Autobiographies of academics tend to be unexciting, but this one is as brilliant and thought-provoking as Hobsbawm's scholarly works. His portraits of friends, his evocation of cities and countries, his commentary on social and cultural life, his reflections on his own career, his learned enthusiasm for jazz -- all of this makes for fascinating reading. Hobsbawm has sharp insights on the youth rebellion of 1968, Thatcherism, Gorbachev, the United States, and himself. (He writes, "I have been ... someone who does not wholly belong to where he finds himself," and therefore he has avoided "emotional identification with some obvious or chosen group" -- hence his dislike of "in-group history.") Especially vivid is his account of post-World War I, pre-Hitler Germany, where he lived as a boy. Few books so strikingly convey the atmosphere of turbulence and impending disaster that shaped the lives of inhabitants of, and refugees from, central Europe.
Most commentators, of course, focus on Hobsbawm's lifelong, unrepentant communism, despite his disappointment with communist regimes and the Communist Party. How could so intelligent a man uphold such an illusion? His answer is that he came to the ideology "as a Central European in the collapsing Weimar Republic ... when being a communist meant not simply fighting fascism but the world revolution." He "belonged to the generation tied by an almost unbreakable umbilical cord to hope" for such a revolution. Today, at 85, he persists: "Social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought. The world will not get better of its own." Hobsbawm has arresting things to say and forces us to pay attention.
Get the latest book reviews delivered right to your inbox.