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Tuesday 17 April 2018

Essay: Hobbyists, Writers, Academics, Journalists

Hilary Mantel is annoyed by those who ask silly questions at literary festivals – perhaps the problem is simply that intelligent question at a literary festival is an oxymoron – but, anyway, she is annoyed enough by the inane question Do you write every day? to want to snarl back, Of course I write every day, what do you think I am, some kind of hobbyist? I saw a chance when I read that in The Guardian, 16th April 2016.

As academics got themselves properly organised in the twentieth century they marked their territory in two important ways. They invented ways of expressing themselves which form what is now the superordinate genre of academic writing, its presence most obviously signalled by the literature review and by footnotes and Harvard-system bibliographies and bad writing. In doing this, they successfully marginalised the superordinate genre of belles lettres which had hitherto allowed anyone with the right social background and half an education to put pen to paper and tell you what they thought about, well, anything really but most obviously, the future of civilisation -  unarguably a topic about which we are all entitled to an opinion. T S Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) can serve as a familiar-enough example of such belles lettrism though when you look closely at it, it’s really rather clichéd and I have criticised it on this Blog [ 12 November 2012] for that and other reasons.

But academics did a second thing. Enabled by institutions which provided them secure livings with salaries and pensions, they were able to see off not only the belles lettristes but also the hobbyists who had pursued knowledge as a pastime which might or might not result in the occasional publication which might, occasionally, be a very good publication. But for hobbyists, their salaries and pensions were elsewhere and pursuit of those might occupy a good deal of time, certainly enough to inhibit daily writing. For me, the stand-out but already anachronistic hobbyist of the twentieth century is the Reverend W. Keble Martin, author and illustrator of The Concise British Flora in Colour. This is what Wikipedia says:

The Concise British Flora was published in May 1965 when the author was 88. The book was the result of 60 years' meticulous fieldwork and exquisite painting skills, and became an immediate best-seller. He completed over 1,400 paintings in colour and many black-and-white drawings before the book was finally published.

Nowadays, for any academic who allowed themself to think that they could be that late-flowering then a Research Assessment Exercise would prove a grim reaper. Ah, yes, Reverend, still working on that Flora are we? Perhaps you would be interested in our restructuring plan. Have you thought about early retirement? You’d have more time and we’d be shot of you.

Academics, as they have invented themselves and been invented by their hosts, are not only pushed into productivity but into gregariousness. They are more or less obliged to put themselves about, though when I look at online CVs I find it hard to believe that the obligations are quite so ferociously extensive. Believe the CVs, and it seems that academics are pedalling furiously simply to keep the aviation business airborne. As for all these editorial boards or the journals which enable them, some must surely be no more than Potemkin fronts designed to impress a passing benefactor; they surely can’t all be for real.

More importantly, I suspect this kind of gregariousness, made possible by the co-operation of others like you but combined into the competitive context of academic research, also leads to the kind of group-think which makes some university departments fairly indistinguishable from theological seminaries and political groupuscules, both completely sectarian in their thinking. True, it was only in the twentieth century that universities really sought to distinguish themselves from seminaries, hoisting the flag for the pursuit of truth in a context of tolerance, but there are many signs that they have become half-hearted about that pursuit and are now reverting to an older type of institution, one which valued conformity and distrusted difference and which doled out livings only to those who subscribed to the right articles of religion.

Some hobbyists are gregarious, but not all. Some are recluses and eccentrics and simply disappear from view into the bottomless pit of research they have selected: Who was Jack the Ripper? Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Who did Queen Victoria actually sleep with? But this is actually one of the reasons why hobbyists can be important. They don’t have any economic dependence which might push them towards conformity with any prevailing orthodoxy, they can decide for themselves what is important, and they can find their way into whatever research methodology they find comfortable.

