Reviewed: Fractured Times - Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century by Eric Hobsbawm

Looking for Eric.

Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century
Eric Hobsbawm
Little, Brown, 336pp, £25

Reviewing a book by his fellow historian Raphael Samuel about the “lost world of British communism”, Eric Hobsbawm praised Samuel for his “melancholy empathy for an irrecoverable past”. Fractured Times, Hobsbawm’s final work, published after his death in October last year, displays a similar quality – though it evinces melancholy empathy not for the milieu of the British Communist Party, which he joined when he arrived in England from Berlin as a 15-year-old in 1933, but for the art and culture of the “bourgeois society” that disappeared after the outbreak of the First World War.

The essays collected here, which were written between 1964 and 2012, are not focused exclusively on the “lost world” of European bourgeois civilisation. There are several pieces on the situation of the arts in the early 21st century – reflections on the consequences of technological progress and the “democratisation of aesthetic consumption” – but Hobsbawm’s analysis of our postmodern cultural condition nevertheless presupposes, as he acknowlegdes, a“plunge” back into the final years of what he terms the “long 19th century”, stretching, roughly, from 1789 to 1914. Without that look back, the current scene cannot be understood. The seven chapters devoted to the “culture of the bourgeois world” therefore form the centre piece of the book.

Much of this will be familiar to readers of Hobsbawm’s earlier work. His point of departure here is the claim made in The Age of Empire (1987), the third volume of his great trilogy on the long 19th century, that August 1914 marked a definitive “natural break” in the history of Europe. That moment was regarded, he argued there, as announcing “the end of the world made by and for the bourgeoisie”. And intimations of imminent death were felt especially keenly in the cultural productions of the period, especially in literature and painting, to which The Age of Empire devotes a substantial chapter.

The first part of Fractured Times picks up where that chapter left off and serves as a useful reminder of just what kind of Marxist historian Hobsbawm was. His interest in the social and historical significance of high culture marked him out from his distinguished colleagues in the Communist Party Historians Group of the early 1950s – men such as Samuel, Christopher Hill and E P Thompson. As he wrote in his autobiography, Interesting Times (2002), his Marxism had developed out of the attempt to understand the arts:

What filled my mind [in the mid-1930s] was not the classic macro-historical problems of Marxist debate about historical development – the succession of “modes of production”. It was the place and nature of the artist and the arts (in fact,  literature) in society or, in Marxist terms, “How is the superstructure connected to the base?”

Hobsbawm’s indifference to the main problems of Marxist historiography, not to mention his mellifluous prose style, ensured that his work reached a much larger audience than that of many of his contemporaries did (something attested to by the voluminous media coverage of his death).

As Perry Anderson has put it, in Hobsbawm, Communist “militant and historian . . . remained separate identities”. One might add as a corollary that the identities of historian and writer were jumbled up in him. The “Overture” to The Age of Empire shows this well. The book begins not as grand narrative but as autobiography. Hobsbawm tells the story of how his mother, scion of a Viennese Jewish family of some standing, met her future husband (and Eric’s father) in Alexandria, where her uncle did business.

There was a serious point to this anecdote, Hobsbawm insisted. “For all of us,” he wrote, “there is a twilight zone between history and memory; between the past as a generalised record which is open to relatively dispassionate inspection and the past as a remembered part of, or background to, one’s own life.” The Age of Empire fell into that twilight zone. Fractured Times – or the central section of it at any rate – does too. And this is what gives much of it the kind of melancholy air that Hobsbawm found so attractive in Samuel.

He confesses to having chosen examples from his own “cultural background – geographically central Europe, linguistically German”. And, he might have added, Jewish. In Interesting Times, Hobsbawm evoked the prosperous, largely secular milieu of Jewish Vienna from which his mother’s side of the family had sprung and which had mostly disappeared (or persisted only in the most attenuated fashion) by the time he was born in 1917. The finest piece in the new volume, on the “emancipation of Jewish talent” in central Europe, is a paean to the German language, the “gateway to modernity”for Mittel European Jews in the second half of the 19th century – and, of course, the native tongue of young Eric Hobsbaum himself.

Eric Hobsbawm in 1976. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear