Editor's Choice September 2012

Sex Lives of Novelists

Writing about writers; an atrocity ignored; the most influential book in English
Nick Higgins

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 that Lives 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.

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.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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