How to be well read

How to be well read? Try John Sutherland. His How to be Well Read is a guide to 500 great novels and “a handful of literary curiosities”.

Sutherland, a professor of English, has written extensively on novels and novelists. He is the author of The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction (1989, second edition 2008) and The Lives of the Novelists: a History of Fiction in 294 Lives (2011).  He also served as the chair of the Man Booker judges in 2005 when the prize went to John Banville’s The Sea.

Sutherland recalls that occasion. He writes:

In the final voting round of the Man Booker Prize in 2005, the five-person panel were split 2/2 between Banville’s novel and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I had the deciding vote and after a thoughtful moment, cast it for The Sea. Banville’s standing, with the world’s most prestigious fiction prize on his mantelpiece, shot up. I felt, for a moment, like a thumbs up/ thumbs down Roman emperor. Ishiguro, in conversation with me later, observed smilingly, “the goalkeeper jumped the wrong way”.

There is a touch of humour in much of How to be Well Read

Sutherland can be spot on in his comments.

Writing about Ishiguro and his novel, The Remains of the Day, he says:

It’s not an English name, and the author was born in Nagasaki, but Kazuo Ishiguro understands the English better than any living novelist. And the English (he took British citizenship in 1982) revere him for it. The Remains of the Day won the Booker Prize in 1989 and, as a Merchant Ivory film, went on to be nominated for a clutch of Oscars four years later, only to lose out heavily to Schindler’s List.

“In my opinion, literature is a library, not a curriculum or a canon,” Sutherland writes in his preface – and How to be Well Read resembles a library in its range of books and authors, including not only literary classics like Ulysses and A Passage to India but bestsellers as well.

Erich Segal and Georgette Heyer

Sutherland can be cruel and funny at the same time. Writing about Erich Segal’s wildly successful tearjerker Love Story (1970), he quips:

The deathbed scene jerks tears with the ruthlessness of a street mugging…
Love Story was submitted by its publisher for a National Book Award. The fiction jury threatened to resign as a body unless the novel was withdrawn. It was. And sold on.

Sutherland can also be funny at his own expense. Writing about Georgette Heyer and her novel, Devil’s Cub (1932), he says:

If you like the Regency romance – none is better. If you don’t know it, this is a good one to start with…
The Devil’s Cub has never been out of print since being first published in 1932. It is regularly cited as her faithful readers’ favourite Heyer. Mine too, although male readers are a bit skittish about confessing to liking this author.

That made me smile, for I too enjoyed reading Heyer as a schoolboy.

Raymond Chandler, Salman Rushdie and Lawrence Durrell

Sutherland likes stylish writers. He praises Raymond Chandler as the “Shakespeare” “of hardboiled fiction”.

He is also a fan of Salman Rushdie. Though he includes only The Satanic Verses in How to be Well Read, this is what he has to say:

Salman Rushdie’s own view was that it was like a “bad Salman Rushdie novel”. In my opinion there aren’t any.

That’s high praise indeed. Elsewhere he talks about Rushdie’s “exuberance of language”.

Sutherland can be bewitched by words. Writing about Lawrence Durrell and Justine (1957), he confesses:

Even now my saliva glands moisten and my pulse quickens at the opening words:
The sea is high again today with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes.

Sutherland likes Justine, but considers Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea – the subsequent volumes of the Alexandria Quartet – a bore. “It goes on and on,” he says. “Enjoy Justine, though,” he adds.

How to be Well Read ranges far and wide, touching on the greats (Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Brontes, George Eliot, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Conrad, Lawrence, Joyce), modern masters (Burgess, Updike, Roth, Bellow, Nabokov, Naipaul, Greene, Camus, Kafka) and the bestsellers (Jeffrey Archer, Jacqueline Susann, Jackie Collins).

It’s a book for browsing — entertaining, good reading, and there are flashes of insight. I was struck when I reached the end of the book. Alphabetically arranged, it ends with Zuleika Dobson. Sutherland recalls he used to burst out laughing when he read this Max Beerbohm novel as a schoolboy. But now, he says,  “Zuleika’s comedy strikes me as blacker than black, and much of it no laughing matter at all.” Published in 1911, this fantasy novel about Oxford students dying for the beautiful Zuleika preceded the slaughter of the First World War that broke out only three years later, in 1914.

“It’s always been a mystery to me that novels change as you change, but they do,” says Sutherland, noting he is no longer moved to laughter by Zuleika Dobson.

I have had the same experience with other books. Books that once tickled me to death have palled, I have taken to other books and writers. Change, change is the only constant, even when it comes to books.

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