Simon Sebag Montefiore
2020 has been a stellar year for brilliant books and given Covid, I don’t think I’ve read so many books. I recommend India in the Persianate Age by Richard M Eaton, a brilliant, gripping, refreshing and scholarly history of India from 1000AD to the 1750s, analysing the power of the Delhi Sultanate, the Mogul Empire, its rise and decline and the rise of the East India Company – totally essential reading. Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History is superb. Enlightening and erudite, it deploys awesome range, narrative panache and deep scholarship to overthrow conventional wisdom and show the neglected role of Africans in European history from ancient times.
The new two-volume biography, Hitler by Volker Ulrich is the best so far. The Weirdest People in the World is a brilliant and fascinating new world history of why the West won and why the West is different by Joseph Heinrich. The Interest by Michael Taylor is an outstanding and gripping revelation about the power of the Slave-Owners lobby – including all the pillars of 19th century British politics – to control state policy and resist the abolition of slavery – it’s essential reading. Escape from Rome: the Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity by Walter Scheidel argues with a bold, enjoyable and compelling style and global knowledge why Europe became the engine of economic growth and modernity because Rome fell and was never replaced. Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is an amazingly erudite and compelling voyage through time by a master of world history showing how ideas and culture changed human existence. There is nothing harder to write than a complete history of China but Michael Woods’ The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilisation and its People is a great achievement. A full, masterly history of China from ancient times to today, filled with fascinating characters, anecdotes and beautiful poetry; both accessible and serious, not only essential reading but never a dull page. David Stasavage’s Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today is so timely, accessible and scholarly in its wide-ranging knowledge and ideas, it masterfully resets what we thought we knew about democracy today.
Conquistadors by Fernando Cervantes is a superb new look at the conquistadors that puts them in their true context. Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price, the best book on the Vikings so far. The Enlightenment by Ritchie Robertson is a fine examination of how the enlightenment changed the world in different ways in different places – scintillating. Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture is compelling on the rise and fall of the leader of Haiti’s slave revolt. To understand the East India Company or Dutch East India Company and how empires were built, Outsourcing Empire: How the Company-States Made the Modern World by Andrew Phillips & JC Sharman explains how weak kingdoms outsourced global commerce to hybrid companies that ended up conquering empires. Valerie Hansen’s Year 1000 is a feast of delights, full of sparkling stories and deep intelligence; an elegant, fun and exciting voyage from Vikings to the Maya that shows globalization started long ago. It goes well with Seb Falk’s Light Ages which recounts compellingly and with scholarship how the dark ages were not dark as we thought. Metropolis by Ben Wilson is a flamboyant, erudite and thrilling survey of how cities made the world. John Darwin’s Unlocking the World is, like all his work, outstanding, original and filled with gripping detail – here he explains how steam, not just trains, but also steam-ships made the modern world. I so recommend David M. Carballo’s dazzling and masterful book on the Aztecs and the Spanish, their similarities and differences in Collision of Worlds: A Deep History of the Fall of Aztec Mexico and the Forging of New Spain. It compliments Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend which shows the Mexica empire in a fresh, thrilling new light.
Lastly two of the best royal biographies ever written: Philip Mansel’s King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV is just a masterwork and a superlative delight, written with sensitivity and worldliness, political acuity and personal empathy all in Mansel’s usual elegant prose. The great scholar of Spain, Geoffrey Parker’s recent Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II was outstanding and now he has written Emperor: A New Life of Charles V which brings the enigmatic, fascinating titan of 16th century Europe blazingly to life in this superb portrait that is excellent, accessible and magisterial in both politics and humanity.
Daniel Todman’s Britain’s War has displaced it, the second volume appearing earlier this year, about the same time as volume 1 of Alan Allport’s Britain at Bay. Between them, Todman and Allport give coverage which verges on the definitive. Both integrate ‘home front’ material with what was happening in the wider world, so the books incorporate a stimulating mix of political, social, economic, military, and cultural history. These books give us total history for a total war. Both are extremely readable, amusing in places, and erudite throughout, being based on a wide range of sources. They are complementary rather than rivals (the authors acknowledge each other’s support). Brexit has shown us how much the history of the World War Two, or at least a version of it, continues to be of importance in British life. People wedded to myths such as Britain standing ‘alone’ in 1940 (Britain was in fact backed by a huge and powerful empire) will find these fine books uncomfortable to read. Challenging, original and well-written – this is history as it should be.
