Category Archives: Biography

Dante

dante

Dante – The Story of His Life
By Marco Santagata
Belknap/Harvard University Press – £25.00

Se tu segui tua stella
non puoi fallire a glorioso porto

If you follow your star,
you cannot fail to reach a glorious port

                                                                                   -Inf. xv 55-56

In the tenth and final chapter (‘Courtier (1316-1321)’) of a book simply strewn with overtly fraught Florentine discontentment, author Marco Santagata, hits home with such profound and informative effervescence, it’s enough to send any morally inclined reader running for the nearest hills of sanctified exacerbation: ”The allegorical interpretation, in effect, softened the prophetic and doctrinal aspects, which the Church authorities regarded as dangerous (in 1355 the provincial chapter of the Dominicans in Florence forbade monks to read Dante’s vernacular works).”

As such, by the time one has reached the nigh conclusion of Dante – The Story of His Life, one is, if nothing else, somewhat indebted to the supreme poet’s patient, and most perplexing of partisan philosophy.

Just one reason is accounted for by the mere fact that throughout Dante’s childhood and indeed, much of his adult life, his entire world was colorata in rosso/stained red (Inf.X 86) – due to the absurd and seemingly pointless inter-familial feuds of Ghibelline fugitives and Guelf reactionaries.

To be sure, reading the 302 pages of this book (excluding Appendix: Genealogical Tables, Abbreviations in Notes, Notes, Acknowledgements and Index) does unsurprisingly endear one into fully realising/comprehending: just how very little society has itself learnt from that of the ‘other.’

Niente.

In other words, anything which may appear slightly different or alien to that of our own social subscription and moral parameters, appears to have always been construed as reason enough to attack, victimise and ultimately desecrate. Santagata already makes as much clear in Dante’s very first chapter, ‘Childhood’: ”Defence and intimidation were both necessary operations in a city where quarrels between individual citizens and factions degenerated almost daily into violence and unrest […]. Spiralling hatred ended up dividing the largest family clans and even causing rifts in smaller ones. Coexistence in the city was precarious, marred by sudden outbursts of collective violence and individual coups de main, even during periods of relative calm when factions were attempting to work together.”

In response to and amid such upheaval, Santagata traces Dante’s attempts to establish himself in Florentine society, as a man of both letters and action. He also addresses the intriguing possibility that Dante translated an illness – believed by some to be epilepsy – into an intensely physical phenomenology of love in the Vita Nova.

Yet, perhaps most importantly, the author substantiates Dante Alighieri’s inexorable quest to forever readjust his own political standing.

His involvement with the aforementioned, pro-papacy Guelph faction being just one such example amid the many scattered throughout this more than comprehensive biography. A thoroughly well-researched biography at that, written from the premise of Dante being a father and courtier, as well as political partisan and philosopher.

Marco Santagata – who is a Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Pisa – has herein untangled many a complex web of family and political relationships for English readers; while in so doing, showing how the very composition of the Commedia was idiosyncratically influenced by local as well as regional politics.

But what one truly comes away with from having read this book of Two Parts (Florence and Exile), is Dante’s own (unwavering) high-octane belief in his own fate, wherein ”God had invested him with the prophetic mission of saving humanity.”

David Marx

Havel – A Life

havel

Havel – A Life
By Michael Zantovsky
Atlantic books – £25.00

         All my life I have simply believed that what is once done can never be undone          and that, in fact, everything remains forever. In short, Being has a memory.            And thus even my insignificance – as a bourgeois child, a laboratory                            assistant, a soldier, a stagehand, a playwright, a dissident, a prisoner, a                      resident, a pensioner, a public phenomenon, and a hermit, an alleged hero              but secretly a bundle of nerves – will remain here forever, or rather not                    here, but somewhere. But not, however, elsewhere. Somewhere here.
                                                                                                                                           Vaclav Havel.

