Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Not the memoir I was expecting

I'm beginning to wonder if publishers are pressing authors – the literary ones as well as commercial writers – to include best-selling elements in their books.

The thought occurred to me because Professor John Sutherland's memoir, The Boy Who Loved Books, is so different from the book I was expecting. I thought it would be largely about the books he read from early childhood to his late teens, but in fact it is more of a fashionable misery memoir.

It isn't until page 38 that he mentions having Wind in the Willows (sic) read to him by an American admirer of his war-widowed mother.

On p 44, Sutherland writes, "I recall my mother in London spending six shillings she could ill afford (or was not keen on parting with) on a book for me at the Marylebone W.H.Smith's. I must have been around eleven at the time. It was They Died with their Boots Clean by Gerald Kersh. I was at the station to be sent off to some relatives in Nottingham and nagged her for the book. It was, as she would see it, a sacrifice – but I was being discarded. And, now I think of it, the subject of Kersh's docunovel – patriotic guardsman undergoing basic training and preparing to be posted abroad – had a certain significance. He was not otherwise a writer I was interested in."

John Sutherland was born in 1938. In 1942 his father was killed in a Royal Air Force flying accident in South Africa. You might think that a four-year-old would quickly get over the loss of a parent. But his mother, whom he adored, put her interests before his. He was sent to live with relations in Scotland, ostensibly because of doodlebug air raids, but actually so that he should not witness "her intimacy with a man to whom she was not married."

There's a lot about class in this memoir. From the author's perspective, working class people were admirable, upper class people were not. Of the Rt. Hon Alec Douglas-Home, he writes, "He probably passed a dozen historical replicas of his vacuous, overbred physiognomy when he ascended the stairs every night to his four-poster."

I have no political leanings but was put off by that contemptuous reference to a man I thought totally trustworthy, more than can be said of many people involved in politics.

So, on several counts, the book is a disappointment with, at least for this reader, too much about the author's time as an alcoholic and not nearly enough about the books he read.

However, as I said at the beginning, it may be that his editor at John Murray pressed the professor to concentrate on the aspects of his life which would appeal to those who enjoy misery memoirs, and to cut out a lot of the bookish stuff he had intended to include.


At 25 July, 2007, Anonymous Mark Thwaite said...

I'm not a fan of Sutherland but, still, I'm disappointed that this isn't wholly about the "books he read from early childhood to his late teens."

Surely, we don't need another misery memoir? And, surely, a book by a literary critic about the books that shaped him as a young man would appeal much more to what you would gather was Sutherland's target audience.

At 26 July, 2007, Blogger Richard Havers said...

As a friend of mine's mother is want to say. "It's not for me, oh dear, no. Not for me at all.:

At 05 August, 2007, Blogger Thistle Stop said...

Sutherland discussed this book briefly in an interview 20th June on the BBC Radio Four programme 'MidWeek'. The entire broadcast (including three other interviewees) can be heard on the web at .

I'd say the book is not to my taste, as you've described it. I've had too much of my own misery to want to wallow in someone else's, unless the recounting is something special. After hearing the interview and reading your review, it sounds like this book is more self-indulgent than insightful, and certainly not uplifting. So, not for me, either! Thanks for giving us the review.

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