Some journalists are able to free themselves up in the same kind of way and, even inadvertently, produce original work which stands up very well to academic scrutiny. So Svetlana Alexeivich who won the Nobel Prize for Literature isn’t in any obvious sense a hobbyist, but she is a single-minded journalist who has picked her own topics and invented her own methodology. She’s under no group pressure to conform, though she has often been under direct political pressure to mind what she does. A superficial assessment might conclude that she is simply an oral historian and that, of course, oral history is accepted and practised in the academic world. No need to make a fuss. But she isn’t just another oral historian. It is not only that she has sought out those who have hitherto had no voice – most obviously in The Unwomanly Face of War, a best-seller when originally published in a first, censored, version in 1985; the uncensored version appeared in English in 2017 and I reviewed it here on 5 September 2017 . It is also that she has a distinctive methodology, of her own invention. First, she sits and waits and listens patiently, just as a psychoanalyst might. Second, she won’t always take No for an answer. She’s respectful but not deferential – she has a job to do.  She’s not making polite tick-box enquiries. Third, if they cry she often cries too. She can’t help it. It’s why she’s doing the research in the first place. But it certainly helps along the research because those she interviews feel they can trust her. She cries too.

You might argue that, well, she could have done all that as a Professor at Minsk University. But that’s not true. She would not have had the same ideas and, even if she had, she would not have been permitted to pursue them in the conditions prevailing in the then USSR. The Unwomanly Face of War was completed in 1983, after years of research. It was turned down flat for publication because it undermined official narratives. Perestroika made it briefly acceptable, with some of the sex and violence taken out, but with the turning back of the clock in the former USSR, it is now once again not acceptable. Yet, you might say, all it does is to interview at length Soviet women (and girls – many falsified their ages to join up) who fought at the front in the Second World War. The Soviet academics of the 1970s? They weren’t interested. Alexeivich was an eccentric or a trouble-maker.

But she is morally serious, producing work which is polyphonic and  inter-textual with major cultural and political issues, and that may be typical for a journalist but not for a hobbyist. Hobbyists are often trying to get away from that kind of seriousness, interesting themselves in things on which the fate of civilisation most definitely does not hang – things which are exotic and obscure and, at least apparently, pointless. In contrast, it might be argued, even when it looks pointless, academic work at least tends to fit into some larger, over-arching and morally serious project.

I am not sure this argument will stand up. It doesn’t take long if you riffle through the Fellows of Oxbridge colleges or Fellows of the British Academy to find those who are pursuing pleasant hobbyist research into the pointless, but for the fact that they are salaried and the hobbies are hallowed by long tradition. Yet there are only so many Fragments of the Ancient World which can be regarded as significant, or so much seriousness of purpose which you can strain from a study of Virginia Woolf’s breakfast.

Twenty years ago, I took early retirement from university teaching and at the same time decided that I would supplement my income by becoming a stamp dealer. Though I don’t present myself as a particularly up-market one – I don’t have headed notepaper – I do now possess a fund of exotic, obscure and pointless hobbyist knowledge. If, for example, you should want to know whether an Armenian stamp from the period 1920 to 1923 is genuine, or the overprint genuine, or the postmark genuine – well, then I am one of the three or four go-to people in the world who will give you a reliable answer, often with a narrative attached – the postmaster at Basargechar was an idle fellow who never cleaned his canceller and so, yes, this dirty smudged postmark you are showing me is most likely genuine because that is how they all look. In contrast, if you had shown me a cancellation of Novo-Bayazet, I would expect it to be crisp and clear – conscientious chap there.

But just as you could put Virginia Woolf’s breakfasts into a wider context, so I could set my pointless knowledge into a wider context which would, for example, point to the renewal of postal activity in 1922 – 23 as evidence for some success on the part of the Bolsheviks in turning around the country from the low point to which it had descended in the period 1918 – 21. I could also point to the evidence of ideological change which meant that for 1922 – 23 you can no longer find stamps cancelled as a favour for collectors and dealers, whereas in 1920, that is pretty much all you can find. The Bolsheviks chased the speculators from the post offices, if they had not already fled the country.

But a difference remains. You can get a Ph D for setting Virginia Woolf’s breakfast into a larger context; it is not clear that you could get one for expanding on the tale in the previous paragraph. The former is High knowledge, the latter too Low. And if there is one thing which surely separates academics from hobbyists, it is snobbery – snobbery of similar kind to that which has Hilary Mantel dismissing the non-professional writer who doesn’t write every day.

The modern forms of snobbery are quite varied and include the self-righteousness of young academics who think they are radical or subversive or cutting-edge and consequently will only to reply to emails from people whose names and affiliations they recognise. They know who their Facebook Friends are and that’s what really matters.