In Saturday’s edition of The Guardian (June 27th), there was a very short extract of the indisputably crucial book that is Havel: A Life. It touches on the former playwright’s questionably feisty relationship with former Russian President, Mikhail Gorbachev: ”He thanked Gorbachev for his kind reception and understanding, remarked on his equally warm reception in the US, mentioned the gift of a pipe from a Native American chief, and then… produced the object. ”Mr President,” he said, ”it occurred to me that I should bring this pipe to Moscow and the two of us should smoke it together as a pipe of peace.” Gorbachev looked at it as if it were a hand grenade with the fuse off and stuttered: ”But I…I don’t smoke.””

As is often the case, said dry, jocular quotation, is indeed, a mere tiny tip of a rather gargantuan, serious literary iceberg. A revealing read in which Michael Zantovsky, one of Havel’s closest friends, bequeaths the reader with a veritable onslaught of inherently intellectual, profound, and on occasion, poignant evaluation. The sort of well informed, studied analysis, which luckily, really doesn’t hold back in any way whatsoever (”the conclusion that the truth has to be personally guaranteed to be really true is one that Havel is going to make again and again”).

Thus making for the nigh perfect biography of one of the most joyous, morally paramount political leaders of recent times.

To quote Madeleine Albright: ”Zantovsky’s biography of Havel is written with great understanding, candour and love – and provides us with expert analysis of not only politics but also Havel’s plays to boot.”

To be sure, Havel shares – rather than reveals.
Alludes to – rather than defines.
Qualities, which in this day and rather tiresome age of celebrity’n’cleavage induced conversation; not to mention instant, myopic gratification by way of Facebook and yer Twitter tsunami – I find altogether revivifying to say the least.

A more than pertinent example (and there are many), is Zantovsky’s rather considered description of Havel’s regal relationship with the love of his life, at the very outset of chapter six: ”Vaclav Havel was not yet seventeen when he met the woman of his life. He would later fall in love with Dagmar Veskrnova and marry her after Olga’s death, he would be enamoured at least twice in the time between, he would pursue rather indiscriminately, and be pursued by, other women, but she was his ‘one certainty,’ his companion, his conscience, his first reader, his staunchest defender and his fiercest critic for fifty years. Their relationship, which survived his mother’s resentment, hardships, crises, infidelities, persecution and prison, eventually came to defy standard categories and became a category of its own. The influence Olga had on Havel (and he on her) was so pervasive that it is plausible to speculate that he would have hardly become what he became without her.”

The same might be said of most great men and women.
But so far as the forty-six chapters of this acutely impressive work is concerned, it is the ultimate depth of clarity that does much to separate Havel from a plethora of badly written biographies.

Along with a Prologue and a detailed list of illustrations, it’s as equally enlightening as it is engaging. As such, I’m hard pressed to think of a better biography being published this year. Admittedly, this may well have a lot to do with the subject itself, although Michael Zantovsky, who clearly subscribes to the ideology: ”the fundamental key to man does not lie in his brain, but in his heart,” really has done his friend proud.

David Marx

Young Eliot

young eliot

Young Eliot – From St Louis to The Waste Land
By Robert Crawford
Jonathan Cape – £25.00

          Repeatedly he felt he had dried up as a poet, and feared he had wasted his                 life. Not marmoreal, but wounded and sometimes wounding, young T. S.                 Eliot may be imposingly erudite, but is also conflictedly human.

Hardly marmoreal, said parameters of intrinsic, erudite infliction, ought hardly be surprising within the acute context of literary analysis. For as recently written and edited by Sandie Byrne in the ‘Early Work’ of the (overtly informative) The Poetry of Ted Hughes (Palgrave Macmillan): ”A man is not only conscious of his prison, but his consciousness forms the very bars of his cell.” While such was undoubtedly the case with regards the Poet Laureate, it was also unquestionably so with that other resolute, complex, and most enigmatic of poets, T.S. Eliot.

A poet, who in the Introduction of Young Eliot – From St Louis to The Waste Land, is described as: ”the most remarkable immigrant poet in the English language but also the most influential and resounding poetic voice of the twentieth century.”

