Friday, March 21, 2008

Five Best: A novelist picks his favorite works about ambition, political or otherwise

By Edmund Morris
Random House, 1999

Edmund Morris, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for his life of Theodore Roosevelt, was for his next book given unusual access to Ronald Reagan. Morris later admitted that he was baffled by the president, and the result was this somewhat bizarre "biography." Reagan, I believe, was far more nuanced and subtle than the media ever grasped. Although Morris might have glimpsed the power and ambition behind the mask, I suspect that he knew he couldn't quite harvest the man's essence. Thus he attempted to get at the Reagan story in an unusual way, creating a kind of Greek chorus and introducing himself as a fictional character in the narrative. He was naturally excoriated by critics and the Reagan family, but even though Dutch may be dubious as a nonfiction work, it is insightful and deeply compelling.

Ten North Frederick
By John O'Hara
Random House, 1955

It never ceases to amaze me how much obscene enjoyment modern critics get out of pummeling the work of John O'Hara. In his day, O'Hara (1905-70) was the darling of the literati. His stories in The New Yorker were roundly praised, and understandably so: O'Hara's stories were some of the best in the language, and his novels, such as Butterfield 8 (1935) and From the Terrace (1958), still resonate. So does Ten North Frederick, a novel about political ambition thwarted, about the scandals and dark secrets of a political candidate and his family.

The David Story
Translation by Robert Alter
Norton, 1999

The Old Testament story of David remains one of the most powerful narratives of political ambition ever written. From David's arrival onstage as a teenager who kills and beheads Goliath to his political and romantic intrigues -- first as a musical favorite of King Saul, later as a hunted renegade and ruthless warrior and eventually as the undisputed king of Israel -- this story of a flawed, anointed golden boy makes most modern thrillers seem like a walk in the park. Robert Alter's translation is accessible, scholarly and appealing, regardless of whether you regard the story of David as divine revelation or merely a corking good yarn.

The Rise of Silas Lapham
By William Dean Howells

The title of The Rise of Silas Lapham is a supreme irony, since the novel actually deals with a self-made industrialist who slips from the high rung of success and power just as he attempts to enter the exclusive precincts of Boston's class-conscious and snobbish elite. The story 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. The Rise of Silas Lapham is a testament to Howells's genius and an excellent place to start for anyone interested in discovering an author whose reputation has mysteriously lapsed but who was, in the dwindling days of the 19th century and the early days of the 20th, one of the most popular, respected and influential writers in America.

The Red and the Black
By Stendhal

One has to work hard and long to find a novel more perceptive about the complex nature of ambition than this book by the French author Henri Beyle, writing under the nom de plume Stendhal. Julien Sorel, of peasant origins, burning with post-Napoleonic hero worship, reaches for upward mobility through the favors of his two formidable mistresses, who help propel him to great heights of power and influence. When one of the women, obsessed with Sorel and inflamed with unrequited love, tries to topple him from his perch, he plots her murder. Like any great novel, The Red and the Black echoes down the years -- especially today, when political ambition rages among the red and the blue.

Mr. Adler's novels include The War of the Roses and Random Hearts. His latest, Funny Boys, will be published by Overlook later this month.

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