Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, by John Sutherland (Yale). The title and subtitle of this frequently observant, occasionally infuriating, consistently arresting work will mislead readers. John Sutherland—one of Britain’s most admired literary critics and reviewers; emeritus professor of English at University College London; author and editor of more than 50 books, including the authorized biography of Stephen Spender, the definitive biography of Sir Walter Scott, and the authoritative Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction—has written brief lives only of those who’ve written fiction in English, so no Goethe, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Mishima. The term novelists, meanwhile, is to be understood extremely loosely; Sutherland includes a clutch of writers known exclusively or almost exclusively for their short stories (Ambrose Bierce, O. Henry, Saki, Katherine Mansfield, and Alice Munro).
The title also hubristically invites comparison with both a minor and a major monument of English literature—Scott’s Lives of the Novelists, and Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Sutherland’s essays—which run from one to six pages, and which can be waspish and brisk, but also slack and vulgar—can’t really be faulted for failing to approach the offhand authority, the clarity, the precision, the majesty of Johnson’s pen portraits.
On the other hand, Sutherland does sometimes approach Johnson’s wackiness (why 294?). And in addition to championing the justly celebrated and the unfairly neglected (Patrick Hamilton), Sutherland takes seriously writers whose books were socially and commercially, if not artistically, significant—an inclusiveness that encourages idiosyncratic judgment and allows him to let in Howard Fast, Margaret Mitchell, James Michener, Herman Wouk, Ian Fleming, Zane Grey, and Louis L’Amour (but then why not John Galsworthy, P. G. Wodehouse, James Jones, or Harper Lee?). This method also lets Sutherland luxuriate in, and offer pretty lame jokes about, the smutty life and work of the pornographer “Walter” (author of the deeply obscene My Secret Life, circa 1888) and of both Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins.
Indeed, Sutherland is exceptionally assiduous in probing the sexual aspects of his subjects’ histories and books—an approach that offers its obvious charms but that frequently seems unbalanced, in every sense of that word. Nowhere is this clearer than in his ungallant entry on the magnificent Edith Wharton, a writer who, despite her critical revival, remains vastly underrated. Here Sutherland (besides lavishing far too many words on Hollywood’s adaptations of her novels) devotes more than half the space to reporting and speculating on Wharton’s love life and to a bizarrely detailed description of and lengthy quotation from a manuscript Wharton clearly intended as an exercise, never to be published (and her only writing—apart from two lines of a story she wrote when she was 11 and, again, never intended to publish—that Sutherland sees fit to quote): “Beatrice Palmato,” her now-famous (for all the wrong reasons), explicit fictional fragment depicting a father’s sexual encounter with his married adult daughter. Moreover, although inordinately drawn to the sketch, Sutherland gets the details wrong in ways that oddly make it far less disturbing than in fact it is. The act depicted was not a “rape,” as Sutherland avers, but an episode in an ongoing sexual relationship, and Beatrice is her father’s daughter, not, as Sutherland would have it, his “half-daughter”—whatever that might be.
Still, Sutherland’s sex-mindedness occasionally serves him well, as when, about Orwell, he speculates—I believe very shrewdly, given Orwell’s inveterate and peculiar awkwardness with women—that ready access to concubines was the main reason Orwell remained in the Burmese police for five years. In fact, Sutherland’s intuition often seems spot-on: he surmises perspicaciously that Anthony Powell—author of the 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time, which Sutherland correctly calls “a fictional sequence to rival Balzac’s,” and about whom Orwell said “Tony is the only Tory I have ever liked”—rejected a knighthood because it “would have looked paltry alongside his wife’s lineage.” As for his observation that the TV version of Brideshead Revisited pulled in 10 million viewers, “most of whom Waugh would have despised, along with their ghastly colour television sets,” truer words have rarely been written.
Sutherland can display an epigrammatic style and a sharp eye for the telling detail—of Erskine Childers, the author of The Riddle of the Sands, he notes, “Few novelists, with only one novel to their credit, can be said to have managed to trademark a whole genre,” and he quotes Childers’s manly direction to his Irish Republican firing squad the moment before his execution: “Take a step forward, lads. It will be easier that way.” But, although Sutherland also notes that Childers offered his hand to each of his executioners, he fails to note his most openhearted act: before his execution, trying to stanch the internecine hatred that marked the Irish Civil War, he made his 16-year-old son promise to shake the hand of every man who had signed his death warrant—a promise that his son, the future president of the Irish Republic, kept.