It is, suffice to say, nigh impossible to argue with the continuing trajectory of Eliot’s enormous influence and sublime sway within the world of poetry; but upon reading this wonderfully written and unbelievably well researched tomb of a biography by Robert Crawford, there’s no doubting the degree to which the immigrant, American poet, was a caged-in prisoner of his own (self-devised) shortcomings. Whether or not this is how Eliot was perceived throughout his actual lifetime or, how he actually was, Crawford makes abundantly clear from the very outset that what we’re about to read, will perhaps challenge and unapologetically differ from that of previous biographies: ”Presenting him as shy. Sometimes naïve and vulnerable, Young Eliot aims to unsettle common assumptions about this poet’s perceived coldness.”

Indeed it does – and it does so very well; although might this be partially due to the very invitation into the quintessential personalisation of Eliot’s early life – a facet of the book’s writing which, it has to be said, the author has accomplished exceedingly well.

As the title alone suggests, Crawford has ventured into such kaleidoscopic detail of the poet’s early childhood, that one cannot help but subliminally want to embrace young Tom. Reason being, it sometimes reads as if he were a soul searching protagonist within all the terse, tense temerity, of a well written novel: ”For years Tom’s mother was secretary of the Mission Free School of the Church of the Messiah. In that church building, admired for its architectural design by Boston’s Peabody sand Stearns, and for us its memorial stained-glass windows by Scottish artist Daniel Cottier, Tom sat, sang, prayed, worshipped, fidgeted and looked around. Under the great exposed roof-beams he saw biblical stories turned into stained-glass art: Christ as the sower, the good Samaritan, the wise and foolish virgins […]. Among generations of Unitarian Eliots, Tom grew up to be the one that got away. Yet an interest in the ‘primitive’ roots of religion, and in tracing religion to its earliest stages […] would be a continuing preoccupation. Tom was not reading theology in his cradle, but certainly imbibed it from childhood […]. Issues of faith and doubt were as inescapable as his own Christian name; a fondness for church buildings was something he carried from his childhood to his old age. St Louis Unitarianism gave him much to come to terms with. Eventually he felt he had been brought up in ‘a strong atmosphere of the most Liberal theology,’ but concluded in adulthood that soulful ‘Unitarianism is a bad preparation for brass tacks like birth, copulation, death, hell, heaven and insanity”’ (‘Hi, Kid, Let’s Dance’).

It’s no surprise that Robert Crawford is Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Poetry at the University of St Andrews, as well as a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. I feel compelled to mention this due to the veritable inspiration with which he has approached the writing of Young Eliot – the above quotation of which, is as assuredly pronounced as it is throughout much of this book’s 424 pages.

A fine example of this being the author’s all round compact, yet simultaneously dense assessment of Eliot’s idiosyncratically introspective approach to (and place within the gamut of) poetry in the eleventh chapter, ‘Observations’: […] Tom articulated a poetic credo. His work gave him a focus that let him go on when his private life was difficult: though the two could not be separated completely, he valued all the more the sense of shape, the mixture of intuition and form that dedication to verse might offer.”

Furthermore, the final chapter, ‘The Waste Land,’ sheds pertinent light on Eliot’s more than profound and trusting relationship with Ezra Pound: ”Accepting Pound’s brilliant suggestion, Tom remained the author and final shaper of his work. Pound’s editing was highly ethical: he cut material, leaving only Tom’s best words to stand, but did not interpolate words of his own. He was sharpening rather than inventing or adding. This editor of genius was vital to The Waste Land […].”

This altogether excellent overview of T. S. Eliot’s early years, addresses and tackles head on, the varied complexities of both the man himself and the majestic, powerful poetry that remains his legacy.

As such, what more could anyone ask for? An eye-opener of a great book.

David Marx

Dostoevsky – A Writer in His Time

fyodor

Dostoevsky – A Writer in His Time
By Joseph Frank
Princeton University Press – £16.95

          I heard the music of the spheres,
          The flight of angels through the skies,
          The beasts that crept beneath the sea,
          The heady uprush of the vine;
          And, like a lover kissing me,
          He rooted out this tongue of mine
          Fluent in lies and vanity

                                                             A.S.Pushkin (The Prophet).

