CONCLAVE: ROBERT HARRIS

A book has come out recently on the subject of bestsellers:The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel. In it the authors, two Stamford academics, Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, describe how they created an algorithm and then used it to scan 20,000 New York Times bestselling novels, in order to find out what components they have in common. Among the topics you should focus on apparently are marriage, funerals, guns, schools, children, mothers and vaguely threatening technologies. I wonder what that last one means? These are the topics you should avoid: sex, drugs and rock and roll. Makes you wonder about where Fifty Shades of Grey fits in, doesn’t it?

I would propose that one of the simplest predictors is the presence of a name like ROBERT HARRIS on the cover of a book.

His most recent book CONCLAVE is set in the Vatican.  The skeleton of the plot is this: The pope dies, the cardinals gather for the Conclave, the cardinals vote and keep voting until three quarters of them agree on a successor, the pope is chosen, the book ends.

Not, you might think, particularly promising material. The book however is very entertaining – both page turning and wickedly funny. Along the way  you will find out all kinds of things about the Catholic Church that you probably didn’t know. It also has a very modern twist at the end that I am not going to divulge but which amused me.

Part of the pleasure of Robert Harris’ books is the combination of elegant writing, gripping hooks to make you want to know what happens next, and some excellent jokes.

Here’s a lovely description of the recently dead Pope as Lomeli, the Dean, leans forward to kiss him:

Often the faces of the dead, in Lomeli’s experience, were slack and stupid. But this one seemed alert, almost amused as if interrupted in mid-sentence. As he bent to kiss the forehead he noticed a faint smudge of white toothpaste at the left corner of the mouth, and caught the smell of peppermint and the hint of some floral shampoo.

But later Lomeli frets about the treatment of the Pope’s body and thinks about some of the unfortunate things that happened to the bodies of previous popes. In 1978 the face of Pope Paul VI’s body in St Peter’s

. . . had turned greyish-green, the jaw had sagged, and there was a definite whiff of corruption. Yet even that ghoulish embarrassment wasn’t as bad as the occasion twenty years previously, when Pope Pius XII’s body had fermented in its coffin and exploded like a firecracker outside the church of St John Lateran.

Here is the description of the Pope’s apartment. He had insisted on living in the Casa Santa Marta rather than the Apostolic Palace.

Fifty anonymous square meters, furnished to suit the income and taste of some mid-level commercial salesman.

Lomeli casts a somewhat jaundiced eye over his fellow cardinals. Here he is in contemplation of Cardinal Tremblay, one of the more ambitious ones:

Despite the hour, his appearance was fresh and handsome, his thick silver hair immaculately coiffed, his body trim and carried lightly. He looked like a retired athlete who had made a successful transition to television sports presenter; Lomeli vaguely remembered that he had played ice hockey in his youth.

And here is Cardinal Simo Guttuso:

His personal chaplain struggled behind him with his three suitcases.

Lomeli, eyeing the suitcases, said, ‘My dear Simo, are you trying to smuggle in your personal chef?’

Little wonder if he was, given the appalling descriptions of the food the Cardinals suffer. Someone needs to give the nuns cooking lessons. ‘Veal scallopini – the meat looked rubbery, the sauce congealed’. ‘Chicken wrapped in Parma ham. It was overcooked and dry but they were eating it none the less’. ‘Some unidentifiable fish in caper sauce.’

If anything forces this Conclave to a swift conclusion, thought Lomeli, it will be the food.

Lomeli, the Dean in charge of the voting, is struggling with his own faith, as he struggles to run the Conclave. There are, of course, various twists and turns along the way.

My feeling is Robert Harris could probably conjure a bestseller from two elderly crumbs playing dominoes inside a paper bag but until he writes that one, I suggest you read CONCLAVE. If you buy the hardback, it has nicely blackened edges to the pages. It’s a new fashion this and I rather like it.

