John Sutherland, an academic himself, seems to have set out to annoy his colleagues. Not for him an analysis of the text with the assumption that the author is dead, or nice distinctions between literature and other kinds of fiction. Quite the contrary; Sutherland thinks writers’ lives bear directly on what they write and that writers’ works can be directly influenced and affected by other writers, and that this is worth pointing out and examining.
Literary biography is interesting and to have 294 encapsulated lives served up wittily and intelligently is a treat. Sutherland’s cavalcade mixes ‘literary’, popular-genre and pulp writers together without prejudice, running from John Bunyan to Patricia Cornwell.
Naturally, British and American writers dominate, with just a scattering of colonials. Some conclusions can be drawn from the list. One is that, by and large, fiction writers have been a troubled bunch, whether successful or unsuccessful. The incidence of alcoholism, neurosis, venereal disease, divorce and misfortune is staggeringly high. You wouldn’t want your son or daughter to take it up on this evidence. Not that parents figure largely – a startlingly high proportion of the writers lost one parent or both at an early age.
This fact supports one of Sutherland’s main theories – that some kind of disturbance, or some ‘mote in the clay’ as Manning Clark might have said, was the trigger that released the creativity in many cases. It’s hard to argue with that. Think of Bunyan’s religious mania, Dickens’s dad in the Marshalsea Prison, Wilkie Collins’s opium addiction; Stevenson, Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield and Orwell with their shredded lungs, Poe’s paedophilia, Maugham’s stammer … the list goes on and on.
Many of Sutherland’s entries are very funny and he gets off a lot of shots at writers past and present and their boosters. Discussing Jane Austen, he draws attention to an American professor’s book, Jane Austen and the French Revolution. This title came in for mockery, although the author was trying to argue a serious point – that what Austen didn’t write about was significant. But as a result the New Statesman ran one of its competitions on inappropriate titles and Sutherland singles out two entries – E M Forster and Body Building and Martin Amis: My Struggle.
The book told me a great many interesting things I didn’t know, such as that one of Samuel Butler’s hobby horses was his belief that The Odyssey was written by a woman; George Eliot was opposed to the second reform bill of 1867; Hardy had a morbid fascination with hanging; John Steinbeck was a plagiarist; and Margaret Mitchell kept the manuscript of Gone with the Wind in a cupboard for six years.
This is not to say that Sutherland is always reliable. When Raymond Chandler told Howard Hawks that he didn’t know the answer to a question about the plot of The Big Sleep, he was not serious; he’d either forgotten or was pulling the director’s leg. The thin man in Dashiel Hammett’s novel of that name was not Hammett himself, but a character in the book. And Orson Welles’ s soliloquy about Switzerland and the cuckoo clock occurs not in Citizen Kane but in The Third Man.
Time Out London declared Lives of the Novelists the ‘loo book of the year’ and it’s easy to see why. At over 800 pages it’s not something you’d read from cover to cover, but it’s very instructive and entertaining, given Sutherland’s breezy style, to dip into. You’d need a good solid shelf in the dunny though.
Only two Australians are represented – Patrick White and Peter Carey. Sutherland praises Voss, which I couldn’t finish, and True History of the Kelly Gang, on which I couldn’t even get started.
John Sutherland Lives of the Novelists: a history of fiction in 294 lives, Yale University Press, 2012, HB, 832pp, $53.99
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