As is written in the Preface of this simply uber sublime book: ”No modern writer rivals Dostoevsky in the grandeur of his presentation of […] eternal Christian dilemma – the fierceness of his attack on the presumed goodness of God, on the one hand, through Ivan Karamzov, and his attempt to counter it with the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor and the preaching of Father Zosima on the other.”

The above skeletal dissertation of surely one of the finest and most inventive writers ever, does much to trigger a cascade of didactic thought and the st(r)oking of one’s academic curiosity. For who else in relatively modern literature, agonisingly questioned unto such a ponderous, yet poignantly heroic, religious endeavour, as Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky?

As is written at the outset of chapter three, Dostoevsky – A Writer in His Time (‘The Religious and Cultural Background’): ”Dostoevsky’s contemporary, Alexander Herzen, remarks in his memoirs that ”nowhere does religion play so modest a role in education as in Russia.” Herzen was, of course, talking about the education of the male children of the landed or service aristocracy, whose parents had been raised for several generations on the culture of the French Enlightenment and for whom Voltaire had been a kind of patron saint.”

Lest we forget that of all the great Russian writers of the early nineteenth century, such as Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Lermontov, Nekrasov and of course, the aforementioned Herzen; Dostoevsky ”was the only one who did not come from a family belonging to the landed gentry.” A rather turbulent facet of both his life and his literary, social outlook, that subliminally, yet without question, always influenced the view he fully embraced so far as his own position as a writer was concerned.

These 932 pages are a linear, credible, not to mention chronological testament to this fact; which, if nothing else, places the book’s author, Joseph Frank, upon the lone pedestal of great biographical writing (in relation to Dostoevsky). In and of itself, this should come as absolutely no surprise, as his award-winning, five-volume Dostoevsky is already widely recognised as perhaps the finest biography of the troubled Russian genius in any language.

In fact, many consider it to be one of the greatest literary biographies of the past half-century; which is where this somewhat condensed version comes into play. Frank’s monumental, 2500-page work has herein been most skilfully abridged into one, very readable volume. I say skilfully abridged, as it’s not something I’d particularly relish having to do – shredding fifteen hundred pages off one’s own magnum opus – but there you go.

This may go some way in explaining why Bryce Christensen of The Booklist has subsequently written: ”No one could produce a better one-volume biography of Dostoevsky than the author of a much-acclaimed five-volume biography… A masterful abridgement.”

Dostoevsky – A Writer in His Time is indeed, a masterful piece of work. It’s the sort of read wherein the subject matter can become so absorbing, that one (perhaps subliminally) finds oneself questioning one’s own place and meaning in the world – even if only politically or from a strained stand-point of ergonomics.

Such semi-self-introspective consideration is somewhat brought to bear in chapter 27 (‘Winter Notes on Summer Impressions’), wherein Frank resolutely captures Dostoevsky’s fraught vision of yesteryear’s Europe: ”[…] the image that Dostoevsky conveys is of a society rotten to the core with greed for gold yet consumed with vanity at its own moral perfection. All of French life under Napoleon III is seen as a sinister comedy, staged exclusively for the purpose of allowing the bourgeoisie to enjoy both their continual accumulation of wealth and the spectacle of their ineffable virtue. Dostoevsky writes that ”all their [the workers] ideal is to become property owners and to possess as many things as possible”. While the bourgeoisie fears everyone – the working class, the communists, the Socialists – all such apprehensions are the result of a ludicrous mistake. No group in the West really represents any threat to the hegemony of the spiritual principle embodied in the bourgeoisie.

What, after all, has become of the ideals of the French Revolution under the Second Empire, the ideals of liberte, egalite, and fraternite? In momentary accord with Karl Marx and the Socialists, Dostoevsky views political freedom and legal equality, unaccompanied by economic equality, simply as repulsive fictions invented by the bourgeoisie to delude the proletariat. As for fraternite, this, Dosteovsky says, is in the most curious position of all. Europe is always talking about brotherhood and has even raised it to the status of a universal ideal, yet brotherhood is the very antithesis of the European character.”

