I want to love it


Historian Eric Hobsbawm PHOTO/The Nation
  • Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History by Richard J. Evans (Little, Brown, 800 pp, £35.00)
  • Was Eric Hobsbawm interested in himself? Not, I think, so very much. He had a more than healthy ego and enough self-knowledge to admit it, but all his curiosity was turned outward – towards problems, politics, literatures, languages, landscapes. Never without a book, whether bound for a tutorial or the local A&E, for decades he disappeared off for tramping holidays or conferences anywhere from Catalonia to Cuba the moment term ended. One friend, on holiday in southern Italy in 1957, saw two men in a field and said to her husband: ‘But look, it’s Eric!’ And, she recalled, ‘it really was Eric, with a peasant. He was interviewing the peasant.’

Untrammelled curiosity is an excellent quality in a historian – none better – but it has to be turned inward if one attempts autobiography. At the insistence of his friends, publisher and agent, Hobsbawm did write an autobiography, but Interesting Times, published in 2002, when he was 85, is almost comically unrevealing. He writes movingly about his early years in Vienna, but four-fifths of the book is The Age of Extremes (1994) written over again, with the author’s location included. Significant personal events, even those that devastated him, are mentioned so briefly that any but the most attentive reader would miss them. His first marriage in 1943 is dropped into the middle of a paragraph about the reasons he preferred London to Cambridge; its break-up in 1950 appears in another paragraph about ‘the darkest period of public anti-communism, the years of the Korean War’. Hobsbawm mentions being ‘acutely unhappy’ in the early 1950s but skitters away from any further revelations. He reminds himself of the difference between historical and autobiographical questions and then hares off to tackle the former.

This means that Richard Evans had an untilled field before him. Based on unrestricted access to Hobsbawm’s personal archive, this is one of those doorstopper biographies that can get published in Britain even when the subject is a historian. It clocks in at 662 pages of text and another eighty or so of notes. No stone goes unturned, but the book tilts towards the early life, with four chapters (259 pages) on the last fifty (yes, fifty) years, but five chapters (351 pages) on the three decades between 1933, when the 16-year-old Eric arrived in Britain, and 1962, the year of his second marriage and of the publication of The Age of Revolution, his first bestseller and the model for all his later work. Evans does a workmanlike job with those later years, but his real contribution is to have pieced together an account of the more conflicted early decades, and to have done his best – given that he is not one of nature’s biographers – to elucidate what he calls Hobsbawm’s ‘inner life’. I very much doubt this is the last word on Hobsbawm – after all, A.J.P. Taylor’s students and admirers found it necessary to produce three biographies of that earlier celebrity historian – but anyone coming afterwards will have to start from Evans’s prodigious and revelatory work.

Eric Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria in 1917, the product of a chance meeting in 1913 between Percy Hobsbawm, the son of Jewish immigrants to Britain from Poland, who had followed his brother Ernest into a job with the British-run Egyptian postal service, and Nelly Grün, a cultured and attractive young woman from a family of assimilated Viennese Jews. Nelly was visiting her uncle as a reward for graduating from high school, ‘still a fairly unusual achievement for girls in central Europe’, her son would write more than seventy years later, using his parents’ encounter to introduce the themes of economic entanglement and global expansion that underpin The Age of Empire (1987). Percy and Nelly married in 1915 in neutral Switzerland – their nations being at war – and then returned to Egypt. In 1918 they moved to Vienna, where Eric’s sister, Nancy, was born in 1920.

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