A family’s complicated past recounted in exacting detail.
Beginning with a long interview with his aging father, Mazower (History/Columbia Univ.; Governing the World: The History of an Idea, 2012, etc.) launched an investigation into his family’s history, mining letters, diaries, photographs, extensive archival material, and memoirs by some of the many individuals who touched his family’s life. Central to the story is the author’s paternal grandfather, Max, who had been a militant activist in pre-revolutionary Russia. As a member of the leftist Bund, Max strived for nothing less than “political transformation,” and he suffered the consequences of his beliefs: police surveillance, imprisonment in Siberia, and exile in Switzerland and Germany. “He had been on the run, arrested, and questioned many times over,” Mazower discovered, “and he had sacrificed the prospect of domesticity for the cause of socialism.” In 1909, however, he fled from persecution to seek a job in England as a salesman for a typewriter company. Although he traveled back to Russia in that capacity, he made a permanent home in London, where he married and where his children—including Mazower’s father—were born. Max and his wife were members of the “the turn-of-the-century Russian-Jewish intelligentsia,” who welcomed those who shared their “consuming interest in public questions and public activities.” No longer an activist, Max remained “still engaged, highly informed, and faithful” to socialist values. Mazower’s father also “found political engagement invigorating,” and his friends “tended to be joined under the banner of a higher purpose” even though he spent his career “as a middle manager in one sector of a vast multinational company.” His life, concludes the author, was marked by pragmatism, resilience, and “the pursuit of contentment and well-being.” Through dogged research, Mazower uncovered details about his father’s half brother and half sister, myriad other relatives, teachers, friends, acquaintances, classmates, and a host of individuals whose capsule biographies he duly reports. Although some—T.S. Eliot and Emma Goldman, for example—are well-known and many interesting, the sheer number becomes overwhelming.
A simultaneously sweeping and intimate family portrait.