The solitary act of reading becomes incredibly social in digital spaces. Photo: Thomas Lohnes/Getty
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To build a fan base, it helps to know what it’s like to be a fan

The online book world is about gathering around a book, or a love of books generally. If publishers want to capitalise on this, they would do well to promote authors who are fans themselves.

On a warm and strangely cloudless day this past summer, I emerged from the Underground at Earl’s Court, in West London, to a colourful queue that stretched out of sight. The crowd was waiting patiently for entry into London Film and Comic Con, which, over the course of the weekend, packed the convention centre with over 100,000 people. In the back, past rows of vendors and snaking autograph lines and some staggeringly good cosplay, I found a little corner of utopia: books everywhere, hanging from the walls and stacked up on tables and in the arms of young girls walking past. It was YALC: London’s first-ever Young Adult Literature Convention.

I’ve spent the past year observing the conversations between people who make books, and one thing has been abundantly clear: these days many publishers are aware that fans of their books are forming passionate communities, and even when they don’t quite get it, plenty are eager to learn. I can only imagine how it looks from the outside, to see a book propelled to the top of the bestseller list on the strength of thousands of enthusiastic reblogs rather than a big traditional marketing campaign; to see a book succeed because the author has created a space people want to keep living in, and invite their friends into. What makes some books magnets for an energetic and creative fan base, and others not?

In New York this past spring, I attended Book Expo America, the US’s largest publishing industry gathering, and I listened with frustration as publishers blindly speculated about how to build a fandom. One woman wanted to create hierarchies of fans, rewarding key “influencers” for pushing the product on their unsuspecting friends. (If you can’t easily see why this depresses me…I guess you’re not alone? She’s far from the only marketer interested in this model – and, for that matter, plenty of “influencers” seem to be, too.) But at the FutureBook conference in London a few weeks ago, I was pleased to see the entire room taking copious notes as a pair of incredibly smart women, Rachel Fershleiser and Rosianna Halse Rojas, gave primers on Tumblr and YouTube, respectively. I wasn’t keeping a tally, but I’d bet that the word most frequently employed was “community”. The online book world is about gathering around a book, or a love of books generally. As I’ve argued here before, for millions of us, the solitary act of reading becomes incredibly social in the digital spaces where we spend our time. Those are the joys of, in Fershleiser’s words, “the Bookternet”.

But many in the young adult literature world have known for a while that fandom is something to be cultivated – and celebrated. YALC, curated by the UK’s awesomely fannish Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, was prime proof. In advance of the weekend, YA novelist and YALC panellist Anthony McGowan told the Telegraph: “Teenagers read with a burning intensity, and love (and hate) books more deeply than any other group. I’d give anything to be able to read again with the passion I did when I was 16.” A con is a space for a person who really loves a thing to get together with others who share that love, so the decision to put YA book devotees in the same room as comic, film, and television fans made perfect sense.

But after watching a few panels, it seemed pretty obvious that there were as many fans onstage as in the audience; this was even the theme of one, “Superfans Unite!”, in which Rainbow Rowell, Tim O’Rourke, and Lucy Saxon – a top-notch Captain America in platform boots – talked about the stuff they get obsessive about. Rowell, who is American and lives in Omaha, Nebraska, first rose to fame in the UK with her novel Eleanor & Park. But she’s also the author of Fangirl, about a teenage girl who writes Simon Snow fan fiction (“Gemma T Leslie’s” wizard series is a clear homage to Harry Potter). Anyone who’s encountered Rowell online, on Twitter or Tumblr or elsewhere, knows that she’s an unabashed fangirl herself: she’s as likely to reblog a picture of Benedict Cumberbatch – often tagged “Bentobox Lumberjack” – as she is to reblog fan art of her own characters. When you hear her talk about her fans, you think, she gets it.

