A week in books

Nothing much flourishes in January save for aconites and book prizes. Amid the literary blooms, it would be easy to miss the award for a first or second work of history sponsored by Longman and History Today magazine. This week, in the suitably august setting of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it went to Cambridge historian Orlando Figes for his vast but vivid account of the Russian Revolution from 1891 to 1924, A People's Tragedy (Cape).

Figes' scholarly page-turner adds to the growing trend for Big History to mean Big Business. Not long before Christmas, Oxford issued Norman Davies' bulky history of Europe: a wide-screen epic encrusted by sparkling cameos and driven by the belief that the lands east of the Elbe merit more of the limelight. It has sold 33,000 copies here and 18,000 in the US - supersonic speed for a pounds 25 hardback.

Prior to Figes and Davies came other bestselling historians who merged narrative zest with analytic depth: Theodore Zeldin and Simon Schama; Felipe Fernandez-Armesto and Eric Hobsbawm. After decades of stratospheric High Theory on the one hand and number-crunching "cliometrics" on the other, the story returned to history - told not by quaint throwbacks but by the superstars.

For Gordon Marsden, who edits History Today, books such as Figes' overcome the "artificial dichotomy" between hard data and ripping yarns: "It's not a question of either/or. You must have good analysis with your narrative, and vice versa". Yet it can look as if today's historians have seized on the once-taboo pleasures of the tale like binge drinkers after Prohibition. For Simon Schama, this means pushing factual narrative up to - and through - the gates of fiction.

These new-wave fables of the past match the "postmodern" drift in other arts; all are fuelled by our end-of-era taste for retrospective summings- up. Fernandez-Armesto actually called his bold global history of the past 1000 years Millennium, while Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes taught us that the "short 20th century" closed with the Soviet Union's collapse in1991.

As the cool but compassionate tone of A People's Tragedy confirms, the ideological vacuum of this fin-de-siecle allows historians to look back more in sorrow than in anger. Until very recently, histories of the Revolution split along classic Cold War lines. On one side stood the defenders (E H Carr, say, or the Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher, for whom Stalin killed a great ideal). On the other, furious antagonists such as Robert Conquest dragged the horror of the Gulag into the light. In a post-Soviet perspective, both camps can sound remarkably alike. Indeed, the same writers often swung from one pole to the other.

Interestingly, Gordon Marsden suggests that the cargo of books now due about the British Empire and its sunset (as Hong Kong reverts to China and India marks its half-century of freedom) may follow the same pattern. The passion of both imperialists and liberators could fade as "younger historians look on things a bit more dispassionately". So have we reached a final Twilight of the Partisans? Not quite yet, perhaps. Also on the prize shortlist was Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners: a young scholar's searing, bitter argument that ordinary Germans (and not just hard-core Nazis) knew the worst and went along with it. Some wounds run so deep that not even a millennium will soothe them.

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