Incomplete and a little uncool, but an essential read
Tegan Bennett Daylight A Little History of Literature By John Sutherland Yale University Press, 288pp, $34.95 EVERY so often, I stand in the study I share with my husband and imagine my literature and world-events timelines. I want them painted on the wall: two lines, one for literature and one for history, so I can see the greatest moments in literature and consider them alongside concurrent great moments in science, industry, medicine or the theatre of war.
So far, I have been either too busy or just too lazy to get my timelines on to the wall. I’m glad to say that half the job has now been achieved for me by venerable English critic and author John Sutherland in his new book, A Little History of Literature.
This is a wonderful book, distilled and arranged with great care. Sutherland has laid out for us a simple chronology of literature, beginning with chapters on myth and the epic and finishing with discussions about magic realism, post-modernism, literary prizes and bestsellers.
He charts the growth of the novel, and devotes whole chapters to significant writers such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf, explaining terms and themes calmly and without condescension.
A Little History of Literature is deliberately straightforward in its language, pitched as it is to younger readers as well as the more experienced of us who have a thirst for classification.
But this is more than just classification — this is connection, guided as it is by chronology but nonetheless creative and simultaneously settling and uplifting. Sutherland shows us how literature goes on speaking to itself across the years, how Chaucer makes his way into Shake- speare, how Defoe and Swift made Austen possible. Years of learning have gone into making this book seem almost effortless.
This is not to say the book is without fault. In his 2007 memoir, The Boy Who Loved Books, Sutherland said he liked to think of himself as a “literary sociologist” — “It helped mask the fact that I wasn’t much of a critic.” This reminded me of something said by Leslie Stephen, author, critic and the father of Virginia Woolf. In a moment of frankness he told his more talented daughter that he had, at best, “a good secondclass mind”.
It seems immensely presumptuous of me to suggest that Sutherland might have the same kind of mind; he is after all a scholar of enormous achievement, a prolific writer and thinker. But he rarely says anything in a way that surprises, or coins an image, as Woolf did in her criticism, which continues to shine in the mind, forever illuminates its subject. I’m afraid I can’t use the book’s intended audience as an excuse for this — younger or newer readers respond just as well to originality as the older ones do.
And let us acknowledge that books such as A Little History of Literature will always attract the criticism of completists. I for one would have liked to see a chapter properly devoted to Russian literature, instead of finding writers such as Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn subsumed into a discussion about censorship, and Tolstoy mentioned only in passing. There is no chapter, either, on Chinese literature — nor on Canadian, Australian or Indian literature. This is the English canon with a few side trips into empire, and even fewer beyond.
Sometimes, Sutherland’s efforts to promote his favourite authors — Dickens, above all — show signs of strain. Where a person of his learning should sound relaxed and confidently open to challenge, he occasionally sounds hectoring and conservative. And every so often his
efforts to reach out to his younger audience result in usages that simply don’t suit him, as when he suggests we might not want to “hang out” with the witches and lions of Narnia (because they’re not “safe”). It’s a little like high school, when a venerable teacher, cool in their utter uncoolness, makes the mad decision to try speaking your language. But these criticisms do not alter the fact that
A Little History of Literature is an essential book, one to keep beside you as you read, to help you choose what to read next and how to read it. Sutherland takes the long and the short view, giving us the history of literature and then moving in to examine a book, or a sentence from a book, to shed light on the whole.
He does this with great skill, exemplified in his reading of the first sentence in Emma, where he notes Austen’s subtle use of irony, and how this irony tempers our reading of the whole book. He cherry-picks some of the very best lines from the greatest books, giving us an instant feeling of familiarity with them and, what’s more, the instant urge to read them.
How lovely to be reminded of Baudelaire’s lines — treasured by decadent 20-year-olds at universities everywhere — “Get drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk; get drunk without stopping! On wine, on poetry, on virtue, as you wish.”
A Little History of Literature is for the most part temperate, concise, clear and calm, and I will be using it to teach this year, as sober as my students could want me to be. But it is also an invitation to us to get drunk on books; an invitation I’m always ready to take up. There’s a great deal of reading to be done, and I’m very happy to have John Sutherland as my designated driver.
Tegan Bennett Daylight is a fiction writer,
teacher and critic.
Charles Dickens reading from his work, Illustrated London News (1858)