But I have my own snobberies. I can’t quite take seriously my knowledge of Armenian postal history because much of it – not all of it - is second-hand. I haven’t done the archival research, both collateral and essential, for the obvious reason that I don’t read Armenian. I have to rely on the work of the late Professor Christopher Zakiyan who was a Soviet-era musicologist in his day job and a philatelist in his hobby-time. He researched the Armenian archives in Yerevan – no mean feat – and found many documents which cast a great deal of light on the work of the Armenian post office in the years after World War One and he published his work in Russian and some of it in English.

But the fact that I couldn’t make sense of the archives consigns me to being a researcher of the second-rank, except in those areas which do not require knowledge of the Armenian language. For example, I have re-constructed the printing history of one series of Armenian stamps purely forensically: you don’t need the archives to study the sheet formats, the paper, the gum, and so on. You need the stamps in front of you.

But universities are also full of researchers of the second-rank. A few years ago, I advertised to employ someone as an assistant on editing some of my earlier academic work for re-publication. I did not hesitate to interview someone who had completed a Ph D on a French post-structuralist thinker, only to discover during the interview that they did not read French. Well, I thought, surely that’s essential if you are writing about a living thinker who writes in French, not least because without that ability you have no access to the untranslated secondary literature in French. However good the translations of your subject may be, you are still limited in what you can achieve and in a Ph D there should be such a  prior constraint on the limits of your achievement.

That thought might get a Hear! Hear! from academics who are adepts at working in the original languages. But I am willing to qualify my snobbery. The original language matters less if you are, for example, a philosopher trying to engage with an argument which can be fairly well expressed in translation and which has already been fairly extensively discussed in languages other than the original. So if someone wanted to write a Ph D on Frege’s theory of Numbers in relation to his theory of language, I would not absolutely insist that they learnt German first - though I would say that they really had to look seriously into the nuances of meaning of Sinn and Bedeutung in German as well as in their English translations as Sense and Reference, and I would do that because I had somewhere read (in English) that this was probably going to be relevant.

But in arguing along these lines, I do incidentally weaken the snobbish belief that academics do it better. There will be hobbyists who outsmart them for purely chance reasons: they grew up bi-lingual, for example, or they travelled with a circus so have a head start in understanding circus life.

Ah, but what about Methodology? Isn’t the real problem with hobbyists that they are methodologically naïve? Well, I am sure many are – just as are many academics, those for example who still conduct banal and pointless psychology experiments. I’ll agree that many hobbyists are heavily into making lists, accumulating facts, and not doing much more than assembling a cabinet of curiosities even if they title a work A History of Victorian Lamp Posts ( I hope there isn’t one; I don’t want to upset anyone). But it’s not inevitable and it is not a distinguishing mark which leaves all academics comfortably on the other side of the line. For some academics, methodological sophistication does not rise above playing safe with the routines of academic writing.

Review: Jordan B Peterson, 12 Rules for Life. An Antidote to Chaos

To get to this book, you have first to get past the brand. There is @jordanbpeterson on Twitter; Dr Jordan B Peterson on Facebook; and Jordan PetersonVideos  on YouTube. The book itself is copyrighted to Luminate Psychological Services Ltd, which is not promising.

This book of the brand has been launched in the UK with a front cover endorsement which characterises Peterson as One of the most important thinkers to emerge on the world stage for many years. But since this endorsement comes from a small London-centric magazine, The Spectator, it is not very persuasive. For The Spectator one suspects that the world stage is conveniently located just round the corner. Couldn’t the publisher have come up with something more convincing?

So there is a Brand and I thought of Dale Carnegie and Billy Graham as I read the book; towards the end, the author introduces Charles Atlas and so then I had a trio of names linked to self-help brands, the Charles Atlas link supported by the author’s strong-jawed photograph.

Self-help books are not bad in themselves; but they sometimes get submerged under self-promotion and, of course, under hype and inflation of their claims. At many points, I wanted to give up reading but my rule is that I can only review a book if I get to the end; so I got to the end.

There are strong passages in the book and unusual insights. I was not really troubled by the author’s intelligent and consistent Christian conservatism and I agreed with him almost completely in his critique of post-modernist/post-structuralist university work in the humanities and social sciences, much of which now amounts to nothing much more than badly-written Sunday school piety backed up with an unpleasant morality police. I also thought his Rule 11 “Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding”  nicely and powerfully persuasive. I think he likes children and that is always a big plus.

