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December 13, 20171324Views

Simon Sebag Montefiore: The Romanovs

Henry Hopwood Phlliips' verdict on Montefiore's latest book: tangential, lascivious and lacking a coherent message.

There's not too much reflection on show in Simon Sebag Montefiore's latest book The Romanovs 1613-1918. And what rumination there is finds itself shunted to the short but sweet introduction and on to choosing the learned clusters of adjectives that gang up on nouns, like locusts on crops, throughout the tome.

Despite swallowing a thesaurus, Montefiore's mammoth history of the dynasty can quite fairly be characterised as a breezy romp, a pit-stop tour of pen-portraits, that shuttles readers at breakneck speed through a collection of Russian rulers who are in turns drunk, depraved, titillated, profane, brilliant and pious - and sometimes all at once.

I'm prejudiced against the project from the off. Critics tend to unfairly abuse authors who write the book they wished they had or terrorise them for producing the wrong one altogether. For me, it is the latter: I don't desire another chronicle on a gilded apogee or blood - spattered luxury -an Augustus to Aurelius via Suetonius on steroids - I want to know about the relationship between paternal Kiev and the more northerly Rus at the genesis of the civilisation; I want to know why miniature Muscovy went on to dominate the other city - states against all the odds - not why a lethal cocktail of ideology, hubris and anachronism brought the project to its knees. Where's Geoffrey Hosking when you need him?

Tantrums aside, reading about supernovae such as Catherine the Great's lover, Potemkin, and the gifted commander, Suvorov, who blast out Russian genius in the way a balalaika tinkles it, is fun. But sadly most dramatis personae come out of it all appearing in some way second - rate, libidinally challenged or grotesque.

And Montefiore likes it. He delights in the salacious. The Romanovs'  narrative reads like a tabloid on stilts­ - it's a fluent and florid version of The Sun newspaper - where shit becomes eflluvia and forks aren't bent but turned into parabolic curves, as the latinate author sticks two fingers and 800 pages up at George Orwell and his rules. Indeed. just as B - Z listers get their 50 seconds of fame in the red top, so the personalities that fill this book enter and leave so frequently that it reminds one of those films in which a sagging plot is leavened with a dozen quick and desperate 'celebrity' cameos.

It all has the effect of leaving the reader feeling breathless but barraged by doubts as to why. Big events are lost in an ocean of tittle - tattle. There could be far more emphasis on the meaty, controversial elements to Russia: the Mongol and Byzantine influences often cited as the reasons for deviance from democracy for instance, without losing any of the ribaldry that Montefiore clearly believes bestows momentum. Besides, much of the direction, drive and thrust of it all dissipate anyway in the parallel novel that constitutes the footnotes. Bloated on every page - no doubt to keep the consistency of the narrative afloat - digressions on points that aren't the fates of minor aristos dying of syphilis in British seaside towns are depressingly thin on the ground.

It all leaves one searching frantically for some rhyme or reason, a literary message in a bottle. But finding wood among the garish trees is a genuinely difficult enterprise. It's perhaps revealing that the closest I get to salvaging some is in the observation that some Russian leaders lived by the Seneca quote ("The greatest empire is to be the emperor of oneself") that heads up the first chapter, and some didn't: hardly scaling the heights of profundity.

Like Montefiore, Edward Gibbon synthesised huge amounts of material very successfully but the reason he sits on our shelves (and a giant historiographical plinth) almost three centuries after his demise is that his opinions still burn like Old Testament commands on each page so that, like Dr Samuel Johnson, even when he is wrong the gravity of his judgment remains etched on the soul. Can the same be said of Montefiore's undoubted eloquence? I'm not so sure.

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