A Life in History tells the inside story of these now classic works – the Agesequence of Revolution, Capital and Extremes, Industry and Empire (my favourite), The Invention of Tradition, Nations and Nationalism, and so on. Will they last? Hobsbawm, ironic and realistic, assumed not: everything is there to be overtaken. Certainly, some gaps are obvious already. He never really “got” nationalism and he despised postmodernism. Disappointingly, his left-over party instinct couldn’t forgive the indiscipline of the women’s movement for charging passionately forward without waiting for the revolution. In the same way, the fractured “me” politics of identity choices made him despair.
This is an excellent book. Like Hobsbawm’s own works, it should be read by anyone with a serious interest in history — though those of us with a frivolous interest in the rackety life of Bohemian London will also enjoy it.
Many of Hobsbawm’s wide-ranging historical works will be of interest for a long time to come. But the guiding principle of his life – his communism – will be of interest only in the way that most readers will see it here: as a psychological case-study in wishful self-identification and pitiful self-deception.
The great accomplishment of Richard J Evans’s brilliantly crafted Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History is how he takes us into the private, inner world of the master historian.
Evans focuses primarily on Hobsbawm’s “personal experiences”: the orphan, cast adrift into semi-alien lands in Germany and then England; the bored and lonely sapper in the war, confined to Norfolk, Dorset and the Isle of Wight; the lover, whose affair with a married student led to the birth of a child, Joshua, in 1958; the devoted husband and father who read Tintin books aloud to his kids, shouting “Blistering barnacles!” as Captain Haddock, and who, according to his daughter Julia, “could really veg out” in front of the TV; or the “cranky, warrior-like” teacher who insisted students must always choose a side, so long as it was the right one. Evans also gets behind the magic of Hobsbawm’s literary output, detailing the messy business of book contracts, agents and editors, as well as the (almost unbelievable) instances when manuscripts were rejected or projects were left unfinished.
Despite some indulgences, Evans is fair. The more you look through Hobsbawm’s voluminous works – the books (rarely out of print), academic articles, journalism, broadcasts, lectures, plus a submerged mass of unpublished letters, essays and diaries – the more you see that, yes, he could be an evil sod, but not all the time... This is fun, but in general there’s too much dull detail here about publishers’ advances, run-ins with university managements, the Italian communist party, and the vast extended Hobsbawm clan. I was, though, tickled by the inclusion, economic history style, of a line chart detailing Hobsbawm’s income and expenditure over his career.
This biography, by one of Hobsbawm’s acolytes, which it is as well to say outright is tedious almost beyond endurance, stops short of hagiography but is clearly designed to boost the posthumous reputation of a man who cared nothing for the wreckage caused by the political system that he worshipped. Hobsbawm – nauseatingly referred to as “Eric” throughout – exemplifies the moral degeneracy of so many British intellectuals who still hold that Stalinists are cosy and comprehensible, undeserving of the pariah status rightly accorded to anyone claiming there was something to be said for Hitler. But then Evans makes the grotesque assertion that “of course, fascism, unlike communism, was a political creed characterised by anti-intellectualism”. Stalin, “of course”, had a regard for intellectuals. One wonders why he had so many thousands of them shot.
Although Evans supplies engaging chapters on Hobsbawm’s early years and a sympathetic portrait of his two marriages, there is not a great deal that warrants such a lengthy and highly detailed account. Much of the second half of the book records Hobsbawm’s occasionally vexed dealings with publishers. Many pages are given over to his ascent into the vanished world of haute bourgeois academia. There are recurrent passages describing how he was put under surveillance by the British security services, which helped give him an attractive aura of persecution.
On a personal level, Hobsbawm could be warm, loyal, generous and kind. But he was also arrogant. He “never liked being bested in matters of knowledge”, he could be a “cranky, irritable man”, he did not suffer fools gladly, he was contemptuous of political correctness and he did not mince his words. Most of all, he was a public intellectual of rare ability and range — in his ideas, his writings and his audience. He made a huge impact on millions of people around the world, and it is this that Evans, in this honest and riveting biography, makes clear.
Evans is powerfully convincing and invincibly fair in all that he writes. Hobsbawm’s two marriages, his interest in jazz and in strip clubs, and his affairs (one with a druggy Soho sex-worker) are recounted in a calm and proportionate manner without a touch of salacity. There is nothing sugary in Evans’s account of Hobsbawm’s marriage to Marlene Schwarz in 1962; but he gives a quietly beautiful picture of a strong bond between two remarkable people. It is pleasant to imagine Hobsbawm, who came to parenthood late, reading Tintin books aloud to his children and shouting Captain Haddock’s exclamation: ‘Blistering barnacles!’...Whenever I encountered him, there was a gentle, musing smile on his face. He radiated grateful contentment. Reading Evans’s account of his domestic life, one understands why.
Although Evans sometimes tries too hard to dazzle us with Hobsbawm’s erudition, his psychological portrait of an awkward young man is splendidly drawn... Evans makes no secret of his fondness for his subject, and Hobsbawm emerges from this superbly researched book as a genuinely learned and generous man. What is striking, though, is how lucky he was... Hobsbawm never saw action during the war, never suffered for his political beliefs and spent his working life lecturing to adoring audiences...
Evans is honest enough to include some absolutely shaming moments... doorstop of a book, some 785 pages. An over-zealous researcher, Evans does not know how to sift material... we have more or less every book the teenage Eric... and this prolix approach is followed throughout Hobsbawm’s not especially interesting life. Clearly, for Evans, Hobsbawm was a historian in the grand league ... but nothing in Evans’s hundreds of sloppily written pages persuaded me to think he is right... The fascinating story that this book does not sufficiently explore is how the liberal intelligentsia came to endorse the Marxist world view...