An Elephant In Rome, by Loyd Grossman, is a brilliant work of high scholarship. It is also an accessible companion through the historic, political and artistic world of one of the greatest historic cities. Grossman’s subject is Bernini, and his setting is Rome. Both are brought to life in the most stunning way – with the 17th century papacy as backdrop.
The author spends an enormous amount of time in Italy, and it shows: he has a native citizen’s knowledge of the Eternal City, with every corner familiar, and each landmark an old friend. Generously, and in rich but uncloying prose, he shares it all with us, the lucky reader.
I have to admit that I knew nothing much about Bernini, beyond some of his most celebrated creations. To have the rivalries and tensions of his contemporaries, patrons and adversaries revealed in this cohesive manner opened my eyes to an age, not simply the characters described in these pages. This is an unusually fine book – of history, and of art history – and an essential vade mecum for anyone keen to stride the streets of Rome with knowledge, and not just awe.
Fortune’s Hand: The Triumph and Tragedy of Walter Raleigh by R.N.Morris. I knew nothing about Walter Raleigh, except the legends I’d been told at school; about how he lay down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth I, something that was probably fanciful and nothing to do with the real history. In his novel, Fortune’s Hand, R.N.Morris treats us to a visceral interpretation of Raleigh’s life. This is an extraordinary novel. We experience it from multiple points of view, from the acorn that will grow to become the oak timbers of the ship he will sail in, to the teeming life within an old ship’s biscuit. Much of Elizabethan life on board ship is ugly and brutal. Yet the writing of it is always lyrical, and Morris gives these events a strange kind of beauty. We are treated to the mind-set of an Elizabethan man. Above all, this is a novel that explores what it is to be a historical novel. It is unlike any other historical novel of the period, and its skilful research and execution are much to be admired.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. This is an absolutely superb book that gives the reader an in-depth insight into Shakespeare’s household (although the man himself is never named.). Written in sparse, almost poetic prose, and with an exactitude that’s hard to fault, you’ll find yourself so drawn in you won’t be able to put it down. Obviously well-researched, the detail never gets in the way of the unfolding story which tracks back and forth between the days before Hamnet’s birth, to the days of his life, and then the days after his death, with a focus on Agnes, the playwright’s wife. This is a book with depth; it’s an uncompromising yet sensitive exploration of a family tragedy, and, if you have any interest in Shakespeare at all, you need to read this.
Erich Auerbach famously begins Mimesis, his examination of how reality is portrayed in Western literature by comparing the incident of Odysseus’ scar in The Odyssey with Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son in Genesis. Preparation for this article also began with a theoretical question – when does History begin or end? We decided that History may start in the mists of legend, but it stops at World War Two. Modernity begins at 1945. Thus Janet Roger’s brilliant Shamus Dust falls two years outside our purview.
However, there is plenty of excellent historical writing to replace it, all set firmly in the past. There was Peter Sandham’s fantastic Porphyry and Ash which brought the siege of Constantinople so vividly to life as the first of a series; and Richard Foreman’s Seige, which did the same for the First Crusade. Turney and Doherty’s Sons of Rome which begins so memorably at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge then flashes back to record how the opponents in that fatal conflict arrived there. A tight and powerful technique similar to R.N.Morris’ circular narrative in his wonderful Fortune’s Hand which also reflects TS Eliot’s famous line from Four Quartets ‘In my end is my beginning’ (borrowed from Mary, Queen of Scots, whose life and times fill the wonderful Elizabethan spy stories of Steven Veerapen) and applies it to Sir Walter Raleigh. Then there was Antony Riches’ gripping Roman action adventure River of Gold.
But in the end (returning to my beginning, as I’m writing about Odysseus myself) the book I liked best of all was Alistair Forrest’s terrific Line In The Sand which retells another famous Biblical story (Samuel 1 xviii) as an historical adventure, placing David and Goliath in a riveting and convincing context and explaining how the unfortunate Philistine champion became the first man ever to bring a knife to a gunfight.
