Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998
Review number: 624
The third of John Sutherland's collections of short essays on literary puzzles looks at modern (twentieth century) literature, from Henry James' Wings of the Dove to Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Each essay, taken by itself, is thought provoking and interesting, even if you have not read the novel under discussion (though they are probably a bit too revealing to read if you don't want to know what happens before reading).
To read them through in one go, as I have done, reveals a certain repetitiveness. A large number of the essays are concerned with discrepancies in the treatment of time, such as the non-mention of the Suez crisis in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, and possible resolutions of these difficulties. (In this case, Sutherland suggests it is deliberate and ironic on the part of the novelist, emphasising his central character's ignorance of the fact that his cherished patriarchal world is about to be finally destroyed as the incompetence of establishment figures as Eden is demonstrated incontrovertibly.) The repetition does serve to show just how much readers are willing to accept from a novelist in terms of manipulation of time without even noticing it.
Since many of the novels discussed are relatively recent, Sutherland has been able to approach some of the authors for responses to his essays. In fact, most seem to have chosen not to comment, which is understandable. (I suspect that many authors get tired of others reading things into their work which were not deliberately placed there, and would want to echo Samuel Beckett's "No symbols where none intended".) Most of the response section, in fact, consists of the view of those who worked on screenplays of the novels; this is a good idea, since the literal detail of film means that problems not immediately apparent to a reader have to be urgently solved.
The most interesting essays are those which are not purely literary, such as the discussion of Rambo knives and the different reactions to them by British and American audiences of the film of First Blood, or the literary origins of erotic auto-asphyxiation. The most enjoyable is an entertaining roundup of the Hitchcock style cameo appearances made by Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge and Martin Amis in their own novels.