A new book by acclaimed historian and novelist Simon Sebag Montefiore collects together the intruiging letters of important historical figures.
Inside Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, the humble letter has been rehabilitated, says historian Simon Sebag Montefiore. All affairs of importance are recorded on paper in old-fashioned fountain pen, before being sealed and transported by loyal courier.
“Politicians, spies, criminals and lovers have all learnt, many the hard way, that emails and texts can be read and exposed,” he says. “Letters can be preserved, but ironically they are safer, because they exist only once and can be physically destroyed.”
The acclaimed author’s titles, including Jerusalem: the Biography, Young Stalin and Catherine the Great and Potemkin, have sold millions and are translated into many languages. He speaks to the Listener from a wintry London, where his five-storey mansion in leafy Kensington backs onto a row of palatial homes owned by Russian billionaires.
We chat about his latest work. Written in History: Letters that Changed the World is a vivid, ambitious and beautifully quirky anthology of correspondence that shook the world, whether in war or peace, art or culture. It is a remarkable collection, running from a pharaoh’s 3000-year-old complaint on clay tablets to Donald Trump’s bombastic note to Kim Jong-un (whom he called “Little Rocket Man”) last May.
The book is thick with surprises. Who knew how much Michelangelo suffered during the three years he dangled upside down, painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? A 1509 verse letter to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia reveals all: “My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket, my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush, above me all the time, dribbles the paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings! My painting is dead … I am not in the right place – I am not a painter.”
Or what about this blisteringly frank exchange from 2000 years ago. “Do you object to me screwing Cleopatra?” Mark Antony asks Octavian, the teenage great-nephew of Julius Caesar, in about 33BC. “Does it really matter so much where or with whom one gets it up?”
“I just had to use that one,” says Montefiore with a chortle. “It comes from my edition of Suetonius, the Penguin translation. I’m always reading books thinking, ‘God, this would be good to use.’ There are some well-known ones here, but most of them are letters I thought people won’t know but will be pleased to discover.”