Were the current French President, Francois Holland, or the European Union as a whole even partially cajoled into acting upon such raw, loaded and impeccable foresight as to what translucent ‘brotherhood’ ought to mean, let alone stand for; then perhaps the wretched economic crisis of the last few years might never have been allowed to happen in the first place.

But then what does ‘the dream of a ridiculous (Russian) man’ know?

Interspersed with others, it took me a while to read this altogether majestic book – but I’m so glad I did. Apart from being somewhat cathartic and most illustrative of the human mind (and its all encompassing, never-ending ability to at least try and understand humanity); this tomb more than illuminates Dostoevsky’s life vast array of brilliant writing. As whether socially or personally, historically or ideologically; it really is all here. In more ways than one. To quote J. M. Coetzee: ”In his aim of elucidating the setting within which Dostoevsky wrote – personal on the one hand, social, historical, cultural, literary, and philosophical on the other – Frank has succeeded triumphantly” (New York Review of Books).

David Marx

Francois Mitterrand – A Study In Ambiguity

mitterand

Francois Mitterrand – A Study In Ambiguity
By Philip Short
The Bodley Head – £30.00

I don’t need anyone to defend me […]. I’ve done nothing wrong, I don’t have to apologise. That would be to play the other side’s game… These accusations are an extraordinary, immense… hypocrisy. In the end, nothing will remain of them.

Mitterrand – A Study In Ambiguity is very much a humanistic, as well as primarily French, political biography. Not only does it home in on a unique individual who has in the past been described as an ”aesthete, sensualist, bookworm, politician of Machiavellian cunning,” it is also an exceedingly well written, as well as thoroughly researched and tirelessly documented piece of work.

Personally, I always liked and fully respected Francois Mitterrand – a man of exceptional gifts and flaws in equal measure – simply because he had the charismatic chutzpah, nerve, verve and idiosyncratic French bollocks to stand up to America (the idiotic Ronald Reagan in particular), at a time when relations between East and West were teetering upon a precipice of mild, nuclear induced, madness.

And for that alone, the former French President warrants tumultuous acclaim – which ought never be forgotten.

So far as this book is concerned, author Philip Short – whose previous works include The Dragon and the Bear: Inside China and Russia Today, Mao: A Life and Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare – has herein written a book that shoots straight from the hip of mercurial, political analysis, not to mention a personal miasma not often found within most tombs of biographical strata.

To be sure, it unabashedly tells it as it was.

Or, for political dogs with a grudge to bear, who make no bones whatsoever about having to forever kneel at the alter of trite cynicism, Short writes and tells it was it probably and undeniably was. During the Second World War for instance, not only was Mitterrand leader of a resistance movement, he was also decorated for services to the collaborationist regime in Vichy; surely a wayward, albeit somewhat commendable juxtaposition of a political path in itself. Then, after flirting with the Far Right, he entered parliament replete with the backing of conservatives and the Catholic church, before evolving unto the undisputed leader of the predominantly Socialist Left. Which again, many a dedicated follower of French politics, might consider something of a caustic contradiction in terms. But there’s more. As president, Mitterrand continued to coax French Communists into the government – all the better to destroy them. While all the while, managing to find time for an extraordinarily complicated love life; one which may have initially been private, but soon evolved into unrelenting, French acceptance.

It might be said that such ideological patois is the norm in France; rather like its incredibly dense and highly complicated political structure – which Short touches on in the eleventh chapter ‘The Novitiate,’ wherein he quotes his subject: ”Earlier in the Elysee, Mitterrand spelt out his goals. ‘I wish to convince, not to conquer […]. There was only one victor on May 10 1981: Hope! May it become the most shared quality in France!… My aim is to bring the French people together, as the President of all, for the great causes which await us, creating… a true national community’ based on ‘a new alliance of socialism and freedom […]. But the main lesson of the election was that the ‘political majority of the French people have identified with the social majority,’ giving a voice to those millions and millions of men and women, the ferment of our people, who, for two centuries, in peace and in war, by their labour and by the shedding of their blood, have fashioned the History of France, without having access to it except through brief but glorious fractures of our society […]. Jacques Chirac, the Mayor of Paris, to whom he paid a formal call that afternoon, urged him to temper his actions with realism. Mitterrand replied that he would keep the promises he had made. National reconciliation was one thing. The ‘glorious fracture’ of the established order was another. That was what he had been elected for and that is what he would do.”

