A Wormhole through the Cheese

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!

—William Wordsworth

Why?

—John Sutherland

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 1996 collection Is Heathcliff a Murderer? No one, I suspect, has read and re-read as many novels as John Sutherland has. And no one is better suited to undertake Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives.

Books in this genre are typically tedious affairs: predictable arrays of prefab mini-biographies, decorated with clichés from whatever is fashionable at the moment in literary criticism. Sutherland’s book is at once far more entertaining, more informative, and more personal than the standard product.

Everything in Sutherland comes with an edge. Consider the title, Lives of the Novelists. It has at least three associations, one that will be obscure to most readers and two that will not. In the first sentence of his preface, Sutherland writes: “Once upon a time it would have been possible to write a comprehensive ‘Lives of the Novelists’—around the time, I would hazard, when Walter Scott wrote his Lives of the Novelists.” Sutherland goes on to observe that the sheer quantity of fiction produced since Scott’s 1825 survey makes it impossible for any critic or team of critics to cover the field:

All modern histories of the novel are wormholes through the cheese (the novelist William Gibson’s neat analogy). The story of fiction that follows is almost as idiosyncratic as the subject itself, it being in the nature of worms to burrow less directly than crows fly—both, like literary critics, are scavengers.

Note that even as Sutherland is deprecating his project, he is slyly suggesting that his approach—frankly idiosyncratic—is actually more faithful to its subject than those “official” histories of the novel that are endlessly preoccupied with what is or isn’t in the canon.

The allusion to Scott—which most readers, myself included, would not otherwise catch—is made explicit at the outset. But Sutherland’s title also calls to mind two other predecessors: Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets and Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Both are thoroughly Christian. In ironic contrast, Sutherland offers his Lives of the Novelists: exemplary figures whose lives, taken together in Sutherland’s telling, mock any Christian reckoning.

The entries are arranged chronologically according to the author’s year of birth, starting with John Bun-yan (b. 1628) and ending with Rana Dasgupta (b. 1971). All of them are English-language writers (though a handful—Samuel Beckett and Guiller-mo Cabrera Infante, for example—wrote in other languages as well). Each entry begins with a brief italicized bit to set the tone: a comment on or a quotation from the writer at hand. For Warwick Deeping, it’s a line from the Times obituary: “Deeping was by no means without talent.” For Dashiell Hammett, praise from Raymond Chandler: “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons.” For Flannery O’Connor, a self-description: “I live mainly in my work.”

This isn’t a book to be taken in huge chunks at one sitting, but it is most emphatically a book to be read, not merely referred to. You might be curious to see what Sutherland has to say about Samuel Beckett (the entry observes that, well into his thirties, the future author of Waiting for Godot subsisted on “handouts from his parents,” who urged him to “undergo psychoanalysis”). And lo and behold, on the same page on which the Beckett entry ends, you find the beginning of the entry on John Dickson Carr, best known as the master of the “locked room” mystery, though he wrote many other sorts of crime fiction as well. (Like Beckett, he was born in 1906.) Who could resist such a sublime conjunction?

If Lives of the Novelists did no more than help the reader to while away many a pleasant hour, leaving a promising list of books and writers to read or re-read, that would be quite a lot, but this “history of fiction” also makes an argument. In the very first entry, on Bunyan and The Pilgrim’s Progress (“the all-time fiction bestseller”), Sutherland sardonically remarks that Bunyan’s masterpiece “is a novel which can be read by those who distrust novels.... His allegorical narrative made room for the novel to be morally serious. It was the necessary first step for the book of life.”

It was D. H. Lawrence—his entry is the longest in the book—who famously declared that “the novel is the one bright book of life.” Although Sutherland’s morality is quite different from Dr. Johnson’s, Lives of the Novelists is as fiercely moralistic as Lives of the Poets. For Sutherland, the novel is indeed the “book of life”: sometimes bright, sometimes dark, sometimes muddled, resistant to the pieties of preachers, political parties, and all who would attempt to impose a tidy order on the unruly reality of human existence. Pilgrim’s Progress has a place here; so too John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

A number of the entries end with a chilly irony to set against convictions of the sort that animated Butler’s Lives of the Saints and that continue to sustain the faithful. Here, for example, is the conclusion to the entry on Orwell:

A professed atheist, but contrarian to the end, he decreed he should be buried according to the rites of the Church of England. It recalls his best poem:

A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago.

One remembers that Swift was a vicar two hundred years ago. But hardly happy.

In the same vein, the entry on Updike concludes: “He died, aged seventy-nine, of lung cancer, the great plague of his forever puffing generation, writing almost to the last and convinced, one is told, that he was about to meet his maker.” Silly man.

As a bonus, Sutherland gives us a brief epilogue in which he considers the future of the novel. Against the naysayers, he writes: “There are today more novels, and more kinds of novel, than ever before in literary history—too many for most readers. Trying to make sense of the novel in English, as we come into the second decade of the twenty-first century, is like sculpting with sand or paddling in a tsunami.”

One final note: The book produced by Yale University Press is handsome and reader-friendly but rather bulky for consumption while traveling. Some readers will prefer the digital version, and some (I am one) will want to have both.

Published in the 2012-05-04 issue: 
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John Wilson is the editor of Education & Culture, a new critical review at TBS (TheBestSchools.org).

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‘My Utmost’ by Macy Halford

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