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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Friedrich Nietzsche, the conqueror with the iron hand

Gavin Jacobson considers the great philosopher’s plan for society as revealed in Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon.

In 1893 Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche returned to her mother’s adopted home town of Naumburg in Germany. She had been living in Paraguay with her husband, Bernhard Förster, a nationalist and anti-Semite who had founded an Aryan colony to begin “the purification and rebirth of the human race”. Elisabeth’s brother, Friedrich Nietzsche, had condemned her husband’s anti-Semitism and her decision to join him in South America. The experiment failed in any case. Blighted by disease, poor harvests and intercommunal strife, the outpost collapsed in two years. Förster committed suicide in 1889. Around this time, Nietzsche began his final descent into madness and Elisabeth came back to take care of him and his legacy.

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872 while he was a professor at the University of Basel, received marginal attention. It wasn’t until the 1890s that his writings gained a wide readership across Europe. Elisabeth soon took control of Nietzsche’s literary estate and, little by little, transformed him into an instrument of her fascist designs. She began to rework his notebooks and to clip, cross out and fabricate quotations, so that, in the public imagination, her brother went from an opponent of German nationalism to a lover of the fatherland, from the author of The Antichrist to a follower of the gospel, and from an anti-anti-Semite to a venomous ­Jew-hater. Before his death in 1900, Nietzsche had asked his sister to ensure that “no priest or anyone else utters falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer defend myself”. He could not have foreseen this betrayal by Elisabeth, as she cast him as the lodestar of National Socialism.

Since the 1950s, scholars have endeavoured to rescue Nietzsche from his asso­ciation with Nazism. Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950) was a formative work in which the German philosopher became a humanist and progenitor of 20th-century existentialism. His thinking was directed not at the triumph of Teutonic supremacy but at reviving, as he wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1889), an “anti-political” high culture.

The problem was that, in stripping away the layers of external disfigurement that had built up and set over the years, Kaufmann and others denied Nietzsche an interest in politics. The task that Hugo Drochon sets himself is to reinsert some political content into Nietzsche and show that he had a systematic political theory. The result is a superb case of deep intellectual renewal and the most important book to have been written about him in the past few years.

Drochon’s study takes place against the backdrop of 19th-century Europe, as that is where Nietzsche’s account of politics – the fate of democracy, the role of the state and international relations – is best understood. Nietzsche’s sane life coincided with the main political events of his time. He served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, witnessed German unification and experienced at first hand the traits of a modern democratic order: party competition, secret ballots, voting and the influence of mass media. He also lived through Britain’s and Russia’s “great game” for control over central Asia. He went mad in the year Bismarck tended his resignation to Wilhelm II.

Drochon traces Nietzsche’s “intelligible account of modern society” in response to these events. Inspired by the Greeks – especially Plato and his mission to legislate a new state and train the men to do it – Nietzsche wanted to establish a healthy culture in which philosophy and great art could be produced. He was certain that slavery was necessary for this (a view that led to his eventual split with Wagner). The “cruel-sounding truth”, he admitted, was that “slavery belongs to the essence of culture”, as the artistic class, “a small number of Olympian men”, is released from the drudgery of daily existence to focus on producing art.

His disagreement with Wagner over the role of slavery led Nietzsche to describe the genesis and decay of the state. He saw clearly, like Hobbes, that the state of nature was “the war of all against all”. But whereas Hobbes imagined the state arising through a contract, Nietzsche saw it originating from a “conqueror with the iron hand”, who “suddenly, violently and bloodily” takes control of a people and forces it into a hierarchical society. Nietzsche then plotted its evolution, from a space within which culture flourished to the modern Kulturstaat, in which culture was appropriated for its own sake. If the state’s birth was violent, its decay was slow and was linked to Nietz­sche’s notorious phrase about the death of God: given that the Christian God was no longer a self-evident foundation of morality upon which societies could support themselves, the state faced dissolution.

Tracing with great forensic skill the minutiae of Nietzsche’s arguments across multiple sources, Drochon never loses the overall narrative thread (an occupational hazard of studying the history of political thought). Nor does he shy away from his subject’s unsavoury views. If Nietzsche’s remarks on slavery were harsh enough, his thinking on eugenics, or his physiologically inflected theories about democracy (which he regarded as the victory of a slave morality – associated with the “dark-skinned and especially dark-haired man” – over a master morality of the “Aryan conquering race”) sound even more repellent. Without wishing to justify these ideas, Drochon reminds us that theories of racial classification were prevalent and acceptable modes of inquiry in the 19th century. It would have been strange if Nietzsche had not drawn on them.

His darker side notwithstanding, many of Nietzsche’s insights speak to our politics now. He foresaw the privatisation of the state, in which “private companies” (Privatgesellschaften) would assume the business of the state, including those activities that are the “most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of the government” – that is, “protecting the private person from the private person”. He showed how democracies gave birth to aristocracies and could become hostage to a “herd morality”, majoritarianism and misarchism: “the democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate”. He explored the question of wage labour and the increasing hostility between workers and employers and predicted the erosion of trust in
public institutions.

Nietzsche also described how statesmen revive the kind of pathologies that are corrupting European and American societies at the moment: nationalism, racism, intellectual parochialism and political insularity. He knew what he was talking about: Bismarck’s power politics, a tribute to blood (war) and iron (technology), was a “petty politics” that divided nations and peoples. Nietzsche’s “great politics”, by contrast, imagined the unification of Europe led by a cultural elite, the class he termed “good Europeans”, bred by intermixing Prussian military officers and Jewish financiers. Continental union would not only constitute a geopolitical counterweight to Britain and Russia. Good Europeans would, as Drochon writes, create “a new trans-European culture, which itself is specially called on to lead a world culture”.

So, this book has come at the right time. In the light of Britain’s vote for Brexit, which threatens to take us back to a petty politics of nationalism and continental division, Nietzsche’s writings are more significant than ever. Those of us who desire a more integrated and peaceful union with our neighbours cling despairingly – and with receding hope – to his dream that, in spite of “the morbid estrangement which the nationality craze has induced and still induces among the peoples of Europe, owing also to the short-sighted and hasty-handed politicians . . . Europe wishes to be one”.

Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon is published by Princeton University Press, 224pp, £34.95

Gavin Jacobson is a writer and book critic

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt