Sunday, 26 July 2015

My contribution to the Harper Lee controversy

I am usually sceptical of sequels, prequels, midquels and sidequels, although they can occasionally be worth reading for various reasons. I am hugely sceptical of all kinds of Ur-texts, other than for purely academic purposes. There is, for instance, a whole book of early versions of The Master and Margarita, where you can trace all the intricate reworkings in plots and characters, but they are nothing like the final version (and, of course, there isn't even a final version of this particular novel). I am not an archive person, but I have for professional reasons read early unpublished drafts of some famous novels, and they are just that, early drafts. If you are working on a specific text from a specific angle, early drafts can be illuminating. But it's important to remember that they are drafts, not intended for public perusal.

I was sceptical toward Harper Lee's so called new novel ever since it was mentioned, and in the hype just previous to publication I became still more sceptical. I read the first chapter released some days earlier and was not impressed. If I had read this first chapter out of context I would say it was sentimental garbage and never considered reading any further. However, some colleagues had also read the chapter and thought it was good, and I am always prepared to take colleagues' advice and give a book a second chance. I also felt that I could not go on saying that the book was rubbish and merely a publisher's gig (a million copies pre-ordered!) unless I had actually read it. I decided that I would read it for what it was, without comparing it to Mockingbird. As a professional reader, I can do it.

I bought a Kindle copy and started reading the second chapter on the release day. It went from bad to worse. The characters did not interest me, the dialogue was pathetic and used to carry the plot in a most amateurish way; the narrator's voice was didactic, everything was spelt out. There was no conflict, no plot development, nothing at all to attract my attention. Profoundly bad writing. Again, I would have put it away under different circumstances, but I hadn't even reached the episodes discussed in the pre-reviews: the darker sides of Atticus Finch. So I went on. There were a couple of slightly more vivid passages, always flashbacks into the protagonist's adolescence, with some painfully trivial episodes such as her terror when she gets her period or believes that she is pregnant because a boy kissed her on the mouth.

I persisted, and then suddenly, when she discovers that her adored father is a racist, it became intensely good. It was still a typical example of belated parental revolt, accompanied by realisation that all her happy childhood was an illusion (for instance, that their black servant Calpurnia wasn't as devoted as little Jean Louise believed). The good part was perhaps ten pages, followed by an unbearable sermon by Jean Louise's uncle and an explicit quarrel with the father that, if anything, shows that Jean Louise is indeed more prejudiced than he. And they live happily ever after. Sort of.

One star on Goodreads.

It so happened that the cottage where I spent my holiday week had a good library that included To Kill a Mockingbird, so I started reading it immediately after finishing Go Set a Watchman.

To Kill a Mockingbird has never been a great favourite, but it is an important book if you are a reader and more so if you are a professional reader. I first encountered it as a stage version, performed by the State Children's Theatre in Moscow, all the more surprising because the famous film was rated 16+. We had to read it in my English class in college, but I don't think I understood much of it then, definitely not what was so great about it. Which is the narrative perspective. Scout is looking back on her childhood, “when enough years had gone by to enable us to look back”; but she is still very young to understand what happened, and she definitely did not understand what was happening as she experienced it. People around her believe that they can discuss anything in front of her and even allow her to watch a rape case trial, because she is too young to understand. As a narrator, a lightly older version of herself, Scout does not question her own ignorance and does not offer a better understanding. On the contrary, at the time of narration, she is mostly focused on the fact that her brother once had has arm broken. This is exactly the kind of event that a young child would be interested in, and everything else is just a backdrop. The poignancy of the novel is the total discrepancy between what the narrator is saying and what the reader is supposed to infer. To see the backdrop in spite of the narrator obstructing it. This is why I have always said that to use Mockingbird in schools is pointless and even unethical: you have to be a mature reader to cope with this narration. (You also need to know a lot about American history, but that's a different matter). Mockingbird is similar to What Maisie Knew: employing a child as a lens, at the child's expense.

This aspect is still stunning on re-reading. Otherwise, I had no memory of the slow plot in the first half of the novel, mainly telling about two or three summers full of games, interspersed by horrors of school. Had it been told in the Watchman mode it would have been tedious; as it is, it serves as a very long prelude where glimpses of Atticus Finch's human rights engagement may be traced, and Boo Radley's possible crucial role in the plot is hinted at. The famous courtroom scene is quite short, but long enough to see how it has been pruned down from the uncle's speeches in Watchman. Generally, although Mockingbird is endlessly better than the draft, some of the draft's flaws are tangible.

Because I read one text immediately after the other I could spot verbatim passages, but they were few and far between. The Tom Robinson case takes half a page in Watchman, just as an example of how Atticus has changed. But then, Jean Louise of Watchman may misremember. She has an idealised memory of her father. We don't know what he really was like.

To compare Atticus in the two texts or, moreover, claim that Atticus of Watchman can change our view of him in Mockingbird is nonsense. They are two completely different fictional characters who happen to have the same name. Neither is Jean Louise in Watchman the same character as Scout in Mockingbird. She may be an early version, tested and dismissed.

I am glad I have read Watchman, and still more glad I had an occasion to re-read Mockingbird and confirm that it isn't a masterpiece it is always presented as. Maybe, as often happens, most people know the story from the film. It has an important political agenda and has been hugely influential. Every student of literature should read it. Recommend it to your mother-in-law's cousin? Depends on their reading preferences.

As to Watchman, the publisher has made a lot of money out of a soap bubble, as publishers do. If I were ever to teach creative writing, the two texts would be perfect on the syllabus, to show what a long road there is from the first draft to the final one.