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The art of the possible

Three novels that characterize the politics of the day

As a heroine of ''Democracy" greets a politician named Clinton, the author, Henry Adams, notes that this charmer ''had a marked regard for pretty women, and had made love to every girl with any pretensions to beauty that had appeared in the state of New York for fully half a century." Published in 1880, the novel also includes a forlorn figure named Gore and an attitude toward politics that many Americans share today.

Its plot unfolds during a change in administrations, ''when the two whited sepulchers at either end of [Pennsylvania] Avenue reek with the thick atmosphere of bargain and sale. The old is going; the new is coming. Wealth, office, power are at auction. Who bids highest? Who hates with most venom? Who intrigues with most skill? Who has done the dirtiest, the meanest, the darkest, and the most political work? He shall have his reward."

Shakespeare was a propagandist, Dickens a polemicist. All notable literature is in some sense political. In this political season, three novels symbolize three centuries. ''Democracy" (Modern Library, paperback, $12.95) describes the late 19th century, and Edwin O'Connor's ''The Last Hurrah" (Back Bay, paperback, $14.95) the mid-20th century. The 21st century's most relevant novel so far was published in 1907, ''The Secret Agent," by Joseph Conrad (Oxford University, paperback, $9.95).

Adams invented the ''Washington novel." The original remains timelier than Tom Clancy's whiz-bang narratives of the 1980s or lugubrious 1950s sagas like ''Advise and Consent" (of whose author Jimmy Cannon once wrote, ''Reading Allen Drury is like swimming in oatmeal").

Adams, scion of presidents, was an essayist and historian. Before finishing his nine-volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, he wrote ''Democracy" and published it anonymously on April Fools' Day, 1880. It became a bestseller because he defined the capital's characters with deadpan accuracy. Two sisters, Sybil and Madeleine, are as strong as any portrayed by Jane Austen. The villain of ''Democracy," Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe of Illinois, resembled several contemporary schemers. James G. Blaine of Maine was so enraged at the portrait that he stopped speaking to someone he thought had written it. The author kept his secret, even from his brother. The identity of ''Anonymous" was unknown until Adams died, in 1918.

A lively protagonist helps sales; in 1956, O'Connor chose Frank Skeffington, mayor of a red-brick New England city, who made many Americans think of Boston's four-term mayor, James Michael Curley. ''The Last Hurrah" was the best-selling novel in America for five months, and the phrase entered the language. William Safire's ''Political Dictionary" calls it the ''exit of a politician, especially one who has had a boisterous career."

Skeffington, like Curley, was a retail politician, that is, a personal politician, not maestro of a ''machine" critics conjured up to deflect the rising political power of immigrants. ''It changed overnight, you know," Skeffington tells his nephew about how the city's first white settlers saw that ''their charming old city was swollen to three times its size. The savages had arrived. Not the Indians; far worse. It was the Irish."

In his masterful 1990 survey of local literature, ''Imagining Boston: A Literary Landscape," Shaun O'Connell points out that O'Connor's ''whole novel, form and content, is an extended Irish wake." And all the livelier for it, otherwise readers might never meet Delia Boylan, champion wake attender, moralist, and critic of the embalmer's trade. ''No color to him at all. He was part French, you know," she explains to Skeffington's startled nephew. The deceased, Knocko Minihan, was also, she adds, ''mean as a panther, but good luck to him." O'Connor died at 49 in 1968. ''He left behind an ironic chronicle of a vital part of American society," Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. said. ''Future historians must consult it to understand a way of living that will have ceased to exist."

''The Secret Agent" seems a grim and jarring political novel for this young century, but so were the century's most important events. In 1894, when Joseph Conrad was living in London, a foreshadowing of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred: an explosion on the grounds of the Greenwich Observatory. Why did anarchists target Greenwich mean time? In ''The Secret Agent," Vladimir, a Russian diplomat, asks this question of his paid informant as he encourages a terrorist episode that could destabilize Britain.

''The sensibilities of the class you are attacking are soon blunted. Property seems to them an indestructible thing," Vladimir says. ''You can't count on their emotions either of pity or fear for very long. A bomb outrage to have any influence on public opinion must go beyond the intention of vengeance or terrorism. It must be purely destructive." The Russian rejects religion, art, or politics as symbols and asks ''What is the fetish of the hour that all the bourgeoisie recognize?" He chooses science, ''the sacrosanct fetish." A century ago, Europe was fascinated by science, as was Conrad. He dedicated the book to H. G. Wells, ''historian of the ages to come."

Other Conrad novels are set in exotic climes, but ''The Secret Agent" is relentlessly urban. His Soho scenes are un-Dickensian and his characters unsentimental. The novel is a tragedy of domestic bliss cruelly shattered. It is also a conventional police story of a chief inspector from Scotland Yard. But mostly the novel is a prophet's tale, a cold-eyed description of how anarchists stand ready to deploy weapons of mass destruction on ''soft targets."

A suicide bomber named the Professor is immune from the police because they know he carries enough explosives with him to destroy a city block. ''I shall never be arrested," he explains, uttering the future credo of al Qaeda: ''It is character alone that makes for one's safety. There are very few people in the world whose character is as well established as mine." The Professor has eyes for America: ''Fertile ground for us, the States -- very good ground. The great Republic has the root of destructive matter in her. The collective temperament is lawless. Excellent."

Adams and O'Connor satirize politics and its celebrants, but Conrad's Professor sees them only as ''the weak, the flabby, the silly, the cowardly, the faint of heart." He dreams of a world ''where the weak would be taken in hand for utter extermination." Amid the 2004 rites of democracy, Conrad has vividly depicted the motives and methods of democracy's enemies in the 21st century.

Martin F. Nolan, a former Globe reporter and editor, is a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School ofGovernment.

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