The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs: An Oral History of Parliament, edited by Emma Peplow and Priscila Pivatto, gives a wonderful insight into the life of the House of Commons. Based on skilfully conducted interviews with a wide range of former members, it is fascinating, somewhat shocking, and occasionally downright funny. It gains much of its power from the way in which sections from different interviews are juxtaposed with one another in thematic chapters. These cover issues such as finding a seat, first impressions as a new MP, and women in Parliament. The book reveals institutional sexism via a series of compelling anecdotes. Labour’s Helene Hayman, who sat from 1974 to 1979, recalls: ‘The Speaker [Selwyn Lloyd] told me, when I shook hands with him, so annoying, he said: “if you want me to call you, don’t sit at the back with all the women because I can’t tell you apart.” [Sighs] So I sat next to Willie Hamilton, because I thought that you can probably tell me apart from Willie Hamilton.’ Peplow and Pivatto’s book can be recommended to anyone with even the remotest interest in political history.
I also advise reading MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law by Keith Ewing, Joan Mahoney, and Andrew Moretta. Though much of MI5’s post-war history remains shrouded in secrecy, the authors have performed a forensic analysis of the available evidence. They reach disturbing conclusions about the overreach of Britain’s secret state.
2020, with its lockdowns and restrictions, has provided plenty of time to read if nothing else. Amongst the best new releases I’ve encountered are the following:
Fortune’s Hand by R.N.Morris. This beautifully written exploration of the life, times, and ultimate downfall of Sir Walter Raleigh stands out not just as a gripping evocation of Elizabethan and Jacobean intrigue, but as a superb piece of literature in its own right.
The Queen’s Devil by Paul Walker. The unfailingly likeable Dr William Constable returns in the third in this series of Elizabethan mystery novels. Walker is a master of the genre and, like its predecessors, this novel is a masterclass in unflinching realism.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. The much awaited third in the Cromwell trilogy provides a breathtaking account of Thomas Cromwell’s end. I’ve seen complaints that Mantel’s Cromwell is somewhat distant from the utterly ruthless creature of the historical record; that hardly matters. Her creation is a living, breathing, intelligent man of his times and he is justly served in this book.
Elizabeth I’s Secret Lover: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester by Robert Stedall. This fascinating nonfiction study provides a holistic account of Elizabeth’s greatest favourite. Despite the racy title, it is a serious work, the strength of which lies in its approach of examining various aspects of Dudley’s career, from his military ventures to his courtly positions to his private life – all in Stedall’s lucid prose and objective style.
Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture is a superbly researched biography of the great Haitian slave-leader, by Sudhir Hazareesingh. The Haiti of slaves and colonists, French royalists and republicans, and British and Spanish soldiers in the 18th century is intricately portrayed and easily understood. Louverture handled these competing interests with mastery, and Hazareesingh’s treatment of his subject is equally impressive.
The Pacific theatre probably doesn’t get enough attention in this country, and so Saul David’s Crucible of Hell is an important book that deserves to be widely read. The story of the US attack on the island of Okinawa is a distressing read at times, but illuminating too as the horrific experience of soldiers and civilians is brought to life in a vivid account. The later use of atomic bombs against Japan was a direct consequence, as David makes clear, of both the battle itself and the previous encounter at Iwo Jima.
Moving to these shores, the conflict in Northern Ireland is the focus of Donald McRae through the eyes of boxers, from both sides of the divide, in his new paperback, In Sunshine or in Shadow. From the 1960s a succession of talented fighters emerged from Ulster, culminating in Barry McGuigan’s world title in 1985. But it is their experience of The Troubles that really hits home. McGuigan, Charlie Nash, Davy Larmour, Hugh Russell and Gerry Storey are given a voice throughout the period that stays with the reader long after putting the book down.
I’ve just finished reading Sudir Hazareesingh’s brilliant Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture. Formidably well-researched in archives of three countries and languages, this is the first authoritative biography of the slave hero and founding father of Haiti, Toussaint Louverture. And it is much more than just a life of the man. It digs deep into colonial Saint-Domingue, a complex society in which racial and social divides were both rigid and bafflingly porous. The gradations of the slave population were highly complex, but slave overseers and the lowliest workers were bound by secret networks which kept alive a tradition of black pride and rebellion. Some of the slaves were highly educated, like Toussaint himself, and many, like him, were devout Catholics without shedding African religious and medical lore or the practice of the island’s cult of Vodou.
Hazareesingh’s profound understanding of this background allows him to follow the progress of Toussaint through the thicket of conflicting political factions among blacks and whites, and the interests of France, Spain and Britain, each of which he fought for and against at various times. Clever, talented, widely read and cultivated, he was both a brave and successful commander who created a regular army of 20,000 men, and a wily political operator prepared to deceive and betray in the pursuit of his lifelong dream of ending slavery.
It is a tale both uplifting and depressing, on account of the cruelty, treachery and hatred he had to contend with, culminating in his disgusting treatment at the hands of Napoleon, who, with uncharacteristic sadism, inflicted on him the same petty cruelties he would later complain of suffering at the hands of the British.
I found Margaret MacMillan’s War: How Conflict Shaped Us compellingly absorbing. Fast-paced and refreshingly short at no more than 270 pages of text, the book covers every aspect of war from prehistoric times to the present first hesitant steps in remote hostilities. This page-turner nevertheless had me pausing frequently to reflect and to question accepted views of the various aspects of war. As the author points out, conflict is not some kind of old-fashioned aberration we will grow out of but an essential part of the human condition, which will be with us as long as we last. It is therefore well worth taking time off to read this book and reflect.
On the subject of war, other books published in the past few years deserve to be singled out for their thought-provoking reassessments of the Second World War.
Roger Moorhouse’s First to Fight. The Polish War 1939 is the first thoroughly researched study of the war’s opening campaign. Using German as well as Polish sources, Moorhouse reveals what a breakthrough this first operation of the German army was, not just, as it is commonplace to state, in terms of mobility and the use of air power. It was from the outset a complete departure from what had become accepted rules of war and evolved standards of behaviour. Not only were civilians purposely targeted, with carpet bombing of towns having no military or strategic significance and strafing peasant women picking potatoes in the fields. It was the attitude of the Wehrmacht that was most unexpected. In most European wars over the past few centuries, soldiers have tended to treat their counterparts on the other side with a degree of fellow-feeling and even admiration if they demonstrated exceptional gallantry. Using German sources, Roger Moorhouse reveals that in September 1939 the officers and men of the Wehrmacht viewed their Polish enemies as beneath contempt and any prolonged resistance as insolence. As a result, when units surrendered on running out of ammunition after a heroic defence, they were maltreated and in many cases simply machine-gunned or incinerated with flame-throwers while still clutching their white flag.
Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning explores the same territory with wider scope and at greater depth. He explains that when considering the Second World War, the whole area lying between Germany and Russia should be treated separately from the rest of occupied Europe, as the conditions applied there by the invaders were fundamentally different from those obtaining in France, Holland, Belgium, Greece and elsewhere. Both the Germans and the Soviets were bent on destroying the very concept of the existence of nations such as the Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and other Baltic peoples, let alone the vast numbers of Jews living in the area, in order to be able to incorporate the space into their own states with only a small residue of leaderless slaves who could be exploited in any way and ultimately worked to death. The Germans were only marginally more ‘scientific’ in their approach than the Soviets. Both abolished every aspect of statehood – government, ministries, the legal and educational systems, newspapers, publishing houses, cinemas, theatres and public institutions of every sort, thereby reducing the area to a lawless condition comparable only to the Leopoldine Belgian Congo, in which former citizens became mere inhabitants of a no-man’s-land, human fodder without any rights, not even the right to life. The subject may sound repellently grim, but Snyder writes with such a gentle touch that one does not feel oppressed by it, and he provides so many fascinating insights that the reader is compelled to read on, and there are unexpectedly redemptive episodes and examples of humanity; as in all human affairs, nothing is quite black or white.
These two books are brilliantly complemented by Mary Fulbrook’s Reckonings. Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, which touches on the same aspects of the War from the perspective of both victims and perpetrators as they rebuilt their lives after its end. Her beautifully nuanced study goes a long way to explain how and why ordinary people are capable of committing atrocities in certain circumstances and then return to the comfortable banality of their former lives. It is not only full of fascinating facts and testimonies but it also gives one much food for thought, particularly on the subject of how populations can be swayed or manipulated even when they think they are sticking to their principles. A lesson for our and all times.