But the weakness of the book arises from what I shall call the author’s violations of Occam’s Razor. Applied to the present work, Occam’s Razor would advise you to use only the arguments necessary to establish your conclusions. To get to the conclusion that it is healthy to start the day with a good fry-up breakfast (page 18), you probably don’t need to back it up with Biblical exegesis or a disquisition on Heideggerian Being. But the book is larded with such exegesis and disquisition, much of it repetitive as if the chapters have been written independently and not checked for duplication of material. There are only so many times I want to read the Moral which can be derived from the story of Cain and Abel.

The Rules do interlink and place emphasis on the importance of taking responsibility for oneself, for trying to improve oneself, for being honest with self and others, for accepting the fact that it is a background of order which can convert its opposite, chaos, into meaningful creativity and progress. A theme emerges which is about coming to terms with the limitations which suffering and death impose on us and I think what he says is carefully considered, thought-provoking and helpful. I think it could be pulled out to make a much shorter book on that single theme. I might well read that, but not another 400 rather repetitive pages like those which we have here. And he should get rid of Luminate Psychological Services.

Friday 30 March 2018

Advertisement: Trevor Pateman, Silence Is So Accurate

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This morning I see that on Amazon  there are copies of my 2017 hardback book of essays Silence Is So Accurate for under a pound.  They are probably review copies which have been passed on. The RRP is £20. I can't compete and suggest you take advantage.

Sunday 25 March 2018

Review: Julian Maclaren-Ross, Of Love and Hunger

This was a pick from a Waterstones table, almost random but influenced by the fact that it is set on the part of the English south coast where I live. It was originally published in 1947, when the author was thirty five, and was upgraded to a Penguin Modern Classic in 2002 with an introduction by D J Taylor.

I don’t think it really cuts it as a Classic of its kind, though it is entirely within a grim English sea- side resort in the 1930s genre. There’s not much work about, not much money either, even if you have some education and some start in life from your social class but have messed up on that. Got drunk once too often, hit someone, stole something.

Boarding houses provide cheap and exasperating lodging, booze and fags some relief, and there is adultery if you can get it and Maclaren-Ross’s first person narrator does. He’s come back from the East, where he’s messed up, and is down on his uppers flogging vacuum cleaners door to door. 

What stops the novel crossing out of its time and place is the style. Even though the narrator Fanshawe is an ex-public schoolboy he writes in a vernacular which, probably inaccurately, I think of as cheeky chappie trilby. Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt, Can’t say fairer than that. It could be called telegraphese but telegraphese can be more witty: Telegram enquires How old Cary Grant? Telegram goes back: Old Cary Grant fine, how old you?

Maclaren-Ross is not a humorous writer, more an angry one – though at thirty five I guess he can’t sneak into an angry young man genre. He does write in an open and frank manner; it’s not a Sunday school book and that is a strength. There’s a cast of characters (who segue into Characters) which is really too large but a simple plot which is stuck to. The title's a bit pretentious but I suppose you couldn't call it The Year I Sold Vacuum Cleaners in Bognor Regis.

Not much more to say, really. Not my cup of tea. Time for a walk down to the Pier now.

Sunday 11 March 2018

Review: Denise Riley, Impersonal Passion

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Since I stopped teaching in 2000, I don’t have to read anything. I make my own choices. In practice, for new books it means being guided by what I read about in reviews and by what I see on the Waterstones tables. For old books, it means reading what I feel I ought to have read or want to read again. But the desire for ease and familiarity surely keeps me away from some authors – ones I have never got to grips with, etc - and more generally from very long books. In addition, the anxiety of influence keeps me away from books which I think might deal in the same topics as I am currently trying to think about. I want to have my shot at them first.

That, of course, is a distinctly non-academic way of thinking and a very risky one too: in all likelihood, someone else has already taken the same shot as I am aiming for - and been shot to pieces, too.

In the arts and humanities, academic thinking and writing carved out its niche by insisting that you read other people’s work first and, ideally, to the point of exhaustion. You could then write a literature survey, groaning under the weight of the footnotes and Bibliography attached, before trying (ideally) to turn a small trick of your own at the end, essentially  a small step up your career ladder. In many cases, you simply pointed out other people’s mistakes and omissions. In practice, the results were often unreadable and, deservedly, pretty much unread. Life had been so much more fun in the days of belles lettres when anyone with leisure and the ability to turn a phrase could write an essay about anything they pleased – and publish it! If it means I can do as I please, I am all in favour of belles lettres. True, I don’t expect anyone else to pay me.