Such (social and political) fractionate, is what accounts for so much French history. It’s seemingly endemic in fact.

It’s what partially accounts for France being what it is. To quote Alexis de Tocqueville: ”society was cut in two: those who had nothing united in common greed, and those who had something united in common terror.” And while much the same could just as easily be applied to Greece, for some reason, an undercurrent of fractiousness actually works in France – of whom Mitterrand, much like De Gaulle, continues to remain one of the most crystal clear examples.

Mitterrand – A Study In Ambiguity is a more than compelling, weighty and substantial read.

If nothing else, it endeavours to set numerous records straight: from the fiasco of France’s tortuous involvement in Algeria, to it’s seemingly complacent lack of involvement amid the genocide of Rwanda; from the semi-collaborationist era of Vichy to both Mitterrand and France’s nigh complete embrace of Mikhail Gorbachev. These 582 pages (not including Acronyms, Bibliography and Sources), tell a unique story of a very unique and complicated man.

Rather like France itself.

David Marx

George Orwell – English Rebel

George Orwell English Rebel

George Orwell – English Rebel
By Robert Colls
Oxford University Press – £25.00

In ‘Last of England,’ the penultimate chapter of this refreshingly vibrant and all round excellent new book, George Orwell – English Rebel, its author Robert Colls writes: ”[…] Orwell’s best hope is a woman, and his England begins to look increasingly feminine after 1940. Being inside a whale (and what a whale) is like being inside a womb.”

To what extent the reader will emphatically agree or perhaps disagree with such a double-edged thought process – is surely open to debate. For like many an Orwellianism (and there were many), there’s no denying its translucent sentiment and quintessential complex clarification. What’s more, it’s just a tiny tip of a literary iceberg that readily brims with the ”crystal spirit” of Orwell’s idiosyncratic writing(s) and complicated, if not sanguine, personal life – a life delicately reflected upon throughout (”Their wedding menu was splendidly English: Roast Aylesbury Duckling and Sherry Cream Trifle. In 1938 they submitted photographs to the British Consulate prior to their trip to Marrakech. He looks handsome and she looks pretty, both in an an English film-star sort of way”).

Indeed, from his early frustrating days at Eton to the eye-opening five years in Burma; from his overtly influential Wigan period through to Barcelona and Catalonia; from the Luftwaffe filled skies of London during the Blitz to the twentieth century classic that is Nineteen Eighty Four, these eight chapters make for nigh mesmerising reading. And they’re so dense yet compact. So pivotal yet simultaneously objective.

Admittedly, I haven’t read every book on Orwell – who has? But English Rebel is as much a stimulating read as it is inspiring. Although more importantly, it’s acutely informative.

According to Melvyn Bragg: ”Rob Colls has taken on the man’s Englishness, his personality, warts and all, and the elusive notion that he was a rebel in his own land.”

I can’t help but agree, as from the very first chapter ‘Angry Old Etonian,’ the author immediately leans towards said rebellious notion wherein he most adroitly writes: ”He loathed nationalism, but defined Englishness for a generation. He was an enemy of the right, but had little to say in favour of the left. He was no friend of the left, but tried to work within it. He was violently opposed to totalitarianism, but had little interest in political parties. He didn’t write well about women but tried, in one novel at least, to write about being a woman, and in his last novel he invested his best hope, such as it was, in one woman and (almost) all women. He did not trust intellectuals, but mixed with them, was one himself, and never tried to pretend otherwise, though sometimes he conveniently forgot the fact.”

The final line here, does suggest that Colls isn’t afraid to shoot from the hip so to speak, although one cannot help but commend the ever so deft consideration of the above. As it’s all true.

