Antony Beevor: Writing Biography Was Easy

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, in the Financial Times (London) (June 12, 2004):

Antony Beevor has taken a break from military history to publish his first biography, The Mystery of Olga Chekhova. "It was an absolute holiday to write - a family story that conveys a huge sweep of history but doesn't have the cumulative horrors of Stalingrad and Berlin," he says, referring to his previous books about the siege of Stalingrad and fall of Hitler. "Frankly, at the end of Berlin I was almost on the edge of a nervous breakdown, partly from the pressure of the work but also because of the material."

His new book is about Anton Chekhov's niece by marriage, an actress who became a film star in Nazi Germany but also had mysterious links to Soviet intelligence. He came across her story while researching Berlin and realised it made for more than a racy footnote. "It summed up the dangerous fascination that Russia and Germany held for each other," he explains.

We're sitting in the study of his Fulham home surrounded by books of a distinctly martial nature: histories of Stalingrad, the battle of Crete, the Spanish civil war and his next project, D-Day. True to his background as an officer in the 11th Hussars, Beevor takes a briskly disciplined approach to writing history: "It's not like a novel where you can get writer's block. You just have to get on and do the work."

It turns out he speaks from experience, having written several novels before his publishers pushed him towards military history. A rebellious underachiever at boarding school, he became a voracious reader in the army. So the officers' mess resembled a book club with weapons? Not quite, although Beevor points out: "On the surface many of them played the stupid cavalry officer but when you went in their rooms you could see by the books they were reading that they weren't quite as stupid as they pretended to be."

Russian literature was an early love (Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons is a favourite novel), as was Latin American fiction. There's a well worn copy of the South American Handbook 1981 in his study, which brings back memories of reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch in Spanish while lying in a hammock on a stifling boat journey up the Amazon.

He and his wife Artemis Cooper, who is currently working on a biography of the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, keep most of their books in their other home in Kent, including a trove of family literary memorabilia. Beevor is one of six generations of writers.

Recently he reviewed Richard Evans' The Coming of the Third Reich. "(He) takes a very robust view that historians shouldn't make moral judgments. I couldn't agree with that more."

One German publisher was wary of Stalingrad because he felt Beevor hadn't condemned the Wehrmacht. "To try to repeat every few minutes how evil the Wehrmacht was is as pointless as saying how evil the NKVD (Soviet secret police) was," he says. "The facts should always speak for themselves."

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