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The Interview: Simon Sebag Montefiore on Red Sky at Noon

Posted on 16th July 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Moscow trilogy is a major achievement in contemporary fiction. Like its predecessors (One Night in Winter and Sashenka), Red Sky at Noon can be read as a standalone novel, but the full power of Montefiore’s narrative scope really should be experienced across the entire arc. Here the author explains the genesis of the novel’s key characters and his sympathy for a certain iconic genre of American writing.

Red Sky at Noon’s 10-day structure provides a series of windows into the action leading up to the siege of Stalingrad but rather than focusing on the city itself, considers other, far less well-known aspects of the war. To what extent did you want to give readers another perspective on the conflict from the one they may be familiar with?

This is a novel, an adventure story, a thriller and a romance and my first priority, my vision, is to create this fictional world of characters and drama. It is about how to live intensely, how to survive, how to find meaning especially for the two leading female characters who defy all the men in their lives to follow their hearts, and their passions. The ten day structure gives suspense and excitement but the reader knows too, that this is set in a real world of events, places and conflict that really happened and they may know some of the characters – this novel is part of the Moscow Trilogy of novels but you don’t need to have read any of the others.

It is July 1942, the battle of Stalingrad is just weeks away…  But this is set in a very different place – the steppes of the Don, the prairies of southern Russia, at the time when Hitler’s armies are charging across the hot open plains, assisted by his allies, the Italians and others, backed by his vicious SS killers. It is a time when, for a while, both sides turned to the horses – to cavalry – as their tanks overheated and ran out of fuel, and for some readers, there may be echoes of great Western fiction as this posse ride across the plains…  So yes, we meet the cavalry during the last moment in history when horses were vital in battle; we meet the Italians, deep in Russia, before they were wiped out at Stalingrad; we meet the Punishment Battalions set up Stalin in which Benya Golden fights with a crew of convicts and Cossacks. And we see Stalin himself as commander – but also as father to this errant daughter, Svetlana. All of these aspects are unknown to general readers so yes, the book is filled with new perspective on a familiar war and time. But at its heart this is a novel on love, on death, on courage, on how to live in desperate times. And an adorable horse of course… 

In Red Sky at Noon you return to some of the characters from your previous novels, Benya in particular. As the book progresses it becomes clear how much his character has been changed by his experiences, first in the gulag at Kolyma and then as a soldier; he goes from being a man who, as he puts it, knows ‘neither how to kill nor how to die’, to a man who becomes intimately acquainted with both. How important was it for creating an affinity between your readers and the experiences you describe to follow a character like Benya?    

This novel is all about the characters – of Benya Golden and of Fabiana, the Italian nurse.   Yes, Benya develops as a character from the playboy of the first novel in the trilogy, Sashenka, to the world weary damaged decent man of the last novel, One Night in Winter. In some ways Red Sky at Noon is the climax of his life, the way he develops from the crushed husk sent to the Gulags and almost destroyed by his tragedy – to the rider on the storm of WWII, who finds his toughness and endurance and savagery as a horseman in the cauldron of 1942.  In each book, he is a slightly different person… but I think he is always sympathetic.

You’re adept at highlighting the very different struggle for the disparate individuals on the front line from those observing events from the distant political enclave in Moscow. Why did you choose to give readers this split perspective?

War is all about those at the front and those at home.  Each are always thinking and worrying about the other. And that adds drama. The action in this novel is really at the front, on horseback where Benya, his riders and his new love, Fabiana, are living with terrifying and ferocious intensity… but it adds excitement that we, the reader, know what Stalin and later Hitler themselves think about the battle in which Benya is just a tiny cog. And of course we meet Svetlana Stalin who is a wonderful defiant and irrepressible character herself, filled with passion and hope, ready to fight her father. It adds to thrill that these two worlds coexist in parallel and constantly redirect each other in surprising and terrifying ways…

This is a novel which emphasises lives lived in the immediate present. As a reader you often feel you are living with these characters from breath to breath. At one point Melishko tells Benya, ‘how can we survive? Live just in the present, not in the past, not in the future, live minute by minute’, how important was creating that sense of immediacy to creating the atmosphere of this novel? Was it a very deliberate narrative approach?

Yes this novel gallops with breathless immediacy, breath to breath… to create the feel that the reader is living these terrible ten days with the characters, never sure what will come next, if they will survive the next minutes let alone days…

This novel is punctuated by some very dark and sinister characters. One of the things I found most effective was the development and evolution of the character of Kapto, ‘The Baby Doctor’. He’s an extremely complex character whose initial benevolence gives way to reveal something much more menacing. How much of a challenge was it to try and create figures of almost unbelievable brutality and make them believable figures?

