A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

By John Sutherland

This little background takes on a really giant topic: the wonderful span of literature from Greek fable to picture novels, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Harry Potter. He introduces nice classics in his personal impossible to resist means, enlivening his choices with humour in addition to studying: Beowulf, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, the Romantics, Dickens, Moby Dick, The Waste Land, Woolf, 1984, and dozens of others.

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MAXWELL: I don’t think about it. I just enjoy reading. CA: Unlike the New Yorker, many good magazines haven’t been able to stay in business. What do you attribute this to? MAXWELL: Postal rates have gone up tremendously over the years. The very thing the government should subsidize is instead being penalized out of existence. It’s lamentable. CA: What do you think is the future of magazines? MAXWELL: Oh, I’m no good at predicting the future. Some people can do it, unusually thoughtful people, perhaps, but I’m not one of them.

MAXWELL: Well, at least it places me in good company. J E A N W. R O S S / 1 9 7 9 25 CA: Much of your writing—the novels especially—shows a great pride in your Midwestern heritage, unlike the satire in some of the earlier Midwestern writers. Would you comment on that? MAXWELL: I grew up in the Midwest; I think and speak as a Midwesterner. I’ve lived in New York City most of my adult life, and I like it here, but I still think of myself as a Midwesterner. CA: Are the experiences of living in New York City heightened by contact with your Midwestern background?

Just so the dog asleep on the hearthrug dreams. You can see by the faint jerking movement of his four legs that he is after a rabbit. The novelist’s rabbit is the truth—about life, about human character, about himself and therefore, by extension, it is to be hoped, about other people as well. He is committed to the belief that this is all knowable, can be described and recorded by a person sufficiently dedicated to describing and recording, can be caught in a net of narration. In this he is encouraged by the example of other writers—Turgenev, say, with his particular trick of spreading out his 6 CO N V E R S AT I O N S W I T H W I L L I A M M A X W E L L arms and taking off, like a great bird, leaving the earth and soaring high above the final scenes; or D.

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