Born in , the year of the Russian Revolution, the eighty-five years of Eric Hobsbawm's life are backdropped by an endless litany of wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions. He has led a remarkably fulfilling and long life; historian and intellectual, fluent in five languages, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, until it dissolved itself, and writer of countless volumes of history. He has personally witnessed some of the critical events of our century from Hitler's rise to power in Berlin to the fall of the Berlin wall. Hobsbawm has kept his eyes and ears open for eighty-five years, and has been constantly committed to understanding the 'interesting times' as the Chinese curse puts it through which he has lived.
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Interesting times is that curious hybrid, an impersonal autobiography. One learns from it rather more about the society and politics of the 20th century than about the inner life of Eric Hobsbawm. He largely writes as the analytical historian, pointing out how the relatively insignificant details of his life have been shaped by the great forces of modern history, rather than as the suffering subject, dwelling on the texture of intimate experiences. Still, the bare biographical facts are interesting in themselves.
He spent two politically formative years in Berlin in his mid-teens, followed by three years at school in London, before going to Cambridge. There he carried off the trophies of intellectual success: a starred first, editor of Granta , elected to the Apostles, and so on. After a dull war, he became a lecturer and professor at Birkbeck College, London, while launching out into his extra-mural career of intellectual jet-setting, becoming what the French call "un turbo-prof".
For some years he moonlighted as jazz critic of the New Statesman , publishing a book on jazz under the pseudonym of "Francis Newton". He went on to publish a dozen works of history, including his massive trilogy on the period from to But Eric Hobsbawm is also a failed revolutionary. He became a Communist in Berlin in , on the eve of Hitler's seizure of power. He joined the British Communist Party when he went to Cambridge, and remained a member until its dissolution in In retrospect, he describes his earlier self as "a man whose life would lose its nature and its significance without the political project" of world revolution.
Everything, from love affairs to career choices, was subordinate to party discipline. A brief flirtation with Communism was not unusual among the concerned young of his generation: in the Thirties, especially in central Europe, it could seem like the only serious option.
But the intensity and longevity of Hobsbawm's commitment has been extremely unusual, at least in Britain; nearly all his peers left the Party after the earthquakes of In so far as this book is any kind of apologia pro vita sua — and in its quiet, rueful way it is — it returns with revealing frequency to trying to justify this unfashionable attachment.
The difficulty of "breaking with" old comrades played a part, and Hobsbawm is clearly a man of admirably strong loyalties. But he also touches on a more intriguing, if less flattering, explanation: a perverse pride in success in conventional society despite being known as a card-carrying Red. Such self-analytic honesty is one of the appealing qualities of Interesting Times , though one wonders how this explanation would have been received by those friends who argued for the indefensibility of Party membership after Soviet tanks had rolled into Hungary.
Fortunately, Hobsbawm never gave up his day job. He seems to have had as precocious a sense of his intellectual as his political vocation: the point was not merely to change the world, but also to interpret it. Here there can be no talk of failure: he has become one of the most wide-ranging, as well as widely read, historians of the late 20th century, despite not publishing his first monograph until be was His work has never been confined to professional sheep pens.
His bailiwick has been the modern world as it has evolved since the upheavals of the French and Industrial Revolutions. He has been a historian of the world, and the world has reciprocated his interest. His history of the "short 20th century", Age of Extremes , has now been translated into 37 languages. Interesting Times gives us all this and much more: portraits of old comrades, political analyses, short histories of local micro economies, and so on. Only occasionally is the reader allowed a glimpse of a less public life.
The plum here must be his one-sentence record of how, in Paris in the late Thirties, "in the course of a night on the town with a Hungarian communist, I lost my virginity in an establishment — I can no longer recall its address — with an orchestra of naked ladies and in a bed surrounded on all sides by mirrors". It's a delightful memory, but characteristic that the historian feels obliged to mention the missing evidence; and that, even here, he was keeping good Party company.
For all its restraint and public focus, the book does suggest a man who for the first 40 years of his life struggled with unhappiness, and social and emotional awkwardness. His prose can still betray a certain wariness: he describes himself as "someone who does not wholly belong where he finds himself". This quality has sharpened his perceptions and protected him from the temptations of parochialism, but one can't help wondering whether a little more comfortableness, with himself and his world, might not have issued in an autobiographical voice at once fonder and more evocative.
Instead, this book is, indirectly, a vindication of the Enlightenment ideal of rational enquiry albeit constrained by Party discipline in his earlier years. It could have been sub-titled "How to be an intellectual", for Hobsbawm possesses several constitutive qualities of that role: above all, curiosity, a tireless search for pattern and meaning allied to an unyielding respect for the awkward facts that don't fit.
And, beyond that, a belief in and gift for exchange, collaboration and stimulation, whether in writing a pamphlet with a leading figure in the Italian Communist party, being an animating presence in the group which founded the journal that became Past and Present , or in welcoming students from all quarters of the globe and every degree of advantage or disadvantage at Birkbeck and the New School, New York.
Perhaps he has penned his own ideal self-description when he reports how in he spoke to a packed auditorium at the Sorbonne, characteristically "frankly, critically, sceptically, but impenitently and not without pride for those who stood for a left in which the old distinctions of party and orthodoxy no longer counted".
He is, in his own words, one of "those who insist on looking at the world the way it is", and he grimly concludes that the world of "needs historians more than ever, especially sceptical ones". You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists?
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Well-furnished writing, but a little lacking in feeling. Piling on the details, he sometimes smothers the facts, or at least a clear The noted British historian's tough-minded autobiography. Born in , Hobsbawm grew up in Vienna as a child of the polyglot, multinational Jewish middle class. His parents were both dead by the time Eric Hobsbawm. Eric Hobsbawm is considered by many to be our greatest living historian.
Eric Hobsbawm's autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, is a vast treasure house of memories and provides a look into the past and the events that have shaped the world of today. The son remembered how emaciated his mother looked. So my last memory of her is not one of grief but of ornithological pleasure. His childhood and early youth found Hobsbawm in the eye of the storm that was raging across Austria and Germany in the inter-war years.
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