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Book Review October 7, 2005
 
A Beautiful Doorstop
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 

My verdict on this book, Ivan the Terrible, is simple: I couldn't read it.

But let's be positive. Aside from that one little problem, it's a fine book, with a very pretty cover. And it's thick enough to serve as an excellent doorstop on windy days. If you want to impress your guests, you could leave it on the coffee table with a few random pages turned down at the corner, and hand-grease rubbed on the binding to make it look used.

But that is the sum of its utility. Odd, because Ivan is just naturally interesting. Anybody who has "the Terrible" after his name is interesting. (And we'll skip the pedantic quibble about whether that's the proper translation of "Grozny." It's close enough.) Anybody who crucified entire towns because they got on his nerves would have to be interesting. Or so you'd think.

"Ivan the Terrible" - by Isabel de Madariaga Yale University Press, 2005

I tried starting at the beginning, and got stuck in academic hedges that never seemed to end. The author, Isabel de Madriaga, is an academic, an emeritus professor at the University of London. And like most academic writers, de Madariaga is much more concerned with protecting herself from attack by her colleagues than with interesting mere lay readers.

I understand the reasons for this defensive prose style. I used to be in the biznez myself, after all. But no more, thank God. And now that I don't have to write in this dreary manner, I find it impossible to read.

Then I tried using the index to jump into the text where it dealt with a topic I've always found particularly exciting: the Oprichnikii, Ivan's proto-Kommissars. These guys were pure Goth horror, riding into town with a broom on one side of their saddles and a dog's head on the other, signaling respectively their determination to clean the place up and their readiness to rend anyone who interrupted the big scrub.

So I went to the first mention of "Oprichnina" in Madriaga's index. And got this morbidly obese sentence:

"A 'bourgeois' historian stands out as bestriding the transition from anti-tsarist history to full-fledged Marxist history: S. Platonov developed the theory that Ivan set up the oprichnina in order to destroy the boyar and princely aristocracy and establish a new ruling class, the dependent military servitors, the future dvoriane, who served from the land and who would support the Tsar."

The content is familiar enough; I studied with Alex Yanov, who was preaching the inevitable destruction of Russian elites at UC Berkeley back in the late seventies. But the sentence defies reading, even for one comfortable with its topic. It starts within one academic squabble (the eternal Marxist question), then switches, with the pitiful assistance of a colon, on another, the "two elites'" problem. Not a very nice trick to play on one's readers.

And then there's the problem of introducing the Oprichnina itself, which de Madariaga doesn't bother to do.

But perhaps, I thought, I was being unfair. After all, this passage is from the Foreword, and all forewords, especially academic ones, are dubious creatures.

So I went through every entry for "Oprichnina." Not once does de Madariaga introduce the topic. It's not so much that she assumes the reader already knows about all the exciting aspects of these eldritch janissaries; it's almost as if she is so steeped in willed dullness that she can't risk mentioning any of their more exciting activities.

The first mention of the topic comes on page 179, at the end of a long paragraph on a different topic. And naturally, it does nothing to vivify, contextualize or explain this key term: "[Ivan] declared that he intended to set up an oprichnina for himself, carved out of his realm."

That's it.

Here are some topic sentences from the paragraphs that follow. Notice the way they avoid doing anything to elucidate the key term, "oprichnina," leading instead to mazy complications: "Ivan had now to set about implementing his plan for the oprichnina." "The special oprichnina dvor outside the Kremlin was a formidable building..." "The most important task before Ivan was the delimitation of his oprichnina."

This sort of writing is not just bad. It's intentionally bad. It's designed to be as bleak and uninviting as a rainy Sunday in Lurgan. That's the point: keeping lay readers away, ensuring that the book is so unpleasant that only those whose lives and reputations depend on it will manage to wade through its 500 pages of Sudd-like prose.

No doubt de Madariaga would say that she's a scholar, not a popularizer. But that argument is the favorite foxhole of those who have nothing to say, either to the public or to their colleagues. Scholars who actually have ideas want to communicate them. They write clearly because they want to be heard. Those who squirt impenetrable clouds of ink do so for same reason squid do.

The Slavic-history tweed-sacks nursing their pints at the Staff Lounge will no doubt applaud de Madariaga's ink-cloud. Like Wodehouse's "oldest member" saluting golfers who renounce all loyalties beyond the links, they always endorse writing that drives away outsiders, even though they themselves find it unreadable. So it's no surprise to find, on the back cover of this useless waste of woodpulp, an endorsement from Simon Sebag Montefiore, who singles out de Madariaga's "beautifully readable prose" for praise.

Well, Mr. Montefiore, I've said it before and I'll say it again: you're a liar. Now that A. N. Wilson's getting too old to churn out the Tory lies as quickly he used to, you may well be the king of the liars.

John Dolan is the author of Pleasant Hill, published by Capricorn Publishers. You can buy the book online or ask your local bookseller to get off his ass and order it.

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