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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How "cultural terrorism" became a matter of international law

The destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu became a landmark case for cultural terrorism.

When Hegel said of Africa in Lectures on the Philosophy of History that it was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, he was lamenting the perceived lack of a European-style Enlightenment on the continent. Today, we know better. The region south of the Sahara, in particular, is rightly regarded as one of the intellectual centres of the world, with the 13th to the 17th centuries an especially fertile period for the production of its celebrated manuscripts.

In English, we principally know the name “Timbuktu” as a stand-in for the idea of something far away and inaccessible. Since 2012, the name has been said for another reason, because in the spring of that year the Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine, allied with Islamist militants, set about destroying the city’s ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. Just as the more recent destruction of Syria’s ancient buildings in Palmyra by Isis has captured international attention, the losses at Timbuktu are now irrevocably part of the layers of memory around the old city.

The loss of these unique objects (40,000 manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed, along with 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars) has raised awareness of what we might call “cultural terrorism”, and has produced an unprecedented circumstance in international law. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Tuareg alleged Islamic militant, has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of war crimes relating to the destruction of cultural sites. It is the first case of its kind.

At the British Library’s new exhibition about the intellectual heritage of the subregion, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the adviser Gus Casely-Hayford tells me that the “war crimes” label is completely accurate. The attitude to ancient manuscripts in places such as Timbuktu is different from that in the west, he explains: they are living documents, meant to be used. An attack on them is an attack on a whole way of life.

“Artefacts like these are the centre of the community, the focus of identity,” he says. “Al-Mahdi wanted it to be known that he is a teacher; a man who understands the significance of destroying these things.”

Marion Wallace, curator of African collections at the British Library, explains that many of the surviving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts – rescued by local “book traffickers” who smuggled them out of harm’s way – are now to be housed in a state-of-the-art research facility. As we examine a loose-leaf “saddlebag” Quran dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, Wallace explains that such manuscripts were never intended to be behind glass, but were designed to be read one page at a time while, say, travelling on a camel.

There is a photograph in the exhibition of an imam sitting on the floor of his sitting room, exhibiting a manuscript for the camera. Around the centuries-old document, you can see a pile of clothes to one side of him, a tray of drinks on the other, the television in the background: the rest of life.

“I can remember being in a library in Timbuktu before 2012,” says Casely-Hayford. “It was poorly lit and there were shafts of light streaming in from the small windows. You could see specks in the light, fragments of manuscript in the very atmosphere.” In this part of the world, erosion is a mark of respect and reverence, rather than regrettable decay.

The exhibition hopes to set this working manuscript culture in the context of West Africa’s intellectual tradition, stressing the continuity from ancient writing through music, storytelling and cloth design. Yet there is tension here, too: although many hundreds of thousands of precious artefacts were saved from destruction, they will likely never be handled in the same way again. Libraries and museums can preserve the past, but they are less good at letting it breathe. 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is at the British Library until 16 February, 2016. See

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror