Historians seldom occupy the popular consciousness, preferring instead to engage in pedagogic discourses over developing projects for television. But Simon Sebag Montefiore, one of the most widely read historians and novelists today, stands out for the ease with which he straddles both worlds.
Montefiore’s works have won multiple awards, been translated in over 40 languages and retained their top spot in non-fiction charts. He is actively involved in developing and producing the adaptations of his books such as Jerusalem – a project mounted on a scale comparable to Game of Thrones – and Catherine the Great and Potemkin, which has been optioned by Angelina Jolie. The British author has donned many hats in the past, having worked as a banker, a foreign affair journalists and a war correspondent during the fall of the Soviet Union. At the Kolkata Literary Meet in January, Montefiore spoke to Scroll.in about how access and accuracy are key to his work.
How did your experience as a war correspondent influence your work as a historian?
A lot. It’s been a real help. It has been a great way to see the scene on the ground. The armies moving and empires falling. The espionage that comes with a sort of breakup of power. That’s what I’ve written about in my whole life, right? So that’s why it’s been hugely valuable and important. I toured wonderful countries and met wonderful people. I also saw many tragic things, but overall it was a very happy time in my life, strangely. Because I was single, I was alone, and when you’re single and alone and travelling, you can penetrate worlds, and that’s a brilliant thing. That’s what you have to do. It was very interesting.
Did it also help with the actual rigour of writing and honing your craft as you worked your way through the material at your disposal?
Well, it’s not the amount of material, because when you’re a correspondent there’s very little material. It’s a totally different thing. Correspondents are often not very good at handling anything more. But it is very good for neat writing, and sort of descriptive writing, and also I guess, writing fast. I think, mainly what it’s good for, is knowing what makes a good story. And also getting it. There’s detective work to get it. A lot of my big books of research like Catherine and the two Stalins, which were the ones I had lots of original research for and there was a lot of detective work.
There has been a considerable amount of interest and work around the Soviet Union, the Russians. Do you think it’s possible to ever have a similar body of work happening around China? Do you think China could ever be the new Russia?
Yeah, but you have to have archive material, and I’m sure there are huge archival materials. People like Jung Chang ( author of Mao: The Unknown Story) for example, she obviously had someone in the archives who could give her something, but no one has really worked on their archive, they haven’t really been open now, as the Russian ones were. And for a while, they may never be. But on the other hand, of course, yes. China would be fascinating. I wish that would be opened up.
At one of your sessions you spoke about access and how it is so crucial to writing historical books and research. Especially when it comes to valuable assets like letters and correspondence. There’s also a kind of expectation that comes in when you are approaching the subject, a certain objectivity. How difficult is it for you to maintain that, when someone hands you a personal letter? They’d expect a certain point of view, isn’t it?
If it’s a family, you’ve got to be a little careful. But actually, I haven’t really held back in my writing, even Stalin. I’ve been pretty frank with everything. And yeah, I got into a bit of trouble. You have to try and risk everything to get it, and then risk writing what you think. That’s the only way. And you have to be passionate about the subject. You have to really be immersed in the subject and be ready to do anything to get it.
Quite a few of your works are being adapted for digital platforms and films, especially Jerusalem. Do you think digital platforms have rekindled an interest in history?
Yeah, it’s good for history. Though many of these historical films are so bad, a lot of them are appalling, and of course they’re very inaccurate. You don’t get real history from a TV series, but yeah, I think it is a great thing that they have. Also, it’s bringing new stories to new people, and that’s exciting. But accuracy is everything. One has to remember that history is just about getting to the truth. Or some definition of the truth. Something near the truth. [That’s] what you’ve got to be careful about [with] documentaries. Writers attempt to tell a better story. Dramas attempt to invent a totally different reality.
What is your opinion about the challenges of writing objective biographies in India? Especially since we are governed by the belief that one “must never speak ill” of the departed and the political ramifications that come with every biography that is commissioned?
It would be difficult wouldn’t it? It would be difficult because you still have a great respect for these families and private lives are not written about. I think to get a picture of a person, especially someone who’s got great power, the personal is very important. I mean, you only have to look at the careers of Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv and so on. All of these personalities and the people around them have made a huge difference to modern Indian history. Which you can understand by examining their personal [life]. So, that’s kind of relevant. It’s the only way you can really make an objective judgement about some people who died a long time ago.
You were talking about how one must understand the personal if one wants to understand the personality. Your latest book, Letters that Changed the World gives us an insight into the personal and the public. And the love letters, for instance, are a more intimate personal exchange.
The book is really just to tell people of stories they should know, of characters they should know about, first and foremost. So there’s something from each of the Great Wars, there’s something about France and America and South America. There’s some Indian moments in there.
There’s a variety. There are great letters of statesmanship like Babur, for example. And then there are fun love letters of Napoleon or Nelson, but also, there are letters about politics and power and stuff. There are letters in there that are at the start of World War I by Roosevelt or Churchill. I chose the letters that I thought were either essential or fun or revealed something about the consciousness, I mean, Michelangelo for example, and it’s obviously fascinating and entertaining, but it is also an amazing letter, and it’s about the greatest work of art, really. I love Balzac, so I put Balzac in there, because he’s novel. And Frida Kahlo was the woman who invented the woman as an artist. All the letters, actually did change the world somehow.
Some of them were meant to remain in the private domain, but now they are not. So when you say that these letters were meant to change the world, what you’re trying to say is that these relationships changed the world…
Yeah, or their art changed the world. But it’s basically about how people should know who these people are, and I read the things very carefully, to kind of tell who they are and why they’re important. And the letters are entertaining, and I sometimes arranged them in humorous sections…
Basically I chose them with my daughters. They signed me up to do letters and speeches – speeches is coming out in October – and they called me and asked me about the letters, “Where are they?” So I went with my daughter, Lily, who’s 17, into my library, and we chose lots of letters. She photographed them, and it was really fun doing it with her. That’s how I chose it.
Often, there are fun ways of doing serious things. For example, the letter from Mark Antony to Augustus, about Cleopatra. It really is a fun letter, and it’s about the future of the whole Western world. So I guess that’s the perfect encapsulation of what I’m trying to do with the book.
History has always been taught as a function of who, what, when. Your work explores the why. Do you think it is high time we changed the way history is taught in schools?
I do, actually. It gets very boring. I think that people should make it an analysis, even in high school. Because it is destroying originality, and the intelligence of students.
History should be revisited and rewritten. History is very fashionable. And often, one has to question conventional wisdom. For example, an Indian columnist in The New York Times just wrote that Brexit and the Partition of India were kind of similar. And that is a very glib approach to history by public school boys with an absolutely shallow and narrow approach. Because [as] an Indian writer he’s only interested in criticising the English ruling class, not realising that all countries were incompetently run. All empires made huge mistakes as they crash.