Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jimmy Connors, Jonathan Sperber and Sarah Churchwell.

The Outsider: My Autobiography by Jimmy Connors

The no-holds-barred autobiography of the notorious, yet talented tennis star. The book charts his rise from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ to Grand Slam glory. It is an unflinching account of life at the top and his journey there which has divided critics.

Tim Adams at The Guardian is unimpressed: “The Outsider has little of the tortured introspection of the best example of the genre, Andre Agassi's Open, or the self-aware wit of McEnroe's Serious. In its place is an examination of a legendary American pugnaciousness, which veers often, authentically, into boorishness or sentimentality.”

Writing for the New York Times, Peter Lattman also compares the book to Agassi’s “groundbreaking” memoir. It does not fare well. Lattman contends that the book does no favours for Connors, doing nothing "to dispel his reputation as a narcissistic, selfish loner.” He goes on to quip that the book is “in many ways, like Connors himself: irreverent and amusing, but not very ­likable.”

Julian Hall at The Independent is more positive: “I guarantee that after reading Jimmy Connors' autobiography you will want to pick something up and smash it. A tennis ball to be precise, and in a good way, not in a fit of pique.” For Hall The Outsider is best described as “a conversational and occasionally coy memoir.”

Karl Marx: a Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber

An account of the life of Karl Marx which seeks to place the revolutionary thinker in a human context and distance his humanity from the polemical machine that emerged from and surround his work.

Tristram Hunt, writing for The Guardian, worries that to “distance him from present controversies about globalisation and capitalism... risks a predominantly Atlanticist perspective.” Sperber places Marx in perspective as a journalist struggling with the intellectual trends and social issues of his time, a task which yields “a compelling and convincing account.”

A review in The Telegraph by Ben Wilson heralds Sperber’s book as “refreshingly free from the dogma and partisan passion which bedevilled discussions of the great man,” and goes on to praise the detail used by Sperber to animate Marx’s education, upbringing, development and love life, saying “Marx breathes in these pages.”

For Jonathan Freedland at The New York Times, the Marx who emerges from Sperber’s account “will be unnervingly familiar to anyone who has had even the most fleeting acquaintance with radical politics.” Freedland feels that in contrast to his stature, the man himself is far from the “timeless Marx,” and speculates that were he alive today, Marx “would be a compulsive blogger, and picking Twitter fights with Andrew Sullivan and Naomi Klein.”

Careless People by Sarah Churchwell

In this document of social and literary history, author Churchwell rests The Great Gatsby on its possible real-life underpinnings; the 1922 murder of a wealthy Episcopalian minister and his down-at-heels mistress. Critical opinions differ on whether this construction holds up.

In his appraisal for The London Review of Books, Thomas Powers remains skeptical. He writes that “Churchwell might have justified her approach in either of two ways; by telling the Hall-Mills story with full treatment of the human drama,” or by arguing convincingly that Fitzgerald followed the case. He cedes Churchwell neither point; of the first strategy, he says “she treats the case more like a running joke,” and of the second, he simply sees no strong argument to claim that Fitzgerald was paying attention and that her thesis is, at best, “a weak maybe.”

Writing for The Guardian, Robert McCrum decides that Churchwell’s literary investigation “has come closer than most to unpicking the enduring mystery of Fitzgerald and his evergreen masterpiece,” and further praises Careless People as “a glittering diamond of brevity less than 60,000 words long.” He cautions that “the problem with forging a cast-iron relationship between life and art is that it can become absurdly reductive.”

In his review for The Telegraph, however, Nicholas Blincoe says of Careless People that "it rewinds the years and allows the reader to appreciate again just how well he reflected his times." McCrum is ultimately drawn in by the literary values inherent in Churchwell’s storytelling, though, and decides that “Churchwell’s decision to link them would seem preposterous if it did not work: it underscores again the essential messiness of the times, while providing a narrative structure to her patchwork account of the age.” 

Connors autobiography does nothing "to dispel his reputation as a narcissistic, selfish loner." Photography: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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