I got in touch to talk to her about being a fan as well as an author, and yes, she really does get it:

I understand what it feels like to get really excited about fiction. And how it becomes personal to you. So I don’t feel different from the people who get really excited about my books. I'm delighted and surprised – like, it’s surreal that I’ve created characters who’ve transcended my own personal relationship with them, and become personal for other people. But I understand how that works. I like people who get excited about things. So it’s cool that my books have brought more of those people into my life.

Rowell’s obviously not the first author in history to get really excited about fiction – I imagine that most fiction writers out there would say the exact same thing. But I’d argue that she’s one of the most visible writers today getting excited in the way that fans get excited, or, at the very least, expressing it the same way, and that distinction feels like an important one. She lives in the same digital spaces as her readers – she talks and shares and loves in tandem with them.

Does being a part of a fandom – writing fan fiction or criticism, drawing fan art or reblogging a million gifsets, just generally getting super excited about a thing, and sharing that excitement with others – make an author more likely to inspire the same passion in her own readers? Film and television these days are packed with creators who make no compunctions about their fannish obsessions: Joss Whedon is one famous example, or Peter Jackson, or Steven Moffat and the rest of the Doctor Who writing team, who all identify as long-time fanboys (and, of course, the new Doctor himself, Peter Capaldi, who speaks about achieving childhood fantasies with heart-melting earnestness). The fan who gets hired to make the thing he’s obsessed with has its own TV Trope: “the promoted fanboy”. Scores of (largely male) writers, from Junot Díaz to George R R Martin, grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons or other role-playing games – and don’t hesitate to advertise the fact, or talk about how it influenced them as storytellers.

But that trend feels more absent in female fandom: it’s easier for me to find examples of women who’ve gently distanced themselves from their fan communities as they worked towards mainstream success – hardly unsurprising, given the publishing industry’s historical antipathy towards fan fiction, the largely female-dominated practice that lies at the heart of a lot of women’s fan experiences, combined with the media’s continued less-than-flattering portrayal of fangirls. I’ve even heard criticism from within fandom – over my many years reading fic, I’ve seen more than a few fellow fans suggest that there’s a line between fanfic writers and “real” ones that should not be crossed. Luckily, I think this is changing – at a pace I wouldn’t have dreamed possible five years ago. Rowell agrees that the climate is shifting: “I think publishing’s attitude toward fan fiction has changed,” she told me. “Part of it, I think, is that kids who grew up reading and writing fan fiction are grown up now – and writing and editing and marketing books. Also, there's the sheer number of people of all ages who are into fic. It’s too popular to stay underground or secret. And the more people talk about it, the less transgressive it seems.”

Much of this has to be chalked up to the amount of exposure the web brings: people were writing and sharing fanfic offline for decades, but now everyone online can see the practice, and join in. “If I’d had access to the internet when I was a teenager, I definitely would have been posting fan fiction,” Rowell said. “Don't you think it’s just what young writers do now? Especially young women? I firmly believe that tomorrow's big authors are writing fan fiction right now.” (She was quick to add – and this is an important point – “not that writing fic is limited to young people or non-pros…”) She continued:

When you talk to professional authors and artists, it’s extremely common for them to have drawn or written about or fantasised about fictional characters when they were young people. Pros have always practiced with other people’s characters and worlds. The difference now is that so much of that fan work is public and shared. But people who share their fan work aren’t less capable or creative than those of us who kept it to ourselves or came of age pre-internet.

A few weeks after YALC, I was on a panel at Nine Worlds, a fantastic weekend-long convention that felt organic in the very best way. Our panel’s topic was monetising fan fiction – big business for publishers in a few select cases (50 Shades of Grey, or After), and a source of consternation amongst a lot of long-time fic writers and readers. My fellow panellists included two women, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw and Erin Claiborne, from the Big Bang Press (BBP), a new, Kickstarter-funded publisher that seeks out writers with established platforms and audiences in the fanfic world and publishes their original fiction. Baker-Whitelaw is the managing editor, and Claiborne is the BBP’s first published author. The full disclosure here is that I befriended them at the panel, though perhaps in the spirit of fullest disclosure, I’ve also shared a lot of exclamation marks over Benedict Cumberbatch with Rainbow Rowell on Twitter. Particularly when he wears those glasses.