And he gets too many details wrong. While there is a murder in the film version of Mildred Pierce, there isn’t one, as Sutherland states, in the novel—did he really read it? Similarly, John O’Hara’s A Rage to Live takes place not in the fictional town of Gibbsville (the simulacrum of O’Hara’s hometown of Pottsville, Pennsylvania), but in the fictional city of Fort Penn (the simulacrum of Harrisburg, a place very different from Pottsville). If readers are to be diverted from Wikipedia to the kind of anachronistic and eccentric work thatLives of the Novelists exemplifies, then publishers and authors must take their duty seriously. And this author, as winning as he can be, hasn’t won me over with the soundness of his approach, his judgment, or his facts.
Orderly and Humane, by R.M. Douglas (Yale). A historian at Colgate, R. M. Douglas offers the most thorough study available of the largest expulsion of a people in human history and by far the most horrific instance in post-war Europe of what is now called ethnic cleansing: the forcible transfer of at least 12 million ethnic Germans, mostly women and children (nearly all the men were dead or prisoners of war), from Eastern and Central Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War. Characterized by the New York Times reporter on the spot, Anne O’Hare McCormick, as “without precedent … a crime against humanity for which history will exact a terrible retribution,” these expulsions, conceived, planned, and executed mainly by the Czechoslovak and Polish governments and security forces, were accompanied by widespread rape and sexual torture, and killed as many as 1.5 million.
No doubt the victims included many Germans who had supported the Nazis, but they also included Germans who actively opposed the Nazis (the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia’s industrialized Sudetenland, for instance, included a high proportion of Social Democrats and other members of the left), as well as German-speaking Jews. Douglas notes that anti-Semitism in Poland “remained at pathologically high levels”; the Poles, who sought an ethnically homogenized state, almost immediately took up where the Nazis had left off, carrying out murderous pogroms against the Jews who had managed to survive the Holocaust. For its part, the ostensibly democratic Czechoslovak government pursued its ethnic cleansing of Germans, Hungarians, Gypsies, and Jews not merely in reaction to Nazi depredations during the war, but to further Czechoslovakia’s pre-war policies aimed at creating a rigidly ethnically circumscribed nation-state—in fact, members of Czechoslovakia’s pre-war German “minority,” who endured officially sanctioned discrimination, outnumbered Slovaks by nearly a million. (Two exceptionally fine works of recent scholarship, Mary Heimann’s Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed and Andrea Orzoff’s Battle for the Castle: The Myth of Czechoslovakia in Europe, 1914–1948, illuminate the ethnic illiberalism at the core of the pre-war Czechoslovak state.)
In his scrupulous reconstruction of these events—events that, like McCormick, Orwell said (as always, calling a spade a spade) were an “enormous crime”—Douglas eschews the potentially unreliable ex post facto oral testimony of the German victims, and instead relies on Czechoslovak and Polish archival records. The result is an authoritative study of an episode that, contrary to McCormick’s prediction, has utterly failed to penetrate the popular historical memory.
The Book of Common Prayer, edited by Brian Cummings (Oxford). Brian Cummings, the editor of this volume, rightly asserts that the language of The Book of Common Prayer “has seeped into the collective consciousness more profoundly than that of any other book written in English, even the Bible.” A work that for nearly half a thousand years marked the hours (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer) as well as the days (Moveable and Immoveable Feasts) and the moments of greatest sorrow (The Order for the Burial of the Dead), suffering (Visitation of the Sick), happiness (The Order of Baptism), crisis, and triumph (Prayers and Thanksgivings Upon Special Occasions), it shaped the inner life and branded the tongue of the English-speaking peoples. Its phrases and rhythms did not merely enter the language. They largely defined the language. Although he was a ferocious atheist, Orwell, probably the 20th century’s most astute critic of the English language, frequently quoted The Book of Common Prayer from memory, and insisted on being married (“to have and to hold from this day forward”) and buried (“In the midst of life we are in death”) to its texts. (Daniel Swift illuminates the profound impact of The Book of Common Prayer on Shakespeare’s work in his keen if somewhat overstated Shakespeare’s Common Prayers, to be published next month.)
This handsomely designed volume contains the 1549 edition, created by Archbishop Cranmer, and the revised editions of 1559 and 1662. Cummings, whose previous book was the brilliant and groundbreaking Literary Culture of the Reformation, is a scholar exquisitely sensitive to the intricacies of grammar and linguistics. Here—in his lapidary introduction, comprehensive glossary, rich explanatory notes (he even includes a “Note on Music,” which explicates that aspect of the liturgy), and meticulous, plainly written annotations—he elucidates the doctrinal, social, political, historical, and literary reverberations of a monumentally significant work.