Add to researchRobert Harris
- Fiction, Non-Fiction
Robert Harris was born in Nottingham in 1957, later studying English at Cambridge University.
He was a TV correspondent for the BBC and has also worked as a columnist for the London Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph, and as Political Editor for The Observer. He was named 'Columnist of the Year' in the 2003 British Press Awards.
As well as several non-fiction books, including Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries (1986), he is the author of six novels: Fatherland (1992), set in 1964 in Berlin; Enigma (1995), set in World War II; Archangel (1998), set in present day Russia; Pompeii (2003), a dramatisation of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79; Imperium (2006), the first of a trilogy of novels about Cicero; and The Ghost (2007), narrated by a professional ghost writer.
Robert Harris lives in Berkshire. His novel Enigma, about the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, was made into a feature film directed by Michael Apted, from a script by Tom Stoppard. Archangel, the story of a historian on the trail of Stalin's secret diaries, was adapted for BBC Television in 2005, starring Daniel Craig.
Pompeii has recently been adapted for film by the author, and will be directed by Roman Polanski.
Robert Harris is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His latest novel is Lustrum (2009), the second in the Cicero trilogy, shortlisted for the 2010 Walter Scott Prize.
A former Political Editor of The Observer and reporter on the BBC’s Newsnight and Panorama programmes, Robert Harris made the transition to writing fiction with the publication of Fatherland in 1992.
It was an immediate success. Since then he has written a further five novels, Enigma (1995) Archangel (1998), Pompeii (2003), Imperium (2006) and The Ghost (2007). His books have sold in their millions and been translated into 30 languages. Whether recreating Ancient Rome or speculating on possible versions of history, Harris has the enviable skill of being able to make compelling fictions, fusing his storytelling instinct with his fascination for the great game of politics. He has a clear, direct style and a respect for traditional narrative convention. He has little interest in metafiction and extravagant language. Instead, he prefers to foreground the significance of story, the pure pleasure of a tale well told, and it is his gift for the generation of narrative tension which has helped place him amongst the ranks of the most accomplished of modern thriller writers.
Harris’ debut novel Fatherland is set in 1964, with a post-war Europe dominated by the victorious Nazi party. Germany presides over a twelve-nation union, while many countries in the East have been subsumed within the Greater German Reich. Britain has sued for peace and Russia, as far as Moscow, has been defeated. It is the year of Hitler’s 75th birthday and nothing must be allowed to come in the way of the celebrations. While investigating a drowning, Xavier March, a disillusioned SS officer, uncovers a trail which will ultimately lead him directly to the secret extermination of Europe’s Jews. A brilliant exercise in alternative history and arguably Harris’ most satisfying novel to date, the chill of Fatherland comes from its entirely plausible recreation of a world in which Hitler is triumphant. The Third Reich is evidently of great interest to Robert Harris. Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries (1983), a fascinating account of the farce surrounding the Hitler diaries hoax, reminds us of the ongoing struggle of contemporary Germany to rid itself of its past and the pull of the Nazi party.
Harris stayed with the Second World War for Enigma, a novel inspired by the cracking of the German U-Boat code at Bletchley Park. It deals with a group of brilliant individuals – full of the customary quirks and eccentricities we mortals like our intellectual gods to possess – who work together in a cauldron of intellectual stimulus and complete secrecy. Harris has described the achievements of what was known as Station X as ‘the most successful sustained intelligence effort in the history of warfare,’ and, in light of this remark, his novel might be read as a paean to the codebreakers’ achievements. For the central narrative thrust of the novel, the author takes an actual incident. For a week in March 1943 the British lost the ability to read Enigma just as the biggest two war convoys were leaving New York. The frantic race to recover the means to read the code provides the backdrop for the tale of Tom Jericho, a frail and naïve young man who has to deal with intense working conditions and uncover the mystery behind his girlfriend’s sudden disappearance.