Fan-run presses have sprung from various corners of fandom over the years – Twilight led to a vibrant proliferation of them, including Australia-based The Writers Coffee Shop, who originally published 50 Shades of Grey. These small presses were the products of varying community dynamics at varying moments, and were met with varying reception. It’s undeniable that fandom has been pushed, perhaps unwillingly, into the mainstream spotlight in the past few years. The Big Bang Press hopes to tap into this new dynamic, writing in their mission statement: “As the lines between fandom and mainstream pop-culture grow increasingly blurred, more and more fanfiction writers are becoming successfully published authors, but there are many equally talented writers who aren't getting the attention they deserve.” The project was fully backed on Kickstarter last year, and three initial pitches were blindly selected from a pool of established fanfic authors.

The first title, Erin Claiborne’s A Hero at the End of the World, was published last month. It’s billed as a “YA fantasy satire”, about a “chosen one”-type figure who, in an act of cowardice, utterly fails to fulfil his destiny – and winds up failing out of school, working as a barista, and living with his parents, while his best friend gets the glory for swooping in and killing the bad guy. The book is a total delight – I genuinely wound up rationing my reading time to keep from finishing it too quickly – and a fantastic addition to what is hopefully a rapidly diversifying YA landscape: the two main characters are people of colour, and a queer romance lies a the heart of the story. Claiborne embraces, rather than distances herself from her investment in fandom. “I think it’s a feminist issue,” she told me. “I can’t help but think that a lot of women aren’t proud of being fanfic writers because we’re rarely encouraged to take pride in something seen as a woman’s hobby, or by something that encourages exploration of female sexuality in the way that fanfic does.” She credits the practice as crucial to her development as a writer: “I wouldn’t be able to write if I wasn’t in fandom; wanting to write fic was essentially what got me started writing, period.”

I spoke with three of the women who run the BBP: Baker-Whitelaw, Alexandra Edwards, and Morgan Leigh Davies. They live on both sides of the Atlantic and hold day jobs in journalism, teaching, and publishing, and they, like me, have essentially grown up in online fandom. I was curious if they think that a fannish background, for a publisher or a writer, was a big advantage. “I do think,” Davies said, “that having been in the trenches of fandom, so to speak, makes authors uniquely positioned to deal what being an author means in the current climate. I am used to engaging with people online in a fairly broad way, I am used to curating content, I am used to getting and deleting nasty messages. That may sound mercenary, but it’s necessary, and it isn’t unenjoyable – you just have to be intelligent and thoughtful about the way you are presenting yourself online.” Edwards, who won an Emmy for her work on the modern transmedia Pride and Prejudice adaptation “The Lizzie Bennett Diaries”, echoed the idea: that people who spend time in online communities are well-suited for the changing publishing landscape. “Can you be successful without being from fandom?” she said. “Sure. But do I wish more women who grew up in fandom were getting successful through those skills and that community? Absolutely.”

From my vantage point, the traditional publishing industry sees fans, and understands their power – whether it’s a billion hits on a blockbuster fanfic, or massive, snowballing book sales after a huge amount of online chatter – but doesn’t fully understand them. These women agree. “It boils down to a fear of the unknown – there just isn’t as much difference here as it seems to me that the publishing industry thinks there is,” Davies said. “If you don't come from a fandom background, it could be difficult to work out how to translate this phenomenon into something more familiar,” said Baker-Whitelaw. “Like, people are writing entire books for free, on the internet, and they get millions of readers? How does that even work? What's the point? And how can you tell which ones would actually sell to a wider audience? The reason why small publishers like Big Bang Press and the Twilight ebook presses are beginning to pop up is because we have a solid idea of what works and what doesn't.”

