Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Lives of the Novelists – John Sutherland

Yesterday was my birthday – I spent the day working which is something I’m going to try and avoid next year because the result has been vaguely depressing, it turns out that a lovely weekend doesn’t make up for nine hours of hard graft lugging heavy boxes around, a freezing wait for a bus that’s late (at my age getting in from work after 9pm feels too late), and finally home alone for a sandwich before bed. I can, and do, do that at least twice a week anyway, it didn’t make the day feel special.

What has made me feel special though is presents and I’ve had some lovely ones. Most intriguing is from my friend L who’s given me a pot of soil filled with mystery bulbs – it’ll be months before I know what’s in there but that isn’t going to stop me from looking everyday anyway. Another gratefully received gift (from my sister who received some pretty heavy hints) was John Sutherland’s ‘Lives of the Novelists’ – a history of fiction in 294 lives. I’ve not been able to resist it (and only partly because I’ve had my eye on it for what feels like an age) and have been dipping in and out whenever I’ve had the opportunity over the last 48 hours.

I’m not the biggest fan of biography but this book suits me perfectly because each writer is delineated with admirable brevity – on average two or three pages each – in which space Sutherland manages to pack in the salient facts along with a few more salacious/gossipy details; it’s more than enough to be going on with. So far I’ve been reading about authors I already know but look forward to being informed and possibly tempted by a whole lot that I don’t.

294 seems like a fairly arbitrary number (surely he could have found 300?) but then this is also an unashamedly personal view of literature – presumably the history of one man’s reading journey, which makes it all the more intriguing. I wanted it for reference, am already quite inspired by it, and wonder now where else it might take me and what else it might prove to be. Doubtless I’ll let you know.  


  1. Sounds like a good present. John S is always entertaining and informative -- I must look out for this. Sorry to hear about the working birthday though. Pain.

  2. Happy Birthday Hayley, sorry it's so late.

    What a beautiful cover that book has! It sounds fun and I hope you are able to blog about it more.

  3. Harriet and Helen, it's a great book. I'm a long time fan of Sutherland and this has more than lived up to expectation.

  4. Belated birthday greetings, Hayley. I'd be intrigued to know how doveish this collection of lives is?

  5. It's a good mix Simon, lots of writers I like, and coincidentally a few I'd just heard of like Grant Allen. Jeffrey Archer is in there (and sounds really very interesting) as is Georgette Heyer and Wilbur Smith) There are lots of Victorian lady novelists which makes me happy and a good sprinkling of dove loves. Each entry is only a couple of pages and includes a reference to, I suppose, the most definitive (or only) biography to be had and the must read text. It's worth a look.