And more from one of the notable absentees from John Sutherland‘s Lives of the novelists: a history of fiction in 294 lives (Profile Books, 2011). Ladies and gentleman, I give you once again Jack Trevor Story, in a piece from the rag-bag that is Jack on the box (Savoy, 1979):
On location for the Radio Times down in the gorgeous New Forest last week, one of Dave Allen’s merry men who reads my stuff said, “Why don’t you write your life story?” I asked him what he thought I had been reading. It now runs into six volumes, four published, two ready for the printer. “I mean properly,” he said. Help!
It is one of Sutherland’s themes, the significant place and placing – and manner of placing – of the events and circumstances of writers’ lives in their fictions, along with the creep (or planting) of fictions into their actual lives and personas, and the deliberate mystification of the boundaries by masters like Philip Roth. JTS often alluded to this sort of thing in his Saturday Guardian columns of the early ’70s, protesting that his journal was not always to be taken as the literal truth. It was a good game. Here he spells it out (or, as Sutherland intimates for others, does he?) in a preface to a collection that wasn’t published:
Snakes shed their skins and writers go through doors … Albert Argyle went in one side and Horace Spurgeon Fenton emerged from the other. Another skin gone, the anonymous third person god-eye removed and a disreputable version of the author babbled directly to his readers. The last door – apart from the trapdoor that’s always ahead – opened five years further on in 1970/71 and Jack and Maggie came through […] Two fictional characters but now with skins so thin you could see the blood. Plots so believable you can almost remember the occasion. But not quite; the last skin is still there and the blood doesn’t drip.
I keep on batting for Jack Trevor Story because there’s an injustice going on here. He’s almost been erased from the scene (and I don’t just mean Sutherland’s book). Because he wasn’t angry, because he wasn’t northern, because he was funny and obtuse and went off at tangents, because the sheer love of writing spilled from his fingers? For me he catches a certain early ’60s zeitgeist – in the Albert Argyle trilogy (starting with Live now, pay later) particularly – that the literary novelists, writers of what used to be called ‘the Hampstead novel’, missed because they never met Jack’s people. He’s the novel’s equivalent of Ray Davies‘s songs with The Kinks; Jack may have left the village green behind, and Ray never really lived by an actual one, growing up in a north London suburb, but there’s an affinity there – little things mean a lot. Interestingly Sutherland chooses – and I agree – Coming up for air as his MRT (‘Must read text’) for George Orwell, a book I’ve previously mentioned in the same breath as Ray’s Driving, that small masterpiece of a song – one of many – on the Arthur album.
John Sutherland gives us a nice summary of one of the Jack Trevor Story signature traits that make his writing so attractive to aficionados:
disconnectedness […] requires the reader to leap acrobatically from one sentence to another, often slipping. Always he wrote ‘against expectation’ […]
Only he’s describing the work of the American writer Donald Barthelme. But here’s the thing – Barthelme was always being confused with fellow novelist John Barth, and the same thing happened frequently to JTS. I distinctly recall reading one of his Guardian columns about it, his getting invitations (and vice versa) to inappropriate book launches and openings intended for miserable sod novelist and playwright David Storey. Who, for some reason, is included in Sutherland’s roll call as, I guess, the token northerner of his generation, as opposed to Braine, Barstow or, more’s the point, Alan Sillitoe.
I keep going on about the omissions – there’s a list in my previous post – and to be fair to Sutherland, he does make his excuses, saying the book’s big enough already and that, basically, in a field as broad as this, It’s my party and I’ll include who I want to. Just English language fiction, including short stories, the book is a substantial achievement, well worth at the very least extensive dipping into. There is wit, learning and wisdom in abundance in passing. Look up the book in a library catalogue and you will still find its CIP (Cataloguing in publication) record with its sub-title given as a history of fiction in 282 lives, as opposed to the 294 in the actual published book. Who are the late inclusions, one wonders; was pressure applied? It’s a history of the novel form in all its genres but there’s no – to add a few more names to my previous list – J.R.R.Tolkien, J.K.Rowling (there are other children’s authors), Robert Tressell or G.K.Chesterton just for starters. Someone called Jennifer Dawson (even though she “has left little lasting mark on the annals of literary history“) and Sylvia Plath both get 3 pages. (The most anyone gets is 6 – step up messers Defoe, Waugh, Updike, Barnes and Roth,P.)
The story emerges that it certainly helps to have a lousy childhood, a disastrous love life and an alcohol problem. Sutherland sounds a bit of a prude at times (“How, one wonders, can these sexual depravities be related to the novels one used to read with such enjoyment” – that’s Graham Greene) and manages to come up with plenty of period euphemisms for homosexual activity. His basic thesis – his justified counter attack against the literary theorists, the structuralists et al – is that the lives matter when considering the work. He bemoans “Henry James’s posthumous exploiters” and talks of them doing “their grisly work” but doesn’t hesitate to mine many examples of the genre for innuendo. Here’s a low example of the method, about Malcolm Lowry:
On the face of it, the size of the novelist’s tool should be of no more literary significance than Virginia Woolf’s anything but tiny nose, but in Lowry’s case it links – or so it is speculated – to his dipsomania.
There are times when you wonder whether John Sutherland, born 1938, enjoys putting people’s noses out, whether he’s being a waspish imp, a bit of a wag, or just a bitching bore. Quite what sort of a run-in he’s had with Martin Amis in the past, you wonder, when he gives contemporaries Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes 5 and 6 pages but restricts Martin to sharing a section with Richard Hughes the theme of which is unfulfilled promise (“If Amis is the hare on steroids, Hughes is the tortoise with arthritis“) and he makes no mention of Money. Ernest Hemingway is reduced to being an adjunct to one part of Scott Fitzgerald’s life while his short stories are only mentioned in the context of crime writers like Dashiell Hammett (who does get his due).
But it is in relation to the rise of feminism that Sutherland really indulges himself, to the extent of making himself sound like a comic character in a campus novel; you can already see a hint of it in that quote about Lowry above. He talks about Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf biography as blowing away “the fogs of feminist mystification that swirl around the Woolf“. (You can’t help but smile at ‘the Woolf‘ though). Then there’s the exclusion of Nobel prizewinner Doris Lessing, which is baffling unless you see it as the deliberate cocking of a snook. And how about George Eliot (given only 3 pages)?
In 1934 Lord David Cecil, in his […] Early Victorian Novelists observed, with a donnish sigh, that the dust lay heavier on George Eliot than on her great contemporaries: Dickens and Thackeray. That dust has been blown off […] in the last eight years. Two mighty winds are responsible for the de-dusting of George Eliot: 1. feminism and its energetic search for female Shakespeares; 2. the rise of Ph.D. Sponsored ‘research’. What once looked like ‘dull’ is now Arnoldian ‘high seriousness’.
That’s her sorted then.
I could go on. There’s a very strange entry for Thomas Hardy (5 pages) which is mostly about public hangings and doesn’t mention his abdication from novel writing. I’d not heard about The Wizard of Oz being a socialist allegory. I like the idea of D.H.Lawrence being called ‘Bert’ as a young teenager (and his hating it ever after). Mark Twain‘s attributes of greatness Sutherland paraphrases as “Voice, eye, attitude” – absolutely – and here at Lillabullero I cannot disagree with his description of Tristram Shandy as “English literature’s greatest comic novel“. Enough!