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Monday, July 5, 2010

sea bass (among other things)

Oh, what sort of career am I plunging myself into? A pit of scrapping toddlers? I have been following the news surrounding Orlando Figes' fall from favour with a mixture of pleased amusement and an audible "ick".

Figes is a British historian of Soviet history, at Birkbeck College, who really is a wonderful historian. Unfortunately, he seems to have a little problem - competition. Orlando, Orlando. It's nice to share.

Figes started by posting negative reviews of other historians' books on Amazon. [Source]
Of Rachel Polonsky: This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published.
Of Robert Service: This is an awful book. It is very poorly written and dull to read … it has no insights to make it worth the bother of ploughing through its dreadful prose.

All the while, unfortunately, his amazon username was "orlando-birkbeck". Oops!
Another oops - he reviewed his own book, The Whisperers:
A fascinating book about the interior lives of ordinary Russians … it tells us more about the Soviet system than any other book I know. Beautifully written, it is a rich and deeply moving history, which leaves the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted … Figes visits their ordeals with enormous compassion, and he brings their history to life with his superb story-telling skills. I hope he writes for ever.
I'm almost tempted to break into applause. It's beautiful.

When Polonsky and Service raised objections, Figes retaliated immediately with threats of legal action. Then, when the fact of his username came to light, he blamed it on his wife. Sigh - it just makes me want to sit him down and reason with him. Eventually, he admitted that he did it, and claimed that he had been so traumatised by researching his latest book that it led him to behave irrationally. Yes, Figes, you are the victim here.

Well, all this kerfuffle in the dour world of academia was pleasant to observe for a while, until it became clear that all the historians who have chosen to comment on the issue have come across as equally silly!

Robert Service, for one. In an article for the Guardian, he manages to come across as particularly loony.

This is a matter that has broad implications for the public interest, as can be seen from the way I've spent my week. I got up last Sunday earlier than usual. Been doing that since the week before when Figes's lawyer started to correspond. Don't know why I thought I would sleep. My wife, Adele, and I went to an afternoon concert in Goring by the Thames where a piece by her composer grandfather, Claude Cover, was played. We could have done, however, without the traffic jam on the way back on the M4. ...

I wasn't sure whether I could stand the tension much longer, but at least we didn't seem to have to worry about holding on to our house and home. I had my book to write, a book about agents and commissars in the Russian revolution. Adele escaped to her yoga class on Tuesday – she's been brilliant while all this has been happening. I too needed an escape and went for a run over Walthamstow marshes. Strange absence of the police helicopter, though presumably that was not Iceland's fault. But elder daughter Emma was still stuck in Madrid, which was. ...

I found it difficult to believe that Stephanie Palmer had written the reviews. Few people whom I knew did. Most were inclined to think it was Figes himself but were scared of him and his legal letters. Anyway, why would any member of the Figes household want to squirt such venom into the Amazon system? Perhaps I was impulsive in raising questions about the anonymous reviews but I just felt that someone had to stand up to a bully. Meanwhile, Emma got back from Madrid. Brava! On Wednesday Adele cooked sea bass for supper and we were joined by younger daughter, Cesca.

Sea bass for dinner! Brava! Oh my! Poor Professor Service. It has been a tough week, and one that is particularly relevant to the public interest. He added, when Figes was found out, "I am pleased and mightily relieved that this contaminant slime has been exposed to the light and begun to be scrubbed clean."

Methinks someone has been studying Soviet history too obsessively. "Contaminant slime"? It's pretty much straight out of the pages of the Communist papers.

But Rachel Polonsky defends him:
Throughout this thrilling high-stakes chase, Bob has been a true comrade. He is a good man. ... As it turned out, that impulsive email could have destroyed Bob. He did not know how dangerous Figes would become when his reputation was on the line.
As one commenter on Service's Guardian article said, "I don't know why everyone is laughing at this. It's very serious! ... If we shortly hear stories of poisoned sea bass or unexplained car-crashes on deserted roads, then we'll know for certain that a truly dastardly plot is afoot in the vicious cut-throat world of academia."

Do you think historians have just studied the past for too long? Maybe they forget that when they criticise each other, they are attacking people who can defend themselves, by virtue of being alive. Or do you think they're just completely divorced from reality?

1 comment:

pilgrimchick said...

That is nuts--I'm not too suprised that at least someone out there was bashing books and praising his own. What surprises me is how odd the whole situation sounds. It sounds like a complete disconnection from reality?