Sometimes love endures but so does all the damage done

Simon Sebag MontefioreI was feeling a bit shy about meeting Simon Sebag Montefiore. He's fiercely intelligent, but thank goodness he is also charming and easy to talk to. Later when I saw him on the panel for "History and the novel" he was name checked as one of the top dinner companions in London. I can see why. We found a seat in the foyer and got chatting (there was one of those spooky pianos that plays itself tinkling away in the background to add to the ambience).

It's great when your interviewee asks you a question first - he was interested in the fact that librarians like me are out asking authors questions, and he thought it was a brilliant idea. We also started talking about honey (I guess because he was having tea and honey to drink?- well he did say "I like honey with everything") and I told him to have a go at manuka honey while he's in New Zealand.


Simon loves libraries, as demonstrated by some delicious library quotes in Sashenka: (p 411 and 419):

"Katinka enjoyed the hushed mysteries that reign in libraries. Some of her friends thought they were boring … but to her libraries were like hotels; secret villages inhabited by passing strangers from a thousand different worlds brought together just for a few hours"
"I love archives, she said… you can smell the life in the paper. I've sat in the State Archives and held the love letters of Catherine and Potemkin, the most passionate notes, fragrant with her scent and soaked in his tears as he lay dying on the steppes."

Simon talked about libraries as mysterious places, where people watch one another "half the people there are not really reading, they've just got no place else to go … They're great pick up joints too".


Simon's mother's family is from the Russian empire hence his enduring interest in Russia. He studied Russian history but lots of other sorts of history, but always wanted to go to Russia and to write about it. Inspired by obvious ones like Tolstoy but also people like Isaac Babel, who is part of the story behind Sashenka.

Though he is now associated with Stalin (having written so successfully on him), his labour of love was the story of Catherine the Great and Potemkin. 5 years, loves that period of the 18th century and would have loved to be at that Court. Going from The court of red Tsar, to Young Stalin, to Sashenka was the logical progression "There's only so much you can do in history, everything has to be true, you don't really know what people are thinking".

Simon noted that Stalin did actually visit people's houses like he does in Sashenka:. "Nobody would forget the night Stalin turned up to dinner. When he visits a family, it changes their lives and in Sashenka it does too. It's one of the splinters of their lives which was shattered, you can put it all back together again and you get the complete picture"

He was eager to write about this group of people: "My books are the corridors of power and I wanted to write about ordinary people, especially women and children and I wanted to write a family like my own family in Russia. My family was in the Jewish pale settlement". With the writing of the novel Sashenka he has achieved something he's always wanted - to write about a family in Russia, especially a Jewish family. he is fascinated by the randomness of Russian history. It is an intense place, "Everything's a secret but he does confess to occasional "Russia fatigue". His influences are Zola, Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Forsyte Saga, The Cairo trilogy and Simon has a particular admiration for realist, naturalistic family stories.

How do you deal with the horrors of history?

I asked Simon how it affected him writing about some of the atrocities of history. I was thinking of Iris Chang's suicide and her writings on the rape of Nanking and how such tragedies might affect the writer's psyche. He thought we can read about horrors without ill effect but that it is different for those who have lived through it; "Whether it is the Holocaust, Stalin's terror or Rwanda now .. One of the themes of the book is it never really ends … at the end of a book when everyone heals, and is reunited sometimes love endures but so does all the damage done."

What's next?

SimonYoung Stalin is being made into a movie, with the screenwriter from "Trainspotting" doing the script. Simon's theory is let the professionals do it.

His next book is a history of Jerusalem and he is enjoying writing a "sweeping book".

The "history and the novel" session revealed that George Bush read Simon's book on Potemkin and Catherine the Great out loud to his wife, and in a further claim to fame, he's been interviewed by his fan Paul Holmes and also Kim Hill. He is happy to think that'll he be gaining a new set of readers with Sashenka, people who might not read a history book but they'll get his rich historical vision in this novel, and a sense of the flamboyant history of Russia.

More information

Donna Robertson interviewed Simon Sebag Montefiore for Christchurch City Libraries at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, May 2008 (photos used with Simon's permission). Simon was involved in three festival sessions, history and the novel, Edith Wharton and Young Stalin, and an individual hour long audience.