Sunday 22 March 2015

Two mockingbirds with one stone

Previously published in the Bangladesh Daily Star

HarperCollins caused a stir with its announcement in February that it would be publishing a second novel by Harper Lee. 

To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1960 at the height of the American Civil Rights movement. Set in 1930s Alabama, Lee’s story of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman hit the mood of the time, won a Pulitzer, and rapidly became a classic.

Despite pressure from her publishers and enthusiastic demand from readers, Harper Lee failed to provide a follow-up. Until HarperCollins’ announcement, she was firmly in the category of single-novel authors, keeping such distinguished company as Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar) and Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things). Meanwhile Lee avoided interviews and publicity as assiduously as her contemporary JD Salinger.  

Now, after 55 years, a second Lee novel is about to appear. HarperCollins has described Go Set a Watchman as recently ‘discovered’, tapping into the romantic mythology of famous lost manuscripts.

By his own account, TE Lawrence had to revert to an earlier ‘inferior’ draft of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom after he accidently left the manuscript at Reading Station. A suitcase containing almost everything Hemingway had written by the age of 23, including short stories and part of a First World War novel, was apparently stolen from a railway compartment at the Gare du Lyon. Malcolm Lowry had to rewrite his first novel, Ultramarine after it was stolen from his publisher’s open-topped car. Lowry was particularly unlucky with manuscripts: years later, after Under The Volcano had made him famous, his beach shack in Canada caught fire and he was injured trying to rescue the only copy of a novel called In the Ballast of the White Sea.

So it’s exciting to hear that an unpublished work by a writer of Harper Lee’s stature has been rescued from oblivion; unless accounts of its disappearance have been exaggerated as some have suggested, and it turns out to be not altogether new.    

The publishers have presented Go Set a Watchman as a sort of sequel, in which the narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch, now an adult, is ‘forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood’. But they acknowledge that it was written first. Lee’s account, as reported by HarperCollins, is that the editor who read it in the mid-50s, ‘taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood,’ persuaded her ‘to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout’. It was this that became To Kill a Mockingbird

Inevitably, Go Set a Watchman is already a bestseller four months before its release date. Will it turn out to be a sequel, or a superseded draft? A curiosity or an instant classic? We’ll find out soon enough.