Book review: The Lives of the Novelists - A History Of Fiction In 294 Lives

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In fact, one of the ways I ploughed through the book was by turning it into a parlour game: What exactly is Sutherland’s taste in literature, asks Stuart Kelly

The Lives of the Novelists: A History Of Fiction In 294 Lives

By John Sutherland. Profile, 818pp, £30

THIS is a most perplexing volume. John Sutherland is the Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of English Literature at University College, London, and a noted biographer of Stephen Spender and Sir Walter Scott. He has also edited the Longman Companion to Victorian Literature and written a very good book indeed on de-censorship in Britain between 1960 and 1982.

In the late 1990s he became that rare thing, a literary critic with a public following after publishing a charming book of “literary conundrums” entitled Is Heathcliff a Murderer?, which was swiftly followed by Where Was Rebecca Shot?, Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?, Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennett and Henry V, War Criminal?

The reason these books worked, and even (moderately) confuted the Law of Diminishing Returns, was Sutherland’s detailed close reading of classic texts, alert to both nuance and aporia. They succeeded in returning the reader to all those half-remembered books with a refreshed sense of appreciation. Latterly, however, apart from a book on bestsellers, he seems to have exchanged depth of reading for breadth.

This new and suitably hefty tome comes after two whopping anthologies, Curiosities of Literature and Love, Sex, Death and Words: Tales From a Year in Literature and a spate of overviews such as Have You Read? A Personal Introduction to the 500 Novels You Should Know; Reading the Decades: Fifty Years of British History Through the Nation’s Bestselling Books; 501 Great Writers: A Comprehensive Guide to the Giants of Literature; How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts and 50 Literature Ideas You Really Need to Know.

This new book is blurbed as “a comprehensive history of the English novel”, “a guide to the astonishing variety of its forms and writers” and “an unfailingly entertaining guide to what to read”. It is, in fact, none of the three; although it is intermittently diverting and has a smattering of good anecdotes. I hold the publishers rather than the professor to be at blame here, as Sutherland almost immediately, in the preface, confesses to significant absences, hoping that his idiosyncrasies make up for them.

By far the best parts of the book are those devoted to relatively minor novelists often considered “pulp” or “genre”, and Sutherland often makes a compelling case for their worth. But the omissions are so glaring – and in some cases, omitted in favour of such dreadful writers – that a defence of personal whim seems inadequate. In fact, one of the ways I ploughed through the book was by turning it into a parlour game: “What exactly is John Sutherland’s taste in literature?”

The earliest parts of its chronology are bizarrely weak. Sutherland begins with the classic “fathers of the novel” – John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and the icon of feminist rewritings of literary history, Aphra Behn.

I’m going to offer a partial list of novels I would have expected to see in any “comprehensive” account of the 18th and early 19th century, and would have no hesitation in recommending to Scotsman readers: Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto; Beckford’s Vathek; Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote; Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent; Susan Ferrier’s Marriage; Robert Paltock’s The Life And Adventures of Peter Wilkins; John Galt’s The Provost; Thomas Love Peacock’s Melincourt, Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story; and John Lockhart’s Some Passages in the Life of Adam Blair.

You may claim that these are “obscure” books. I’d counter that by saying all of them have been reprinted as paperbacks in the last ten years, but would admit they’re byways rather than highways of literature. How then do we explain Sutherland’s decision not just to leave out Tobias Smollett, the author of Roderick Random and Humphrey Clinker, but Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels?

The high 19th century is by far the best part of the book, and it’s a pleasure to see names like Harrison Ainsworth, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the wonderfully monikered Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton alongside Dickens, Eliot and Hardy. Sutherland’s aim is to be as broad as possible, in terms of nationality (these are novels in English, not English novels) and genre – although for the most part he eschews children’s literature. This might account for the absence of Charles Kingsley, best known for The Water-Babies but also a novelist of political complexity with works such as Alton Locke.

As it moves towards the contemporary, the vexatious sense of “why?” accelerates. Why Rex Warner and Nathanael West but not G K Chesterton and P G Wodehouse? Why Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr but not Dorothy L Sayers or “Nicholas Blake” (the pen-name of Cecil Day-Lewis)? Why Beryl Bainbridge and Margaret Atwood but not A S Byatt or Angela Carter? Why John Barth and Paul Auster but not Thomas Pynchon or William Gaddis? Why Jeffrey Archer at all?

The birth dates of the final three authors reveal the extent of the paucity: Patricia Cornwell (1956), Alice Sebold (1963), Rana Dasgupta (1971 – who is, I should add, a fine writer and a friend). But no David Mitchell, Nicola Barker, Will Self, China Miéville, Michael Chabon, Scarlett Thomas, A L Kennedy, Ali Smith, Lydia Millet, Lucy Ellmann – in other words, the novelists who are actually doing something new with the old novel.

This “comprehensive” guide is remarkably shy of the present – another peculiarity, given that Sutherland, as a Booker judge and commentator on the Booker, certainly has read widely in the contemporary field.

But what’s in the book is as mystifying as what’s left out. There are two inclusions which seem needlessly provocative: Thomas Dixon, author of the 1905 novel The Clansman, which inspired the Ku Klux Klan, and the neo-fascist William L Pierce, whose 1978 book The Turner Diaries was described by the FBI as “the Bible of the Racist Right”.

What might justify their inclusion (at the expense of any of the names above)? A desire to show that not all novelists are nice or interesting people? A nod to the idea that not all books are good things?

If Sutherland were curious about the literature of the far right, then he might have included either Francis Stuart’s Black List Section H or Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes Of God, both of which are as fascinating as they are disturbing.

Setting aside the dalliance with the underground literature of extremists, the quality of the standard entries is variable. The entry on Iris Murdoch, after spending a page and a half discussing retirement, gives a brief précis of The Sea, The Sea and ends with the obligatory reference to her Alzheimer’s. There is not even a passing mention of any of her other novels – yet books such as The Bell, The Time of the Angels and A Severed Head seem to have stood the test of time better than The Sea, The Sea.

There are countless infelicities throughout – Muriel Spark’s son Robin is referred to as her “first”, rather than “only” child; despite the significance of her decision not to have more children. Walter Scott is referred to as a bankrupt in the entry on Harrison Ainsworth – but Sutherland has already made clear, in the entry on Scott, that Scott did not go down the route of declaring bankruptcy.

Chris Guthrie, in the entry on Lewis Grassic Gibbon, moves to “Dundon” – but in Grey Granite it is called “Duncairn” (Dundon is the name of the city in the previous book, Cloud Howe). Theodor Adorno is misquoted – but then almost nobody bothers to get his most famous quotation right (poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, not impossible).

John Berger is described, oddly, as the “perennial thorn in the thigh of authority”. The entry on Mickey Spillane is an extension of Sutherland’s obituary of the writer. Such hastiness and slipshod recycling is not worthy of the author.

Sutherland has a penchant for bloke-ish fictions of the gumshoe and bang-bang persuasion, and when he writes about his enthusiasms, he is charming. But please, someone, give him an advance of sufficient size that he can write something deep and significant again. This is just a “make book”. The average reader would do better to go to a second- hand bookshop and buy Sir Walter Scott’s earlier, and much better, Lives of the Novelists.