In 1977 E.H. Carr completed his 14-volume History of Soviet Russia. He had embarked on an intellectual day excursion but found himself on a major expedition through a dark continent of knowledge. He had originally intended - as far back as 1944 - to spend no more than three years in the field. It turned out to be thirty-three. After such an achievement, after such exertions, any ordinary human being might have felt that enough was enough, and faded into a well-deserved retirement, tending roses at home in Barton, pottering about Great Court, Trinity College, Cambridge, a living legend spied by earnest young undergraduates. But Carr had a voracious appetite for hard work. Occasionally in his twilight years he would lament the passing of time; he would worry about the fate of those aged fellows whose minds had failed before their bodies expired; he would interrogate the bewildered optician about the reasons for his failing eyesight (old age!) and bemoan his inability to work as much as before. 'Well, how many hours did you work?' I once ventured, hoping for direct insight into his working day. 'Oh, all the time' came the laconic response. Conversation with Carr was never particularly easy. His need for a nap after lunch and his inability to work at all after dinner scarcely seemed to hold up production. There was, however, one real obstacle he had to confront by the early Seventies: many of his sources were inaccessible - usually at the newspaper library in Colindale, North London, and, as everyone knows who has had to trek out there on windswept winter mornings, flask and sandwiches in hand, this is no place for an old man. Carr was, as he acknowledged, 'extremely lucky in having the help of Tamara Deutscher' in completing the History. This help also became essential to the work which followed - The Twilight of Comintern 1930-35 - and to the project which remained sadly incomplete when he died in November 1982: a history of the Comintern's demise, from 1935 to 1943 (which gives the lie to the assertion that he deliberately avoided work on the late Thirties).
LRB 4 April 1985 | PDF Download