Skip to Content


Curiosities of literature

Sam Leith enjoys two recent miscellanies

9 October 2010

12:00 AM

9 October 2010

12:00 AM

Love, Sex, death and Words: Surprising Tales from a Year in Literature John Sutherland and Stephen Fender

Icon Books, pp.512, 20

Title Deeds: The Hidden Stories Behind 50 Books Gary Dexter

Old Street, pp.292, 12.99

Lordy. It’s another book by Professor John Sutherland, and a fat one at that. What David Crystal is to linguistics and James Patterson to thrillers, John Sutherland is to literary criticism.

I’ve more than once been critical about Sutherland in print, having detected — but who am I to talk? — a certain slapdashery in some of his scholarly productions. On the last occasion, I received a very gracious, if somewhat Eeyorish, email conceding the odd point and explaining his pace of output with a poignant allusion to alimony. So I don’t want the old brute to feel I’ve got it in for him. We all gotta eat.

This book (co-authored with an old pal, Stephen Fender; Sutherland excels in the Victoriana, while Fender is the Americanist) should bring delight to many, sell tons and keep as many ex-wives as any of us could wish for in scones and jam.

The idea is to tell a story about something interesting that happened in the history of literature, or something interesting that happened in history that gave rise to literature, for every day of the year. Its probable destination is the downstairs loo, but it could equally well give pleasure and instruction over the morning’s boiled egg.

It’s a smart idea, well executed. Its prime virtue is the dense agglomeration of trivia around even well-known events. Yukio Mishima’s suicide (25 November 1970) is an obvious enough date to include — but how funny to record Private Eye’s response, which was to publish a picture of Kingsley Amis under the headline ‘Famous British Novelist Commits Public Suicide by Drinking Himself to Death’.

For some entries, you think: not much happened that day, did it? William Carlos Williams writing to his publisher to say Paterson’s coming along a treat isn’t exactly a literary landmark. But then again, how did they hit on that? Did Stephen Fender, gazing in a panic at the blank space for 13 July, with a motorcycle courier from his publisher idling in the mews outside, suddenly remember: ‘Got it! Wasn’t there some Williams letter about Paterson on 13 July? Bish bash bosh!’? It is not ours to know.

So deliberately miscellaneous is this collection — part of the pleasure it gives is that one minute you’re humming ‘White Christmas’ and the next welcoming the Green Knight to Camelot — you can’t really quibble with what’s in and what’s out. You simply have to judge whether what’s in is decently interesting — and it is.

‘Literature’ as a remit is stretched a bit, and why not? There’s an entry for the birthdate of the guy who wrote a kinda famous film, one for the opening of a long-running Broadway musical (Where’s Charley?), and one for A. S. Byatt ‘fighting’ — well, giving a quote to the local paper — against the closure of a pub. Among the deaths, births and publication dates, the invention of ISBN numbers and bestseller lists are rightly heralded.

The important meetings of the great modernists are noted, too — be they T. S. Eliot’s encounter with Igor Strav- insky (they swapped hypochondriachal grumbles about the thickness of their blood) or the famous dinner on 18 May 1922 at the Hotel Majestic in Paris, where, in the company of Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Picasso, Joyce informed Proust that he liked truffles.

And there’s a frisky but undercooked mini-essay on what you would call literary tit-men, citing D. H. Lawrence, Philip Roth and Norman Mailer as senior among them. The encomium to ‘a huge honkin’ set of big ol’ whoppers . . . this enormous pair of mamajamas’ that the authors quote in a credulous moment, though, comes from a spoof report in The Onion (‘Nation Impressed by Large Pair of Breasts’) rather than from the pen of Norman Mailer.

I’ll probably be in a minority in regretting that comics are given unduly short shrift. The first appearance of Peanuts on television occasions an entry, but there’s no Superman or Batman, no Winsor McCay, E. C. Segar or Alan Moore, no Osamu Tezuka or Keiji Nakazawa. And Peanuts-wise, I’d rather have seen the first appearance of Charlie Brown’s zig-zag jumper (21 December 1950), but I suppose the death of Dostoevsky does trump it.

The story (2 January) about Stephen Crane being stranded in an open boat off Florida but surviving the experience and returning to the arms of ‘his new girlfriend, a brothel madam named Cora Taylor’, reminds me of working for Auberon Waugh’s Literary Review as a teenager. The only caption I ever suggested that made it into the magazine was for a picture of Stephen Crane sitting on a chair. It said: ‘Crane: stood up for prostitutes.’ A proud moment.

A rival for this year’s Christmas gift market is Gary Dexter’s Title Deeds. The Spectator’s reviewer said of Dexter’s previous book: ‘No literary lavatory will be complete without a copy.’ Presumably, the existence of this follow-up will now cause renewed incomplete-lavatory panic in owners of its predecessor. When did literary lavatories come to be such a big thing, anyway, and their completeness such a source of anxiety for homeowners, and profit for publishers before Christmas? I blame James Joyce, personally.

Dexter’s, anyway, is a jolly production, lashed together from his long-running column in the books section of the Sunday Telegraph: an erudite and briskly written collection of Things You Didn’t Know about 50 famous books, running in chronological order from The Divine Comedy (neither divine, nor a comedy, it turns out) to Generation X (a novelist’s account of the post-baby-boom generation whose title was lifted from a sociologist’s account of the baby-boom generation itself, via, er, the pop singer Billy Idol).

You learn along the way about the origins of the belles of St Trinian’s, Searle’s wartime cartoon, showing schoolgirls clustered round a noticeboard that says: ‘Owing to the international situation, the match with St Trinian’s has been postponed.’ And you gather that The Road to Wigan Pier is still commemorated in landlocked Wigan by two pubs, a Wigan Pier Experience, and a nightspot where one ‘DJ Wiggy’ spins the wheels of steel — though the tripe shop above which Orwell lodged was demolished in the 1960s slum clearances.

A book like this stands or falls, essentially, on whether you actually didn’t know the Things You Didn’t Know, or whether you probably did know them but couldn’t be bothered to go on Wikipedia. This mostly passes the test; and like Sutherland and Fender, Dexter shows every sign of having read the books he writes about. He’s funny, too, and a good guide to what’s funny in others.

Dexter’s entry on anagrammatic titles directs you to a complete joy, for instance. Francis Heaney’s Holy Tango of Literature (2004) is a collection of anagrammatic parodies. Dexter quotes ‘Kong Ran My Dealership’ (Gerard Manley Hopkins) in full.

‘I hired last summer someone simian, King/Kong of Indies islands, fifty-foot-fierce Gorilla…’ it begins, going on to describe the mighty primate’s prowess as a used-car salesman in perfect sprung rhythm (‘Brute blarney to offer as options wheels, brakes, boot, seat/ Buckles, AND to roar’).

Reading that, I’m afraid to say, the completeness of my literary lavatory once again comes into question. Heigh ho.

Love, Sex, Death and Words: Surprising Tales from a Year in Literature by John Sutherland and Stephen Fender, Icon Books, £20, pp. 512, ISBN 9781848311640 Title Deeds: The Hidden Stories Behind 50 Books by Gary Dexter, Old Street, £12.99, pp. 292, ISBN 9781906964245

Show comments