Book review: Lives of the Novelists by John Sutherland

A HEAVY book offering 294 biographical essays on the lives of assorted novelists from John Bunyan to Ian McEwan does not sound too promising. This is, though, the funniest book I’ve read all year.

From the first entry on Bunyan – where the Puritan author’s spiritual journal Grace Abounding is described as chronicling his “heroic struggle with such vices as bell-ringing (and worse)” – to pretty much the last, on Patricia Cornwell – who, on being diagnosed as bipolar, “at first thought it was a reference to her sexuality” – it is a riot.

Novelists in Professor Sutherland’s hands are, above all, lively company, which is assuredly not always the case in real life. It is a blessing because some of Sutherland’s self-confessedly idiosyncratic choices are also much better read about than read. Harold Robbins, for example, a man whose rudimentary prose style didn’t stop him from becoming one of the world’s five top-selling novelists ever, used his wealth to fuel his priapism. Robbins had five wives, a penchant for orgies and a call-girl habit. He also broke his pubic bone after slipping in the shower: “No more hard-ons for Mr Robbins,” notes Sutherland. “God, one deduces, must be a literary critic.”

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Sutherland himself is a very distinctive literary critic. An Emeritus Professor of English Literature and a former Man Booker Prize chairman, he is nevertheless no respecter of the canon (no Lewis Carroll, Ford Madox Ford, Kipling here) or of polite literary sensibilities (“Jane Austen is to fiction what Coca-Cola is to fizzy drinks”). .

Opinions and irreverence are worth little, however, if there’s nothing to back them up. Sutherland’s reading is formidable and he never plays it just for laughs. His throwaway lines are born of a deep knowledge of his subject, and the best combine a sharp aperçu with picaresque expression. Muriel Spark’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, he points out, “brings as little externality [Edinburgh, the Spanish Civil War] into its working as a Swiss watch brings in Alpine scenery”, while “disentangling Philip Roth from his fictional characters is like trying to scrape tomato sauce off spaghetti”.

During the course of his pen portraits an entirely non-didactic history of the novel in English begins to appear. Not all his bold assertions convince, however. Did the now forgotten Mrs Catherine Gore really handle “the themes of money and social mobility more cleverly than any writer, of either sex, of her vintage”? She lived from 1799 to 1861, the age of Mrs Gaskell, Thackeray and Dickens. The Oxford Companion to English Literature doesn’t think so but then nor does its contributor mention, as Prof Sutherland does so winningly, that Beryl Bainbridge used to pass by his house on her way back from Sainsbury’s and that “a couple of times I helped her with her bags”.


John Sutherland

Profile, £30