CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries review – making of a Marxist icon

A genius, a seducer, a self-destructive wreck… the firebrand author, historian and critic was a complex, fragile human being, as John L Williams’s biography reveals

CLR James died on a May morning in 1989. He’d had a lot of practise. For years previously the sad news had been broken to those who called on the old revolutionary, sportsman and critic unannounced: “CLR James is dead.”

For James it had become, John L Williams tells us in his new biography, something of a catchphrase. Much about Cyril Lionel Robert James – CLR to his disciples; “Nello” to intimates, Jimmy Johnson to the FBI – is contained in the gag. His love of mischief, his sometimes shocking asociality, a hint of his chronic health problems. And it reveals something else too: his extraordinary appetite for drama.

CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries by John L Williams is published by Constable (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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