If you’re interested in what makes a bestseller you’d be better off buying a few Robert Harris books and making careful notes, rather than buying a book about an algorithm. To my mind, it is thorough research, lightly used, combined with a finely honed talent to amuse and entertain in words. Incidentally, he does conform to one bit of data that the algorithm throws up; apparently a disproportionate number of bestseller writers have worked in journalism and advertising and Harris  was a political journalist before turning his hand so successfully to writing fiction.

ROBERT HARRIS AND THE POLITICAL NOVEL

Off last night to the LSE to see the author, Robert Harris, being interviewed by Peter Kemp (chief fiction reviewer for the Sunday Times) on the subject of The Political Novel. It was a very enjoyable event mainly because the rapport between the two men was a good one and because Harris is an amiable and amusing interviewee. Harris started out as a reporter with the BBC, working on Newsnight and Panorama, before becoming the political editor of The Observer. His first novel Fatherland was published in 1992 and was a huge bestseller. It’s a thriller set in an imagined future in which Germany has won the war, Hitler’s 75th birthday is coming up and no one knows anything about the Holocaust.

Here’s a summing up of some of the things discussed:

  • Political influences – being with his father as he heckled Alec Douglas-Home during the 1964 general election campaign and also being born close enough to the Second World War for it to be talked about all the time.
  • Difference between political journalism and fiction – political journalism is ‘all up front’ and fiction is about ‘hiding and concealment.’
  • On the writing of Fatherland – he said he started off writing twenty or thirty pages with lots of people in a room and then didn’t know what to do with them or how to get them out. He put the novel away for a year and then his agent wrote to him with a quote from American writer John Irving which stated that you must know what happens at the end before you start. He then went back to the novel and set off writing it from about five different points of view before deciding to settle on only one, the detective, because he was the most conflicted and therefore the most dramatic.
  • His experience of writing fiction – once he ‘went through the looking glass into his imagination’ and began writing fiction he felt there was no going back.
  • The pace of his novels – Kemp asked if that had to do with the speed with which he wrote. Harris replied that if he had one contract with his readers it was not to bore them and that the use of an urgent timescale was useful in that regard. He also pointed out that the great 19th century novels (Dickens, Trollope) were written under great time pressure.
  • Writing habits – he starts to write in January delivering the manuscript in June or July and then having the book published in September or October. He writes about a 1000 words a day gets up early and is done by lunch time. He talked about letting ‘the boys in the basement’ do some of the work. An expression used by Stephen King to describe the subconscious.
  • Influence of George Orwell  – he said that the book 1984 was the great argument for fiction because by inventing characters and creating an imaginary work Orwell created a work of imagination which will never date.   Non-fiction will always be rewritten i.e. someone at some point will write another history of Stalingrad, but fiction is imperishable. Amusingly he said that apparently Orwell thought that War and Peace was much too short that he could have stayed in that world created by Tolstoy for much longer.
  • His own favourite book – that was the one he was working on (his present one is on the Catholic Church) because it was ‘a perfect sphere of possibilities which had not yet crashed to earth.’
  • His favourite 19th century novel – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
  • On Anthony Trollope – the reason why there is no modern Trollope is because Britain simply isn’t as important in world politics anymore. When Trollope was writing, British politics was the fulcrum of the world and had the most powerful legislature in the world.

Harris is an interesting writer because he writes across a broad range of different time-frames and countries:alternative history detective novel (Fatherland), second world war Britain (Enigma) contemporary Russia (Archangel), contemporary Britain (The Ghost) the classical world (Pompeii, Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator). He is so spectacularly bestselling he transcends branding. He said the book his publishers flinched at was Pompeii but that when it sold as well as Fatherland they didn’t mind. You have to sell a very great many books to earn that kind of freedom. Long may it continue. His most recent book is the third in his trilogy about Cicero called Dictator.

Personally, my favourite Robert Harris is The Ghost. It’s about a ghostwriter who is hired to write the memoirs of Britain’s former Prime Minister. It’s brilliant and apart from anything else it’s incredibly funny. If like me you have dark thoughts when you think of Tony Blair and the Iraq war, this is the book for you.

Have you read any Robert Harris books? What’s your favourite political novel? Or what have you read recently that you would describe as a political novel?