Though I knew Denise Riley as a fellow-student in the 1960s and 1970s – she designed the cover for my first book Language, Truth and Politics (1975) – I kept a distance from her later work, partly because of the anxiety of influence and partly because I suspected it would be Too French for me. Recently, I decided it was long overdue for me to take a look at what she had been up to in the past forty years.

Her short (I liked that) book of essays Impersonal Passion, published in 2005, was a very pleasant surprise. I enjoyed it, found it accessible, thought it dealt deftly with the problems which surely arise (even more so now) when you try to engage with issues contentious within academic feminisms and where there is at least some pressure to go for safety in numbers. At moments, it is very funny, though Riley only occasionally lets herself enjoy the pleasure - notably in the essay “Your Name Which Isn’t Yours.”  Finally  – this was no surprise – it is exceptionally well written, everywhere turns of phrase to die for.

There are footnotes and heavy-duty books cited, and Riley knows an awful lot of stuff, but the visible apparatus is slight compared to the evidence of Stakhanovite effort traditionally displayed in  heavy-duty academic writing. 

I think this book of essays belongs to belles lettres not to academic prose, and that is all to the good as far as I am concerned, though the question  is legitimate whether the production of belles lettres is the proper business of universities.

When I say belles lettres, I am not just congratulating the author on her abilities as a writer. For example, as one part of the evidence, a lot of the time she uses indirection – not an academic trope at all - to come at central controversies in culture and politics by means of small, everyday examples which may not seem to have much to do with the public domain unless you, the reader, make the connection – Riley often indicates the links but never harangues us about them. So she writes about how difficult it is to tell the truth using a conventional formula often deployed to lie; about the ways and by-ways in which your own name is, well, not really yours because someone else gave it you and you just put up with it; about the odd persistence of hurtful words which seem to have a much longer life than real bruises; about the querulous questions Why? and Why Me?  All this is done both delicately and probingly. She avoids overt autobiography and I think this may still be an academic inhibition – once you allow autobiography into academic writing, anything goes. So she uses “she” to give third person examples where as a post-academic I would at least feel free to use “I”.

Belles lettres has its own weak points. If you can write well, you can always spin things out so that you go on and on making a point not because that is the way to make a point but because you have been asked for five thousand words. Traditionally, the genre of belles lettres did not stoop to include political or religious tracts. It was meant to seduce rather than harangue and though the controversial was not excluded, whimsy was accommodated rather more easily and that was a weakness in the genre and directly related to the social class of both likely writer and likely reader, free of the pressing worries which were addressed by the tract.

I see I am on 876 words;  I used to write a thousand automatically in these circumstances of a book review. So I’ll tell you that I thought of an example which perfectly demonstrates Riley’s claim in chapter Six, that we often tie ourselves and others in knots if we try to tell the truth with a conventional formula.

Somewhere in the world, there is a person whose dog once ate their homework. Next day, they went to school …. The sensible thing would have been to LIE, it would have caused so much less anguish all round.

Tuesday 27 February 2018

Essay: Are You An Academic In A Hurry? Be Prepared to Wait Twenty Five Years

Academic work is a slow business, academic publishing was always crushingly slow, and the reception of academic work even slower. The chronology which follows may give dubious comfort to those who wonder if there will ever be a day when …

Academic year 1971 – 1972: As a Leverhulme scholar, I attend lectures by Claude Lévi-Strauss at the Collège de France in Paris. He takes as his subject for the year the plastic art of the American / Canadian North West coast Indian tribes. I take notes.

1975: The Geneva publisher Albert Skira publishes an elegant, heavily illustrated two volume work based on the lectures titled La Voie des Masques

1979: The Paris publisher Plon publishes a cheaper one volume version which I buy

1982: A Vancouver publisher brings out a translation by Sylvia Modelski titled The Way of the Masks

1983: The London publisher Jonathan Cape brings out Modelski’s translation, and I buy it.

1984: The editor of a student magazine published by the Philosophy Society at the University of Sussex, where I am teaching, asks me to contribute something and I do a review/essay based on Modelski’s translation and title it “The Dialogue of  Masks”. The journal is called Aletheia and my essay appears in issue 4, pages 16 – 22. I argue that in relation to the standard structuralist formula A:B::C:D (A is to B as C is to D) there is a missing fourth term in Lévi-Strauss’s analysis. You would be very lucky to find a copy of this journal!

