded into an international classic and has been lauded since Stendhal’s breakout decade of the 1920s. Julien Sorel, of peasant origins, burning with post-Napoleonic hero worship and ambition, reaches for upward mobility through the favors of his two formidable mistresses who help propel him to great heights of power and influence. He is toppled from his perch through the unrequited love obsession of his first mistress, whose action motivates Julien to attempt to murder her. Ironic and detailed, this great novel should be read and reread especially in the light of the present spectacle of raging political ambitions. But being crowned a classic does not mean that it is being read by new generations, hence this reminder.
By Edmund Morris
This strange and somewhat bizarre biography of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris who won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Theodore Roosevelt deserves to be revisited. Given unusual access to Reagan, Morris created a kind of fictional Greek chorus to try to grasp the essence of his subject which, he admitted, baffled him, forcing him to tell the man’s story obliquely. He was excoriated by critics, the Reagan family and politicians for his efforts. Nevertheless, there is something deeply compelling about his insight into Reaga. My own assessment is that Reagan was far more subtle and nuanced than depicted by the media at the time and that Morris, who might have glimpsed the power behind the mask, could not quite harvest the man’s essence in the traditional way, and had to invent a totally new way of telling the Reagan story. Yet, after reading this book I had a far better picture of the real Reagan than all the subsequent books written about him.
Ten North Frederick
By John O’Hara
This novel about political ambition thwarted has not fared very well in the cruel battle for durability. For a time O’Hara was the darling of the literati and his stories in The New Yorker were roundly praised. The novel was made into a movie with an aging Gary Cooper as the doomed hero. The story deals with the scandals and dark secrets of a political candidate and his family, and has a contemporary relevance that makes it well worth revisiting. It never ceases to amaze me how much obscene enjoyment modern critics get out of pummeling John O’Hara’s work into obscurity. His short stories were some of the best in the language and his novels were always interesting and still are despite the barrage of critical artillery aimed at destroying his reputation. I for one feel that some defense should be mounted for O’Hara. There must be like-minded loyal fans around trying to coax some flame from the dying embers.
The David Story
By Robert Alter
The story of the biblical David told in Samuel 1, Samuel 2, Kings 1 and Chronicles remains one of the most powerful narratives of political ambition ever written. From the moment David steps onstage as a teenager who kills Goliath through his numerous political and sexual intrigues, first as a musical favorite of King Saul, then as a hunted renegade and his eventual assumption of power as the undisputed King of Israel, this story makes most modern thrillers seem like a walk in the park. David Alter’s translation surpasses in clarity and style the King James version and enhances the story of this heroic figure of uncommon physical beauty, talent, courage, gargantuan sexual appetite and extraordinary leadership qualities. Accessible and scholarly, this book should be read by anyone whether one sees the stories in the Bible as divine revelation or merely a corking good yarn.
The Rise of Silas Lapham
By William Dean Howells
Howells was once the most popular, respected and influential American writer in the dwindling days of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th. The title of this novel is a supreme irony since it actually deals with the “fall” of a self-made industrialist from the high rung of success and power just as he is about to make a concerted but ultimately futile effort to enter the exclusive precincts of Boston’s class conscious and snobbish elite. It is also a rich portrayal of a marriage in midlife and provides wonderful insights into the relationship of a devoted father to his two beloved daughters. Howell is another of those writers whose fall from popularity is particularly baffling since his skillfully crafted and detailed novels resonate with the bedrock issues that we continue to face in our contemporary lives.
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