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2010-06, 365, 366, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

‘Magic Moments.’ John Sutherland: ‘Curiosities of Literature.’ John Sutherland.

Profile Books 2008. 273 pp. $32.95.

Random House Books 2008. 290 pp. $32.95

EMERITUS PROFESSOR John Sutherland has been Chair of the Booker Prize and is a prolific author and commentator on literary matters. The Boy Who Loved Books (2007) was a fascinating and insightful memoir of his adolescence and early academic life. Magic Moments, a title taken from a 1958 song made famous by Perry Como, is a chronological companion to that book, constructing Sutherland‘s own Biographia literaria up to the early 1960s.

Sutherland recalls “life-changing encounters with books, films, music . . .” Many of the memories which he evokes will resonate in Australia as much the same media circulated here. Sutherland says “that our cultural experiences are time-bound is a truism. But books, films, music and landscapes mean different things at different times of our lives. We consume them and, mysteriously, they define us at the moment of that consumption”. He notes “looking back through the moments recorded here, I see as many different versions of me . . . assuming we all come into adulthood as what the mafia call ‘made men’ – and private Swiss schools call ‘finished‘ young women – these moments recall, what in large part, made and finished me: my final self”.

In movies, Sutherland ranges from Tarzan to Henry V; children‘s books and comics from The Wind in the Willows (“Moley and Ratty must have picked up their furtive, after-lights-out buggery at public school”) to the Wizard; in literature from Lady Chatterley’s Lover (read in a Paris dormitory as a 15-year-old on his first trip abroad) to Ulysses and in music from Big Mama Thornton to Elvis and Bill Haley.

Sutherland does not indulge in retrospective cultural correctness as he recalls the magic worlds of Edgar Wallace, Percy F Westerman, the Amazing Wilson and Ginger Nutt, the Boy who takes the Biscuit. Sutherland, however, no longer has the same respect for some of the authors who “changed” him, such as Richard Hoggart and John Braine. Dennis Wheatley, an extremely popular author in his day, is still preferred by Sutherland over Aldous Huxley. Sutherland reflects: “Who, in a pinch, would you trust? A man-of-the-world London wine merchant or a myopic Oxford intellectual”.

A website (www.magicmomentbook.com) provides links to further reading and online viewing. Sutherland says “conventional annotation aims to encase knowledge, as apparatus criticus. What I have attempted here is something different. The following are my suggested wormholings through, and out of, what I have written”. Magic Moments will enchant those who lived through the 1940s and 1950s and undoubtedly stimulate similar memories, while it is an historical and cultural time capsule for the digital generation, who can hit the web reference to hear Tarzan’s yell and the cult of the Triffids!

If Magic Moments took Coleridge’s Biographia literaria as its inspiration, Sutherland invokes Isaac D’Israeli in Curiosities of Literature, to create a pot pourri of fascinating literary facts, with impressive black and white illustrations by the cartoonist Martin Rowson. Curiosities of Literature, based on Sutherland‘s lifetime of reading, is arranged in 13 chapters with headings such as ‘Literary Baked Meats’, ‘Mammon in the Book Trade’, ‘First-Night Nerves’ (Chesil Beach et al) and ‘Literary Records’, culminating in a delightfully erudite quiz ‘Curious Connections’.

Sutherland says, it‘s only “a grab-bag of bibliophile and antiquarian anecdote and literary lore” but Curiosities of Literature is far more than that. The sections are set in a cultural context which illuminates beyond the initial amusement. Trivia fans will have a field day in finding out which author allegedly had the heaviest brain, who was the worst novelist ever, what was the original title of 1984, what was the first book written on a typewriter and the first authors to use computers? Curious facts cited include the fate of Thomas Hardy‘s heart, Edith Wharton being a possible link between asthma and literary genius and Daniel Defoe being the most famous author to be pelted in the stocks.

In his epilogue to Magic Moments, Sutherland recounts selling his second house in 2004 which contained most of his library. The real estate agent, on inspection told him “the place looks tired, lose the books”. Many bibliophiles will know that feeling! Sutherland concludes “I don‘t think I could lose them even if I parted with them physically”. Both these most readable books by Sutherland, once acquired, will prove difficult to lose.

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