‘The Lives of the Novelists’ and ‘India Becoming’: Reviewed

An idiosyncratic compendium of the greatest fiction writers in history and a journalistic journey through the extremes of India.

All the Novelists Who Matter, Really?

The Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives By John Sutherland832 pages. Yale University Press. $39.95.

John Sutherland’s bona fides as a scholar and critic are well-established. His work shows a wide-ranging intellect, one unafraid of the occasional risky venture. His new book, The Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, is just such an undertaking, from its tacit nod to Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets to the sheer scope of its design. Sutherland offers a series of chronologically-ordered biographies, some as short as a page, none longer than five, intended to trace the evolution and highlights of the novel’s first several centuries. It is neither a comprehensive overview nor is it comprised only of the expected names. The choices are highly subjective – Sutherland labels the project “idiosyncratic” early on–and readers will note some surprising inclusions, among them Zane Grey, Harold Robbins, V.C. Andrews, and “Walter,” a 19th-century writer of erotica, all of whom he includes alongside such obvious choices as Mark Twain and Samuel Butler.

The format Sutherland employs is simple enough. Each author gets a brief biographical treatment, headed by a single quote by or about the author in question, something to give a taste of the individual’s work or character. The biographical sketch includes major works, as well as any particularly striking or scandalous personal details. At the end of each entry, three notes indicate the author’s full name, one essential work by the author, and a proper biography to consult for further insight. The 17th and 18th centuries are represented by 25 names, combined. The 19th and 20th centuries, for obvious reasons, are the heart of the book, and Sutherland’s mix of literary masters and names more identified with popular fiction (or forgotten altogether) create a textured account of the novel’s many permutations.

Sutherland’s portraits of the great names are thorough (or as thorough as they can be in five pages) and discerning. Of John Updike, for instance, he observes that the author “produced a large mass of fiction (too much, some think),” and goes on to catalogue his “interesting, but less memorable ventures,” a list that includes The Coup and Terrorist. His sketch of Henry James’s life ends with a paragraph analyzing the debate over James’s sex life, but it also examines the difficulties he encountered finding a large audience for his novels during the 1880s.

But Sutherland excels with his unexpected inclusions. Some are lively figures with faded reputations, like Norman Douglas, whose last words are presented in two versions, the more likely of which, we are told, is rather more profane. Others sought literary fame or popular success and either fell short in their day or were quickly forgotten after passing from the scene. Here we find some of the book’s more tantalizing, gossipy allusions, as in the case of the 19th-century novelist Ouida, who in 1871 had “a short-lived affair with a Florentine aristocrat–in which she behaved absurdly.” We also get Michael Avallone, “a grand master of the trash detective story,” who is rumored to have written a Man from U.N.C.L.E. novelization … in 36 hours and a 1,500-word short story in 20 minutes.” His portrait of B.S. Johnson, “Britain’s one-man avant-garde,” is affecting in its presentation of the author’s eccentricities and disappointments, the sum of which led him, at the age of 40, to slit his wrists “in a warm bath, leaving a bottle of brandy for his friends to drink and a suicide note: This is my last word.”

The most maddening aspect of The Lives of the Novelists is the reader’s inability to talk back to the book’s author. On what grounds does he find Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye a more significant book than Song of Solomon or Beloved? Why not include Anita Brookner, Richard Wright, Alan Hollinghurst, or a dozen others, like Don DeLillo, for instance? An answer (albeit not entirely a satisfactory one) to the latter can be found in Sutherland’s preface, in which he observes that those included “were all novelists who have meant something to me, or who have come my way over a long reading career and stayed with me, for whatever reason.” Failing a dialogue with Sutherland, consider passing copies along to friends who are readers. Between the gossipy tidbits studding many entries and the simple pleasure of pruning or supplementing Sutherland’s choices, we’ve been offered a starting point for many hours of literary discussions.

Whatever quarrels the reader has with Sutherland, it is difficult to fault his intentions or his spirit in compiling this list. In the end, Sutherland observes that ours is a particularly rich period for readers of the novel. “For the moment we can, and should, revel in the plenty which we, unlike all previous generations, enjoy,” he writes. As for the prospect of a time when the novel is no more, Sutherland writes, “I should not like to live in it.” Considering how many of us would agree with that sentiment, let’s hope it’s a fate we won’t have to face for a long time to come.

—John McIntyre

India Schizophrenia

India Becoming By Akash Kapur 304 pages. Riverhead. $26.95.

India Becoming, a new book by Akash Kapur, could easily have been titled Tension in India. Kapur, an veteran journalist who’s written for The New York Times and other publications, grew up in south India. With a father from the U.S. and a mother from India, he was raised in a rural area called Auroville, south of Chennai, which he left when he was 16 to attend school in New England. He returned to India in 2003, with his family, to get a sense of how the country was changing. If the America he left behind seemed to him to be static, the India he sought to better understand was dynamic. As Kapur notes in the book’s prologue, “Einstein once wrote of America that its people were ‘always becoming, never being,’ but it was in India now that I felt that sense of newness, of perpetual reinvention and forward momentum that I had felt when I first moved to America.”

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To capture the way India is changing and “becoming,” Kapur follows a handful of Indians who are themselves evolving or struggling in some way. There’s Sathy, the book’s unofficial main character, a 41-year-old man from a family of “zamindars,” or “feudal lords,” who must cope with the way times have affected his livelihood and his rank—farming is not as lucrative as it once was in India, and beyond that, he doesn’t like the way values are changing. “He worried about his loss of status, about the way the social order he had known as a boy was disappearing,” Kapur observes. And to make matters worse, Sathy’s wife and children live in Bangalore, away from his village; his family is caught between urban and rural India. But Sathy’s mourning of the changes clashes with his recognition that India is developing, and that that could be a force for good. “I respected Sathy for holding these two competing perspectives together,” Kapur writes.

Then there’s Harri, a semi-closeted gay man who finds himself deep in debt and worried about how his sexuality could affect his family’s reputation. Another of the book’s characters, and among its most interesting, is Ramadas, who works himself to the bone as a cow broker, and is an adamant atheist. He and his family are living in the wake of the loss of a son, who was killed in a traffic accident. Because Ramadas’s work is with cows, and is thus considered unclean (traditional Hindus do not eat beef), his wife and remaining son tell him that they think his work was perhaps to blame for the accident, a kind of karma. Ramadas does not agree.

There is real darkness lurking in the book’s edges—separated families, traffic accidents, a drowning, gangs, beating, horrible environmental pollution, poverty, extortion, and murder. Violence doesn’t fit into the popular perception of India’s emergence as a global economic powerhouse, but it can’t be ignored. In one riveting scene, the author is himself in a car accident, and escapes a mob by seeking refuge in a police station. The police seem to be indifferent, and begin beating Kapur’s driver. A text message sent to the influential Sathy is what defuses the situation. The India Kapur reveals at times seems anarchic, lawless in some ways.

The author vacillates between extreme ways of looking at India—that India is a nation on the up and up, or that it is a place with deep, almost unsolvable problems, some of which have been exacerbated by the growth of capitalism—and eventually he settles on a middle ground. “India didn’t lend itself to easy judgments,” he concludes. “The central fact (perhaps the only incontrovertible fact) of modern India was change.”

Kapur himself, with one leg in the East and one in the West, is an excellent ambassador to explain the dynamic of change in India, what the nation is becoming. Any reader who would like to understand the country better would do well to give him a read.

—Robert Verger