And for all that the big publishers could learn from fan culture, more small, fan-run presses – and, ideally, an even bigger diversity of voices – would be an extremely welcome addition to the publishing world. “I think it’s crucial for women like us to prove that small fiction presses are viable,” Edwards said. “More than any criticism about our fandom and fan fiction ties, it’s been the criticism that accuses us of not being a ‘real’ press that fires me up and makes me work harder than ever. Publishing is so stagnant right now, so consolidated – I think we need smaller venues and unexpected voices like a blood transfusion. and that's an attitude, a mission I guess, that comes out of my entire lifetime spent needing fandom to give me stories that the mainstream couldn’t or wouldn’t.”

The minor meltdown in the British publishing world this past week – Zoella – has added a weird lens to view this topic. At FutureBook, Zoella, the YouTube name of vlogging superstar Zoe Sugg, was offered up more than a few times, perhaps most often by her publisher, as the vision of publishing’s future. Her whirlwind six-figure two-book deal signed at the end of the summer made headlines, as did her record-breaking debut, when her YA novel Girl Online sold more copies in the first week than any other book in British history. But over the weekend, after the Sunday Times suggested that the book was ghost-written, a spokesperson for Penguin confirmed, with really vague throw-under-the-bus language, that, “To be factually accurate you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own.” (In the intervening days, after whole a lot of vilification – frustratingly much of it age and/or gender-based – false suggestions that Sugg and her boyfriend were “quitting the internet,” and a few rousing defenses that I really enjoyed, the alleged ghostwriter, Siobhan Curham, while not disclosing the full extent of her involvement for legal reasons, spoke up in a blog post.)

The relationship between this whole debacle and fan culture feels like an obvious one. Zoella has nearly seven million subscribers on YouTube: a massive fan base devoted to her videos and persona (the more cynical among us might say “brand”). And some of the backlash I’ve seen in the past week lines up neatly with some of the anxiety I see from publishers about fandom: how do you get these huge numbers of devotees, and how do you tap into them, and is this what’s really needed to sell a book in the future? How does an unknown author get started, with a dozen Twitter followers or one crappy YouTube video or, perhaps most importantly, a lack of real comfort online – no matter your age, digital life doesn’t come naturally to huge swaths of people. It can feel like joining a massive conversation already in progress – after all, in essence, that’s what it is. It can be so hard to know when – or how – to start speaking up.

I think part of the problem is the mainstream often only notices fans when they hit extremes – either the super weird, or the super loud (see portrayals of screaming and weeping fangirls since time immemorial), or, for our purposes, the super numerous. If you’re not in fandom, you don’t see the seeds planted, or the movement growing, the fanfic with a few hundred hits: you see the critical mass because it’s so easy to see, and bank on breadth of interest, rather than depth. Don’t get me wrong – I’m fully aware of the (often dire) financial realities of book publishing, and I don’t mean to be glib. But fandom can teach us better lessons than this. The critical mass is built mostly on passion – on love, of a thing, or maybe, just of the community devoted to that thing. I sincerely hope that the future of publishing isn’t doling out book contracts to everyone with a million followers. We need authors who get excited about the first follower – the one who loves the author’s work so much that she tells a second, and a third, and starts a Tumblr, and… 

As I was wrapping up this story, Rainbow Rowell took to Twitter to drop a bombshell for her fans: her next book will be Carry On, the Simon Snow fanfic novel that’s woven throughout Fangirl. If you haven’t read Fangirl – and particularly if you’re new to the idea of fanfic – that sentence may not make instant sense. But if you have, and if you celebrate Fangirl because it celebrates fan fiction and fangirls the world over, then this might feel like the ultimate victory. (Also if you ship Simon/Baz, like any right-thinking person would, it’s a double victory.) If there’s any sure sign that publishing’s relation to fandom has changed drastically in the past few years, it’s surely that a fanfic novel about a novel about fanfic will be a bestseller this time next year – and that Rowell will be ready and waiting on Tumblr to reblog all the Simon/Baz fan art.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

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Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage