Lives of the Novelists
A History of Fiction in 294 Lives
Yale University Press, $39.95, 818 pp.
In 2008, John Sutherland published a book called Magic Moments, in which he recounted pivotal encounters with books (and movies and music) from the age of five to the age of twenty-one. Don’t be misled by the apparently saccharine title. While there is great affection in Sutherland’s accounts of these encounters, his tone is astringent, his wit biting, his memory unforgiving.
The book begins with two epigraphs:
Up, up my Friend, and quit your books!
The boy who was spellbound, at age seven, by The Wind and the Willows and by David Lean’s movie version of Great Expectations, the boy who read Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea at the age of thirteen (and thereafter thought differently about “the war”): that boy grew up and found a job in which he was paid to read, acquiring over the decades thousands of books. Today he is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London; he had an appointment at CalTech for many years as well. A specialist in Victorian fiction, he has written and edited dozens of books, including a fantastically learned and hugely enjoyable series of essays on “literary puzzles,” beginning with the...