Simon Sebag Montefiore on need for accessible scholarly work, the question of accuracy in historical TV shows, films
Simon Sebag Montefiore, whose works are being adapted by studios like Universal, Netflix and Fox, speaks about his interest in Stalin and why studying gossip is important to historians
Simon Sebag Montefiore, whose works are being adapted by studios like Universal and Netflix, says it is futile to expect adaptations to be historically accurate all the time.
The historian says he is able to keep his interest in the subject alive because history is alive, and it affects the present and the future.
Speaking about the need for accessible scholarly work, he said that the challenge lies in exploring sophisticated and complex ideas and presenting them with beautiful writing accessible to all readers.
Simon Sebag Montefiore is that rare breed of historian whose work is accessible. Known largely for his writing on Stalin and Russia, not too long ago Montefiore wrote an history of Jerusalem that was a page-turner. In this conversation with Firstpost, he speaks about why he became a historian, the benefits of history driving modern television, and why gossip is a critical, if ultimately vain, part of the process.
You’ve been an investment banker and have reported as a journalist from war-torn countries. What were those years like? A historian, unlike perhaps a novelist or a writer of sorts, cannot simply churn out a book, a bestseller over the weekend. Knowing you want to be a historian and working towards it must surely be a long process then? How did you keep your interest in history alive, and what was your breakthrough moment?
Yes, the research and writing of history is a labour and a pleasure at the same time. I was always fascinated by history and I read history at Cambridge. I had a eureka moment as a young boy when I read about Stalin and Beria at my English boarding school and wanted to study more, which I did. For a long time, I planned one day to write a history of Stalin in a new way, and it took a while to happen. At the same time, I visited Jerusalem as a young boy from the age of four or five, and the city was a part of my family history. I always wanted to write about that city and the Middle East too. So the eureka moments came when I was very young.
As for keeping my interest in history alive, that is easy: History is alive, it affects the present and the future. History is important for all sorts of reasons.
What was this obsession with Stalin? Has it faded out a decade on from Young Stalin? You said in an interview that even your family was, at times, concerned about this interest. Why? Were there times when you had to contemplate your interest in him? And does every historian have that one personality that they must write/learn of?
Stalin is one of those fascinating titanic figures who are always interesting – he is one of the makers of our world today. I worked many years on him and I was never bored, but I am not writing any more books on him. Yes I think every historian has someone whose life they must write, and he was mine. But so was Jerusalem, a compulsion for me.
What drove you to write Jerusalem? Has modern television elevated interest in popular history, at least in the history of conflict? Your own work has been picked up by studios. What are the advantages and potential disadvantages of history entering the entertainment space, according to you?
I just wanted to find a proper history of Jerusalem and there was not one anywhere, so I decided to write it myself – a very complex job.
Yes, I think modern TV drama and movie drama is good for history. But it is futile to expect it to be historically accurate all the time. I am very bored of those earnest and rather self-righteous historians who spend their lives complaining that dramas are not accurate. If you want history, read a history book. Otherwise enjoy the show!
I think all of my books, the novels and the histories are now being developed by various producers and studios mainly in LA – Fox, Lionsgate, FilmFour, Universal, Netflix all own various of them. It is fun, it is very exciting and some of them will be filmed, finally, this year…
As someone who has always tried to make history accessible, what are some of the greatest challenges that historians still face on a regular basis? Is it down to the writing style, or the subject?
Anyone can write incomprehensible and over-complicated history, but the art and challenge is to research it properly and handle sophisticated and complex ideas but present them with beautiful writing accessible to all readers. Of course, I try to do this, but it is not easy.
People have a very lean idea of what historians do. Do they sit in a basement library looking at letters and documents for years, or do they wear corduroys and go exploring far-off lands? Which one is it and which one do you personally prefer? What are some good habits for historians to have, and some that one must avoid?
Yes, he sits in his office for hours on end as the candles burn low, he goes on trips to exotic places, he toils for months in dingy archives, his beard becomes long and grey and his eyes bleary… It is all true and there are some days when I cannot work. Wasting time is essential for all writers, I think. So is daydreaming. And travel for stimulation and adventure. All essential.
In the introduction to your latest book Written in History, you say ‘History writing is full of gossip’, among other things. Can you explain? Can you give an example, perhaps of some gossip that is now worldwide knowledge? In a post-truth world, has the nature of this gossip become even more severe, maybe even motivated? And is that a new addition (or an old one) to the job?
History is the analysis of human affairs. However much one studies ideas, faiths, economics, trade, it is still true that personality is also decisive. And the study of personality can be called gossip. When it concerns power, it can change history. One only has to look at the court of Donald Trump, or at Theresa May, to see the importance of personality in history.
It is always assumed that historians pretty much know everything about history. But are there things that you’ve been surprised by in the recent past? Also, what field, other than history are you most fascinated by and read/listen/watch a lot?
I was surprised that Trump won the presidency and that Brexit won the referendum, yes. Apart from history, I am a great reader of fiction and thrillers, and spy and detective stories.
Do you enjoy television or films based on history and look forward to any? Do you find yourself instinctively fact-checking TV? What was the last thing you watched and found absorbing?
I do instinctively fact check but usually, I just enjoy watching. For me the criteria is not accuracy but artistry. If it is a delight, like The Favourite [10 Oscar nominations], I don’t mind if it is scarcely historical. But if a film is bad and vulgar and clumsy, then it has no excuse to get everything wrong.
I adore many of the big Netflix drama – Narcos for example, Ozark, Breaking Bad. I think The Americans is brilliant, so is the French one, Le Bureau. I am watching The Looming Tower now. Wolf Hall on the BBC was superb too.
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s non-fiction is published in India by Hachette
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