Yes, you’re right – the novel is about what happens when decent people like Benya and Fabiana come into contact with some of the great monsters, whose monstrosity is unleashed by the war. Such characters such as Dr Kapto could only exist and thrive in the most terrible and cruel war ever fought by humanity:  it was fun and yet scary creating Kapto, the Baby Doctor who develops in the novel from saint to something unbelievably sinister…

In contrast, one of my favourite characters was the violent criminal boss, Jaba, and Benya’s memories of him and his pride in his ‘masterpiece’ bank robbery drama provide some surprising black humour. How did his character develop? Was he based on a real figure (or figures) you researched for the novel or did his character emerge solely as you were writing?

Yes, Jaba the Mafia boss in the Gulag camps is a fascinating character who is based on many of the real godfathers of crime who actually ruled those camps. In the novel, he provides black humour and colour too and his character really emerged as I was writing the book and yes, it’s funny that this bank robber gangster actually wants to be a great a writer…

There’s an impressive breadth of characters and perspectives in this novel and I felt that the inclusion of the characters of Stalin’s daughter Svetlana and Fabiana gave a refreshingly different sense of women’s lives at war. Fabiana in particular was a revelation – brave, reckless, impetuous and foolhardy, she is forced to re-evaluate the world from the romantic and literary idealism that brought her to Russia, yet her passion for life is infectious. To what extent were you driven to create characters in this novel who challenged literary stereotypes about women at war?

The female characters are my favourite in all my novels and in this one too: yes, Fabiana is an adorably passionate, impetuous and brave – and yes, a foolhardy and reckless person whose dreams are elevated and poetical, but who is disappointed in the path of her life – and somehow she comes to the war, the absurd Italian expedition to back Hitler against Russia, hoping to find meaning, to save her marriage, and instead disaster strikes… until she meets Benya Golden. For a short time she can live the dreams of her girlhood, the poems that she loved, her passion for life… And yes, she totally challenges the traditional characters of women at war. She is not passive. She is not dutiful, nor afraid. She is braver than the men but she pays the price and gets the prize for the way she has lived…  And Svetlana too is a revelation – this is very much based on the true story of Svetlana’s love affair that infuriated her father the dictator…

Some of the moments of greatest poignancy for me in the novel were those that reflected on the characters’ longing for someone to bear witness to their lives and experiences; for them not to be lost and forgotten. At one point Melishko tells Benya, ‘you must live to witness this, you before all others… you’re our only writer’. How important was it to you to have a character like Benya viewing the world he encounters not just as a witness but as a writer himself?

Many of my characters know they might die out there and they dream that they will be somehow remembered and so Benya, the writer, is suddenly important and when we see things through his eyes, we know he, as a writer, will see things normal observers would not see…

Writing itself, specific works of literature are vital to how the characters of this novel frame their experience – Montefalcone encountering a group of hanged bodies like the ‘last circle of Dant’s Inferno’, Benya comparing his experiences to The Last of the Mohicans and the landscape he encounters to reading Sholokhov. How aware were you when writing this book of how important novels are to shaping and colouring how people try to understand extraordinary and difficult experiences beyond their imagining?

Red Sky at Noon is an adventure and thriller but it also refers to many great works of literature that I have loved and that real characters at that time would have known very well.

Although this is ostensibly a novel of war, much of the action – the outlaw gang of convicted ‘Shtrafniki’ soldiers riding out across the hot grasslands of Russia for example - had much of the feel of a traditional Western and in your author’s notes you write that you felt the influence of that genre when writing Red Sky at Noon. It’s has a very different feel to your previous novels, what drew you towards creating that atmosphere?

Red Sky at Noon is in one way a Western on the Eastern Front, and a few riders, desperadoes and ruffians, riding alone across vast wildernesses in boiling heat, may give it the feel of a cowboy classic. I had this idea and it’s an original one, and hope the readers enjoy it. Yes I wanted to write something very different to the other two novels in the Moscow Trilogy… This book is more physical action, it’s more violent and the movement is sudden and surprising, and I wanted to write that sort of book.  It has the great love affair, it has the ominous figure of Stalin in Moscow, but really, we are living with this tiny posse of riders, their horses, the hot plains, the terrifying killers on both sides, the jerk of sudden events, the unleashing of grotesque monsters and all the time, the aspiration to stay alive, to survive, to do good, to preserve your humanity.  In some ways, this is a homage to the great Western writers such Larrry McMurtry of Lonesome Dove and others who understand that a Western adventure is sometimes a good way to look at what makes us humans different from the animals…  

I hope you enjoy this novel. I’ve loved writing it.

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