George Orwell was, and to a certain degree, remains, all that which the author has written – and a whole lot more besides; which, in a round-a-bout sort of way, is re-confirmed a little later in ‘Angry Old Etonian’: ”Orwell was against all the major world systems of his day, including nationalism and Catholicism. Apart from an early gut attraction to a sort of folk Marxism where ‘the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong,’ he did not believe in political ideologies either.”

The latter is perhaps a little ironic, especially given that Orwell is still considered (by many) to be ”the most significant British political writer of the twentieth century.” In and of itself, this continues to be re-substantiated in countless ways. One of which is the simple fact that he has an entire square named after him in Barcelona – a wonderful, yet inexorable/political/contentious hotspot in Catalonia/Spain if ever there was one.

Replete with eighteen black and white plates in the middle of the book, these 235 pages are, to once again quote Bragg: ”full of zesty prose, fine insights, and a freshness of interpretation which made it a pleasure to read. It’s a major achievement and a major work on George Orwell.”

That, it most definitely is.

To say George Orwell – English Rebel packs a mighty mean punch to the political solar plexus of both naïve distraction and myopic conformity, is a colossal understatement. Then again, as a publication, it is helped along its way by the simple fact that it’s subject ”believed that telling the truth was a revolutionary act.”

David Marx

Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times

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Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times
By Thomas Hauser
Portico/Anova Books – £11.99

”I’m expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam, and at the same time my people here are being brutalized and mistreated, and this is really the same thing that’s happening over in Vietnam. So I’m going to fight it legally, and if I lose, I’m just going to jail. Whatever the punishment, whatever the prosecution is for standing up for my beliefs […].”

Never short of a suave, sparkling sentence or two, it goes without saying that the greatest fighter ever, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, wowed audiences in a plethora of arenas – both inside as well as outside the ring. For apart from being a stupendous boxer, he was nigh irresistible to (obviously) watch and (curiously) listen to.

The above quotation being not only a perfect example, but a mere tiny tip of the literary iceberg contained within these 516 pages.

To be sure, Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times – which has been described by The Times as: ”A superb book; hilarious, sad, moving and hopeful” – ticks an array of boxes so far as a really good and fulfilling read is concerned. As it is indeed, sad, moving and hopeful. But like Ali himself, the book is also in your face, somewhat monumental and rather provocative; much to the credit of its author, Thomas Hauser, which ought hardly be surprising, as apart from being a Pulitzer Prize nominee, Hauser has written a number of books (among them: The Black Lights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing, Brutal Artistry and Mark Twain Remembers).

Admittedly however, some of the more idiosyncratically entertaining writing, was already written for him by Clay himself. All the author had to do was chronologically indulge his labour of love, and capture the full essence of a man to whom the title, ‘bigger than life,’ surely belongs and was surely never more warranted.

For instance, I found the opening gambit of this review in the seventh chapter, ‘Exile,’ which alone, is far more stimulating than a menagerie of entire books I’ve recently read. Reason being, a mere seven paragraphs later, Hausen once again quotes Ali on the subject of hate: ”I don’t hate nobody and I ain’t lynched nobody. We Muslims don’t hate the white man. It’s like we don’t hate a tiger; but we know that a tiger’s nature is not compatible with people’s nature since tigers love to eat people. So we don’t want to live with the tigers. It’s the same with the white man. The white race attacks black people. They don’t ask what’s our religion, what’s our belief? They just start whupping heads. They don’t ask you, are you Catholic, are you a Baptist, are you a Black Muslim, are you a Martin Luther King follower, are you with Whitney Young? They just go whoop, whoop, whoop! So we don’t want to live with the white man; that’s all.”

Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times will undoubtedly appeal to the entire boxing fraternity; although there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever, why it ought not also appeal to those to whom boxing means very little. Or next to nothing.

Just one reason being, the subject’s outspoken humanity.  What John Lennon endeavoured to attain for world peace, Muhammad Ali at least tried to attain for Black Human Rights (alongside many other issues).

If nothing else, Ali believed – which to my mind, surely places him alongside the likes of Martin Luther King and South Africa’s Archbishop Desmod Tutu.

David Marx