Apologies that I haven’t been around lately. I have mostly recovered from my chest ailments (residual cough only), but my book manuscript is due to be sent to the publishers at the end of this week, so I have been frantically reading and re-reading the manuscript.
Via Kerryn Goldsworthy, I became aware of this great essay in Meanjin by Maria Tumarkin about English historian Orlando Figes. I’ve written a brief post on Figes before, a historian who researches Russian history:
It all began when Cambridge-based academic, Dr Rachel Polonsky was looking at the reviews on Amazon of her book on Russian culture, Molotov’s Magic Lantern. She noticed there was one review which stood out among the many favourable reviews. The reviewer, “Historian” described her book as “dense”, “pretentious” and “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”.
Polonsky looked at all the other books “Historian” had reviewed, and noticed that “Historian” was scathing about most books, but had a soft spot for Figes’ work. “Historian” also had a secondary nickname “Orlando-Birkbeck”. In addition, there had been a history of tension between Polonsky and Figes because Polonsky had given an unfavourable review of Figes’ book Natasha’s Dance in 2002. Polonsky’s review said that the book excelled in a particular “genre of pastiche writing” and she found “problems of accuracy as well as scholarly practice” in it. Figes was apparently considering legal action in relation to the review.
Polonsky also noticed that “Historian” was scathing of books by two other authors. One was The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which won the Samuel Johnson 2008 prize for non fiction. Figes had also been shortlisted for the prize. The review by “Historian” began: “Oh dear, what on earth were the judges thinking when they gave this book the Samuel Johnson Prize?”
The other author whom “Historian” criticised was Professor Robert Service, author of biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Hitler. “Historian” said that Service’s biography of Stalin was “curiously dull” and recommended readers instead buy Figes’ book, The Whisperers, which she said showed “superb storytelling skills”.
Polonsky alerted Service to the reviews, and Service sent a furious e-mail to other prominent authors and academics complaining about the reviews. Service also sent a copy of the email to Figes, and signed it, “Cheers from under the mud”. Figes replied to everyone in Service’s e-mail denying any role in the reviews, which he said could have been written by “virtually anybody”. Polonsky threatened to take legal action to discover who the author was. It was after this that Figes’ lawyer issued a statement:
“My client’s wife wrote the reviews. My client has only just found out about this, this evening. Both he and his wife are taking steps to make the position clear.”
However, it later became evident that Figes himself had written the reviews, and his wife was prepared to act as the “fall-guy”.
Tumarkin’s post is fabulous. It has a very revealing sketch of Figes and Robert Dessaix at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. One of my dearest friends is a refugee from Communist Russia, and I couldn’t help thinking of her and her family throughout this post (right down to the Russian familiar names – I do love those familiar names, but goodness, I would never call a Russian person I didn’t know by a familiar name!) At the end of the post, Tumarkin retells the story of the Golden Fish:
I know these things come and go, but at the moment, to my delight, my four-year-old son is particularly fond of the fairytale about the fisherman and the little golden fish. Not the way the Brothers Grimm tell it, mind you (the brothers are so very dry), but a magnificent version by Alexander Pushkin on which generations of Russian-speaking children have been raised. A poor fisherman catches, by chance, a little golden fish. In what is a first for the fisherman, the little fish speaks to him, in a human voice, promising him the fulfilment of any wish if he lets her go. True to his nature—unassuming say some, unenterprising say others—the fisherman asks for nothing. He simply throws the fish back in the water. His wife, on learning what happened, scolds him for such idiocy (they are dirt-poor after all and utterly desperate) and sends him back to the sea to ask for a new washtub to replace their broken one.
The old man goes hesitantly, embarrassed. The little golden fish greets him kindly. She tells him not to worry and to go home with a light heart. At home the new washtub is already waiting, just as the little fish promised. Next to it stands the old woman, sour and agitated, more ready than ever before for some speedy wish fulfilment.
That first modest wish gives way to more and more ostentatious demands, delivered without hint of an apology. The old man is no longer the woman’s husband, not in any real sense, but a lowly messenger between her and the little golden fish. With every new request, the little golden fish grows less and less patient. Finally the old woman, having wished for all she can think of, demands to be made Empress of Land and Sea and for the little golden fish to be at her service. A line is crossed, the sea grows stormy and dark, the old fisherman trembles, my son holds his breath … And it all comes crashing down. The little golden fish does not come out of the sea. The old man returns to the old, broken washtub and to his old, ugly wife, who without the accoutrements of wealth and status granted to her by the little golden fish looks even older, even uglier, more disfigured still. (Pushkin, bless him, leaves the story at that, but the Brothers Grimm insert some improbable ‘be grateful for what you have’ tirade from the old man. I bet he just goes and has a quiet drink, mightily relieved.)
‘Why could not she stop?’ begs my son. ‘Why did she have to ask for more? More, more, more.’ My son runs around the room, mocking the old woman. He demands that I tell him why. I look for words to explain greed, that sense of entitlement that some people grow into so quickly, the incontinence that can afflict a human soul. For some reason (and perhaps this is a developmental thing), of all the many lessons imparted by fairytales—do not eat fruit offered by strangers, check your grandmothers carefully for signs of wolf hair, carry breadcrumbs in your pocket at all times—the lesson of greed is the one my son understands most readily. He realises the utter inevitability of the little golden fish closing the shop on the old woman.
We raise children to see the invisible lines that should not be crossed and for hundreds, thousands of years we have been telling stories about these lines, handing down warnings from generation to generation about what happens when we lose our mind and push too hard, want too much, demand and expect without measure, until the little golden fish, once so patient, so eager to listen, wants nothing to do with us any more.
The story of the man who had everything but wanted more still and was implicitly encouraged by the world around him to think that his sense of entitlement was right and justified is about to be forgotten. It is already hollow and old. To tell it anew feels gossipy and gratuitous and like something in bad taste. Yet the man in the tale is not an aberration. He is a logical conclusion of certain forces in our world: of post-moral meritocracy at our academic institutions, of the disappearance of empathy and remorse from public intellectual life, of the way it has become possible to be a professional historian yet learn nothing from history. It is the kind of story we should find a way to pass on with care and seriousness, the story of how he fooled us all—and how we are fooled no more.
I can remember reacting like Tumarkin’s son to that story. Why did the old woman keep demanding? Why do some people want more and more and more? I don’t know, as I’m not built that way. Nor am I a good self-promoter. It is one of the reasons why I didn’t get articles straight out of university. I am always rather in awe of those academics who are good self-promoters; but what happens when, like Figes, your self-promotion involves putting down others? I take Tumarkin’s point that sometimes in academia, some people think that academic intelligence and achievement is a proxy for moral worth, when it is not. You can be very intelligent and not very morally worthy at all. Merely because you are clever does not mean you are good, and it does not mean that you can trash others. Go read Tumarkin’s post; I really enjoyed it.