My last event of this year's EIBF was Simon Sebag Montefiore talking about his new novel One Night in Winter, and had I been experiencing 'festival fatigue' today after the end of a fantastic fortnight, his talk would certainly have perked me up - what he had to say was gripping, horrifying and fascinating in equal measure.
Based on actual events which happened in Stalinist Russia in 1945 and which Simon uncovered during his research for his non-fiction book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, the novel is centred on an exclusive school and the bizarre and dangerous game played by its senior pupils who are all the children of government leaders. When one of these 17-year-olds is shot by a classmate who then turns the gun on himself, Stalin takes an interest in what has been going on and orders an investigation resulting in the arrest and imprisonment - for as long as 6 months - of some 26 young people. During their incarceration, the children were interrogated about their families, their private business and their views of Stalin and his leadership, and their 'confessions' could and did destroy their parents. What they revealed and how they survived the interrogation is covered in this novel which is at heart about family and love.
Soviet Russia at this time "was like Edith Wharton with the death penalty", any faux pas resulting not in a snub or social banishment but in execution, and in a society which was hierarchical, the book looks also at what Simon called "the hierarchy of love", the range of relationships carried on in a place where jeopardy is supreme, and where "everything was secret but nothing private".
Simon talked very entertainingly about his research, not just for this novel but for his work generally. While we may think of archives as staffed by obliging people who will help find material and do what they can to aid scholarship, some of the archivists Simon encountered in his Russian researches are of an altogether different stripe. When working on Young Stalin he had privileged access to documents and people because his book Catherine the Great and Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair had put him in favour with the powers that be, but as those powers had 'taken agin' him' for Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, subsequent access had been denied. Still persona non grata, one particularly difficult archival guardian dropped a kitten on Simon's head from the upper level of an old palace - a cruelly original way of showing him the door!
A historian's lot is often not a happy one, it seems, as Simon told us that when working on his book Jerusalem: The Biography, he was stoned by both Israeli and Palestinian factions, thereby establishing his own "state of perfect neutrality". Against these real difficulties and dangers, the challenge of writing historical fiction, of interweaving hard fact and accurate detail - for readers are sophisticated and spot inaccuracies - with invented characters with whom one can do as one likes sounds like rather a freeing experience; the results, if today's talk was anything to go by, quite compelling.