In­com­plete and a lit­tle un­cool, but an es­sen­tial read

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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)

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