This morning, I finished a six-month toddle through most of the great novels in history. OK, not the novels themselves, but John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists, which allots three to six pages each to the lives of 294 novelists. At over 800 large-format pages, this is not a light read, but I dipped into one or two of the lives each day, skipping a few of the more obscure folks. Sutherland gives a complete little life and a synopsis of the major books for the better-known novelists, uses some of the others as the inspiration for a little essay on some literary subject. He includes a healthy smattering of genre writers. At the end of each essay, he mentions the authors most read title and for most, a recommended biography for those who want to read more. My list of novels and biographies to read grew exponentially. The only thing that I tired of was lugging this big slab around the house, of putting it away not because I was tired of reading, but because I was tired of holding up the book.
This isn’t a book to use as a common group read. It’s too long by far and you’d never find enough copies to go around. It would, however, make a fine investment for a group to own as a shared resource. I could see reading the essay about an author aloud, either at the start of a meeting devoted to his or her works, or even better, at the end of the previous month’s meeting as a kind of teaser. For the right kind of group, Lives could become the organizing point for several years of reading, perhaps working forward through the history of the novel.
How is Sutherland’s selection? Checking it against some of the lists of classic and contemporary writers at the library, I’ll note that he misses a fair number of important writers, particularly those who didn’t publish in English (although this is not noted in the introduction). For instance, from our handout on writers active mostly before 1950, Louisa May Alcott, Albert Camus, Willa Cather, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexandre Dumas, Gustave Flaubert, Hermann Hesse, Victor Hugo, Zora Neale Hurston, Franz Kafka, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Mann, Carson McCullers, Henry Miller, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, and P. G. Wodehouse are among those who don’t make the cut, while plenty of mostly forgotten folk like M. G. Lewis, Harriet Martineau, Sylvanus Cobb Jr., B. L. Farjeon, Hall Caine, Violet Hunt, Jeffery Farnol, and Richmal Crompton are included. So it goes. Sutherland will just have to put out a second volume.
When all is said and done, one comes away from such a book with many impressions. That first books are often best books. That authors are more than a little prone to alcoholism, to marital woes and family failures. That hard lives often create great art. But despite many of these sad impressions, I came away invigorated with the power of the book, with the panoply of the history of writing, with the gumption of the creature we call the writer.