Set largely in contemporary Moscow, Archangel, Harris’ third novel, is suffused with the ghosts of Russia’s totalitarian past and the fragility of its democratic present. The book tells the story of Fluke Kelso, a dissolute historian on a quest for Stalin’s secret papers, the discovery of which he hopes will make his academic reputation. His investigations lead him to the remote, ice-chill forests of the White Sea Port of Archangel, and the discovery of Joseph Stalin’s final secret. Harris based his protagonist on the notorious Norman Stone, former Professor of Modern History at Oxford and, like his real life template, Kelso is engaging, wilful, impassioned and irreverent. However, what lingers in the mind is not so much Harris’ fictional creations, as the following sentence: ‘Stalin stands in a historical tradition of rule by terror, which existed before him, which he refined, and which could exist again. His, not Hitler’s, is the specter that should worry us.’ This is the political journalist in Harris speaking. Like the great master, John Le Carré, Harris seeks to tilt the historical glass to see how the light shines. In giving narrative form to his preoccupations, he does, in his best work, satisfy readers on two counts: he provides well-crafted entertainment and invites serious reflection on matters of immense significance.
Harris’ Pompeii, the first of his books to bring the ancient world alive, is reminiscent of Enigma in that it takes a specific place and imaginatively recreates it. However, Pompeii is a far more adventurous novel in that it attempts to reconstruct an entire world in all its luxuriousness and power, a world which might be remote to us in time, but one which of course evokes inevitable comparisons with the modern-day United States. Although the complete destruction in AD 79 of the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum is familiar to us from our schooldays, no British writer has tackled the subject since Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii in the mid-19th century. Harris’ portrait of local corruption and the extraordinary feats of Roman engineering is extremely impressive. The reader might be aware of how the book will end, but such is Harris’ way with the accumulated anxieties of suspense that the explosive finale comes almost as a surprise.
In 2006 Harris published Imperium, the first part of a proposed trilogy of books about Cicero, the great Roman statesman and orator. The novel is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s amanuensis, secretary, assistant and confidante, who tells of his master’s attempt to win control of Ancient Rome. ‘It is of power and the man that I shall sing,’ Tiro says at the beginning of the novel. ‘By power, I mean official, political power – what we know in Latin as imperium – the power of life and death, as vested in an individual.’ Imperium is recognizably a Robert Harris novel: there is the careful plotting; the natural ease with historical setting; the great breadth of reference. However, there are moments in Imperium when the language jars. At one point Tiro describes Cicero as having to ‘put up with the taunt that he was a draft dodger.’ The phrase shatters the illusion of time and place, as Harris thrusts the mirror that is being held up to the contemporary world far too close to the reader’s face. Nevertheless, it is an acute and illuminating analysis of political psychology and therefore of great interest to anyone wishing to understand the mindset of those who seek power.
If it is tempting to read Imperium as an ironic comment on modern America then it is impossible not to view The Ghost, Harris’ most recent novel, as being a (very) thinly disguised attack on Tony Blair. When a cynical ghostwriter is hired to ghost the memoirs of ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang – who has ‘elevate(d) the clichés of politics by the sheer force of his performance’ – he soon finds himself involved in a Machiavellian mess. Lang, ensconced on Martha’s Vineyard and feeling the loss of power, has been accused of having allowed for the transfer of British citizens to Guantanamo Bay. Cue a sustained (fictionalized) indictment of the people involved in running the world into ever darker areas these last seven years. That Harris feels cheated by Blair, a man to whom he once gave his support, is clear. But does this make for a good novel? I am not convinced. The Ghost feels like the work of an insulted intelligence looking for a form to wrap its rage inside. As an attack on the kind of self-indulgence and contempt for ordinary people that many politicians display, the novel is weak. It also feels as if it was written too quickly. However, even though it is a thin piece of work if compared with the best of Harris’ fiction, it is still a fast-paced and enjoyable novel, with the twists and excitement readers have come to expect from this author.
Garan Holcombe, 2008
- Lustrum, Hutchinson
- The Ghost, Hutchinson
- Imperium, Hutchinson
- Pompeii, Hutchinson
- Archangel, Hutchinson
- Enigma, Hutchinson
- The Media Trilogy, Contents: Gotcha: The Media, The Government and The Falklands Crisis; Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries'; Good and Faithful Servant: the Unauthorised Biography of Bernard Ingham', Faber and Faber
- Fatherland, Hutchinson
- Good and Faithful Servant: The Unauthorised Biography of Bernard Ingham, Faber and Faber
- Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries, Faber and Faber
- The Making of Neil Kinnock, Faber and Faber
- Gotcha: The Media, the Government and the Falklands Crisis, Faber and Faber
- A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret Story of Gas and Germ Warfare, with Jeremy Paxman, Chatto & Windus
- Walter Scott Prize, Lustrum, shortlist
- British Book Awards Popular Fiction Award, The Ghost, shortlist
- Whitbread First Novel Award, Fatherland, shortlist