2003: I add the 1984 article, with a few small changes, to my academic website which at the time was unusual in allowing free download access to unabridged work

2009: In a Serbian journal published in French, Problèmes d’ethnologie et d’anthropologie, nouvelle série, vol. 4, nr. 2, pp 121 -134, Senka Kovač  publishes an article “Claude Lévi-Strauss: le masque et le mythe” which includes an extensive summary of my essay: for example,  seven paragraphs begin with the word “Pateman”. I come across this article in 2017

2012: In a French journal Gradhiva, published by the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, Baptiste Gille publishes a long essay (pages 216 – 39) “Le visage des Bébés des eaux et des Gens du ciel. Nouvelles perspectives sur les masques swaihwé”.This also makes some use of my 1984 essay. I come across this article in 2017

But for the Internet, this little piece of work - just a few pages -  would never have lived: the student journal publication could be reckoned as a bit like auto-destructive art. Since website publication in 2003, it has been discussed twice, but the first time in  2009 was twenty five years after the original 1984 publication.

I'm still hoping that one day the hours sweated on "Liberty, Authority and the Negative Dialectics of John Stuart Mill" will be rewarded by  a reader :)

Monday 5 February 2018

Review Philippe Sands, East West Street

I don’t usually provide quotable quotes about books I read but I have to say of this one that it is an extraordinary achievement, both in terms of the research on which it is based and the narrative manner in which it is presented. The main text runs to 387 pages, readable throughout. Sands recounts the history of his mother’s family; the history of two great international lawyers (Hersch Lauterpacht, Rafael Lemkin); the life and crimes of Hans Frank, governor of German-occupied Poland; the story of the Nuremberg trials and something of their  aftermath. He holds it all together by constant references back to Lemberg / Lwow/ Lvov /Lviv the city in Austrian Galicia where his grandfather Leon Buchholz and the two lawyers, Lauterpacht and Lemkin, were born and later the site of some of the worst Nazi crimes.

Lauterpacht gave us the expression “crimes against humanity” and Lemkin gave us the term “genocide”. One of the main achievements of this book is to make us think about what those things mean and how they have different implications for law and politics. In particular, Sands points out dangers involved in focusing on crimes against groups (genocide) rather than crimes against individuals, however large their number (crimes against humanity). There are not only the problems of proving intent to destroy a group as such, but also the danger that the idea of genocide re-enforces habits of thinking and acting by using categories which themselves are part of the problem. Though he does not draw it out, it is obvious that if the word “genocide” had never been used then Armenia and Turkey might have progressed much farther towards a resolution of  their century-old dispute than they have. But the Armenians insist they were victims of a genocide and the Turks do not want to accept responsibility for one, though they are clearly willing to acknowledge all or most of the main narrative of mass deportation, starvation and killing. One of the stumbling blocks is the fact that Turkey in World War One saw the Armenian population in its eastern parts as likely to favour enemy Russia over their own Ottoman rulers. That gave rise to military anxieties about fifth columns,  similar to those which led Stalin to organise mass deportations. But those deportations were not significantly driven by racial theorising. 

The archival research which Sands has conducted or directed is astonishing, and the reader must surely come to think that if only you persist long enough with your Google searches and your actual visits to people and places you will eventually turn up the truth. The remarkable chapter on Miss Tilney of Norwich, who took Sands’ mother from Vienna to Paris, is a handproof of that claim and within the book itself it reads like a polished gem of the archival researcher’s craft. It is all the more remarkable that Sands is working on questions where the archival evidence has so often been destroyed by war, neglect, sell-offs and looting - Sands does not mention that in the 1990s when the Soviet Union became the Wild East, chunks of Lemberg archive material were either sold off to cover things like building repairs and staff salaries or looted by new-style small entrepreneurs who paid bribes for easy access to material. I don't know the details of the transactions involved, but I have seen lots of  the archive material,  low-grade it's true but still part of a history which had been preserved for decades until the Soviet Union imploded. 

I think I will have a hard task to find a more impressive book to read in 2018 and for once the jacket endorsements (led off by John le Carré) are entirely justified.