Simon Sebag Montefiore: By the Book
And which novelists do you especially enjoy reading?
The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz ranks up there with Tolstoy, as does “The Family Moskat,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and “Remembrance of Things Past,” by Proust. I adore everything by Balzac and Zola but especially “The Kill,” which has one of the most beautiful seduction scenes in literature. Everything by Joseph Roth, especially “Hotel Savoy.” From American writers: Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” quartet; Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”; Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain”; E. L. Doctorow’s “Billy Bathgate”; Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence”; James Salter’s “All That Is”; and the early novels of Norman Mailer. Amongst modern writers I enjoy le Carré, Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantel, Don “The Cartel” Winslow, Alan Furst and Gary Shteyngart. I just finished the Irish novelist Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End” — outstanding.
How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or several simultaneously? Morning or night?
I love paper. I prefer paperbacks, especially American ones and the French Livres de Poche which are particularly flexible and lithe. I am an omnivore and read ravenously. I have books for every room, all on the go, two for the bedroom, one fiction, one nonfiction usually, then I have bathroom books (one for the bath, one for times of strenuous concentration) and kitchen books. The essential thing is a variety of new voices, voyages, friendships and experiences in reading as in life.
Some I never finish, some I never start, and now I define mortality as the knowledge that I will never finish all the books I dream of reading. I am a passionate nonfinisher. Life is too short and there are too many great books to read, so if I lose interest or respect, I switch. But when of course when you really fall in love with a book, all the others are ignored …
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I like the implication of the question: Do we all have a predictable reading list for our curriculum vitae, our class, our race, our gender? A book from a new genre that I most enjoyed recently was Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” sublimely fantastical storytelling that blends adventure, magic, sci-fi, and cultural-religious syncretism. Another that I usually abhor are on relationships or self-help, but I’ve really enjoyed Laura Kipnis’s “Against Love” which explores the absurd rules of love and marriage in the West since the 19th century.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Voracious, excitable, starry-eyed. Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo” encapsulates so many fantasies of my childhood — the escape from prison, the mysterious fortune, vengeance on enemies. I was a lover of vicious fairy tales like Struwwelpeter. I remember sobbing over Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince.” I relished the poetry of Byron, Keats and Kipling; my favorite was “The Highwayman,” by Alfred Noyes. I was taught Shakespeare brilliantly by an eccentric genius at Harrow named Jeremy Lemmon who made me want to be a writer. I consumed everything by Robert Graves and Mary Renault, then Orwell, Hemingway, Guy de Maupassant, and Michael Moorcock’s Colonel Pyat novels in a frenzy until I discovered Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Pushkin, Lermontov and, my favorites, Isaac Babel and Kurban Said’s “Ali and Nino,” which infected me with a feverish fascination for Russia and the Caucasus that led me to go out there in 1991 as the U.S.S.R. dissolved.
If you could require the American president to read one book, what would it be? And the prime minister?
The president should read the 3,000-page three-volume biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II by John Röhl, a masterpiece full of Willy’s crazy, vicious, unstable, autocratic misconceived acts that would be hilarious if not so terrifying. The president would be fascinated by the Kaiser and enjoy a strange sense that he is not unique: He aspires to be an American czar but may be an American kaiser. On the recognition of Jerusalem and understanding the Middle East, I recommend four old but vibrant masterpieces: Josephus’s “The Jewish War”; Usama ibn Mundiqh’s “The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades”; Ibn Khaldun’s “The Muqaddimah,”; and Evliya Celebi’s “An Ottoman Traveller.”
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I will be unpopular for this! I relish thrillers but find that many start brilliantly then collapse when the initial trick is unveiled. “Gone Girl” was one — when I found out the “Girl” wasn’t quite “Gone,” I went.
Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful?
“Red Sky at Noon” is my latest novel and my favorite. This is a literary “Sophie’s Choice” because I love all my children — including my history books “Jerusalem: The Biography” and “The Romanovs,” but I cherish the novels most because they are love stories, tales of intimate and family life and the different types of love and redemption in dangerous times, the great subjects for any writer. “Red Sky” contains slivers of my heart. Its characters, led by the writer Benya Golden, who joins one of Stalin’s punishment battalions during World War II, are so familiar to me now. In the last period of real cavalry warfare, Benya enrolls in a cavalry battalion with a crew of cutthroats and Cossacks who encounter the Italians. It’s a wartime adventure set on horseback — inspired by the Western novels that I love, such as “Lonesome Dove,” but also by Isaac Babel’s “Red Cavalry.” Ultimately it is a love story between Benya and the Italian nurse Fabiana. Its tragedy is it cannot last. The history is accurate (Stalin and his daughter are characters) and the Italian tragedy in Russia is much neglected. “Red Sky” can be read on its own but it is part of “The Moscow Trilogy,” and these are the books that I am most proud of.
Who would you want to write your life story?
A committee consisting of George MacDonald Fraser, Gabriel García Márquez, Alexander Pushkin and Guy de Maupassant.
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