Sunday, 4 November 2012

Young Stalin - history, no matter how you slice it

Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson: 2007). Never has a blurb been less needed. Never has a title described a book so completely. This is a book about Stalin, when he was young. What more do you need?
I said I was going back to the Man Booker Prize shortlist this week. Then I got an interview with the author lined up. So you’ll have to wait for the review. It’d be rude to post a review before I post the interview, right? I mean, there are rules, surely?
Instead, I thought I’d go for a bit of non-fiction. It’s been a while. Part of the reason is they’re usually so bloomin’ long, and I know how restless you trouble-makers get if you don’t get a weekly GBR hit.
So I decided to take one from the shelf. There was a time a couple of years ago when this book was on a billboard in every tube station. And you can see why. It’s got such a romantic premise (is that the right word when it’s non-fiction? Is it a premise, or just a starting point? I’m not sure I care).
Even the cover screams out romance. This glassy eyed, revolutionary figure. It’s Che Guevarra, but more. Here’s a chance to get to know a guy who came from the gutter (quite literally) and rode an idealistic wave all the way to the top of the world. And because this book focuses on Stalin - the early years, we can even keep all the future evil-acts and genocide in the pleasantly blurred distance. We are left to get to know Stalin more as a human being. Allowed to at least begin to try understanding how he got to where he got, rather than simply denounce him as evil in a black-and-white, unthinking sort of way.
The back cover hardly stops this romance taking root. We’re treated to photos of Stalin at every stage of his rise, from urchin to commissar, with pauses at poet and pirate in between.
Here, no doubt, is the material for a historical biography that can grab the attention of the masses.
Well, you’d think so, but you’d be wrong. Don’t misunderstand me; as historical biographies go, this is pretty darn neat. In the context of its genre, it’s exciting and it’s important. It goes some way to explaining one of history’s all time formative personalities. It fills in a huge amount of general knowledge gaps, and it makes you feel entirely unworthy for wasting your life reading and blogging.
But I can’t help but feel the marketers have over-reached on this one. I’m all for bringing history to the masses, but we have to be honest as well. This is not a thriller. This is not a love story. This is not a fiery politically driven piece of literary fiction. This is a historical biography. For all the promised rushing glamour of the cover, and for all the posters that lined the tube at the time of release, and for all the awards this book won, it remains, at its heart, a history book.
I like history, by the way. I love reading it. But the mis-match between what this book promises and what it delivers irks me. It’s long. It has an index at the back. When you’re bang in the middle of it, you’re acutely aware you’re reading something scholarly rather than an entertainment. No matter how much I enjoy history, no matter how much I can become embarrassingly absorbed in the high brow, I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone somewhere picked this book up expecting it to excite at every turn of the page, and felt incredibly let down.
This leaves me with a dilemma. This is a good book. Approach it in the right way, and it’ll deliver what it’s supposed to. Yes, it’s a little frustrating the story stops just when you know it’s about to get global. Yes, it fails to deliver on the excitement of the premise (I’m using the word). But it feels harsh to give it a low GBR score simply because of a marketing flaw. Simply because its over-inflated promise and its reality don’t match up.
Thus ends our string of high GBR scores. I’m going to sit on the fence instead. Right in the middle of it.
If you enjoy reading history every now and then, go get this, quickly. If you’re expecting it to be as fast moving and arresting as fiction, don’t bother.
Next week, back to fiction, and back to the Man Booker Prize shortlist. I promise, this time.

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