Goodbye and good riddance, February 2016. You were a hideous month, a month that robbed us of two great writers: Umberto Eco and Harper Lee.
I’m not going to attempt a critique of Eco’s and Lee’s respective contributions to literature – that’s already been done, and done far better than I could do it. This is just a very small personal tribute to two writers who made a big difference to me. It’s a small, belated “thank you” to two people I’ll never be able to thank in person.
I gobbled up Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in just a few sittings. It was for this mediaeval murder mystery, of course, that Eco was best known, at least in the English-speaking world. The novel was an instant, international success, and I like to believe that this was – at least in part – because Eco, in these dumbed-down times, never underestimated his readers’ intelligence. He was an unabashed intellectual, a professor of semiotics at Bologna University; he frequently commented on political and cultural life in Italy, and his remarks were always pertinent, always enlightening in some way. A living encyclopaedia, his books drew upon a dizzying range of cultural, historical and philosophical influences.
I also devoured Eco’s second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, in which Eco – a rationalist who nevertheless found the occult and the arcane irresistible – invoked secret societies, cabals and conspiracy theories – several years before Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code romped up the bestseller charts. It’s a dense, rich, almost insanely erudite novel; Anthony Burgess famously suggested that it needed its own index. Some find Foucault’s Pendulum a more-or-less empty exercise in symbology and cryptology; others, like me, love it, both as a satirical take on conspiracy theories, and as a dazzling mystery-thriller in its own right.
For all his intellectual prowess, Eco delighted in the ephemeral and in pop culture, gleefully deconstructing cartoons and comic books, believing that no cultural artefact should be denied exegesis (Italy, unlike the Anglo-Saxon world, does not generally observe rigid demarcations between high-brow and low-brow culture). He impishly pointed out that one day Harold Robbins might be considered a greater novelist than Umberto Eco; but then Eco always downplayed his own literary achievements. He was a philosopher, he declared; writing novels was just a hobby, a harmless little frippery, a holiday from genuine intellectual effort. He once happily suggested that his readers were “masochists”. He was being too modest. I love his books, and I’m not noted for my masochism – quite the opposite, in fact.
While Eco was consolidating his reputation as a prolific writer (in both the fictional and academic realms), Harper Lee, on the other side of the Atlantic, seemed to have resigned herself to having just one published book under her belt. Admittedly, this is not so much of a problem if that one book is To Kill a Mockingbird. Following the book’s publication and instant success, Lee quietly kept out of the public eye and steadfastly refused to release any further books. There were apparently other manuscripts that she worked on, but was never really happy with; sometimes she insisted that, having said everything she set out to say, she felt no need to say it all again. Perhaps this is what happens when a writer’s talent and vision crystallise and form something as good as Mockingbird. You’ve done it once; why do it again?
Perhaps the master stroke of To Kill a Mockingbird was that it was written from a child’s eye view. Children are often mystified by their elders’ bizarre behaviour, never more so than when they’re presiding over the unthinking condemnation of a blameless man. “Children are children,” the novel notes, “but they can spot an evasion faster than adults.” They can spot a great deal else too, much of it unflattering to adult society, which is perhaps why this novel is a perennial favourite amongst younger readers – a group of which I was once a member. The combination of adult perspective and child’s voice must be tricky (I think; I’ve never attempted it myself), but Lee gets it perfectly, effortlessly right.
Adoration of Lee’s novel was not universal, of course, and criticisms of Mockingbird ranged from the reasoned and reasonable (with its “white saviour” theme, perhaps it actually reinforces racial stereotypes), to the dismissive and plain nasty (such as the persistent rumour that Truman Capote wrote the book and then, inexplicably, allowed Lee to attach her name to it). Some people find Lee’s vision saccharine and naive, the characters one-dimensional. But for many readers, the character of Atticus Finch – having little faith in victory but quietly doing what he believes to be right anyway – became a moral compass.
Then in 2015, quite unexpectedly, there came a startling announcement: after so many years, Lee was planning to publish a sequel to Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman.
Go Set a Watchman was, from the off, surrounded by controversy. Some wondered whether publishers were taking advantage of the by now frail Lee, and whether she had actually ever wanted the book published. The controversy heated up considerably when Watchman hit the shelves. Was it really a sequel, as had been claimed, or just a discarded early draft of Mockingbird? And what had happened to Atticus? The wise, moral man we thought we knew had been transformed into a curmudgeonly racist. Was this more in line with Lee’s original intention? Had Mockingbird, in its earlier incarnations, been a darker, more complex and ambiguous, work than the novel we’re familiar with?
Probably only Lee knew the definitive answers to these questions. Whatever her intentions, though, I hope that we’ll continue to regard the original Atticus Finch as one of our moral Watchmen; now, as much as ever before, we need characters like him.
I hope, above all, that Watchman was published because Lee really wanted it to be published. And I hope that both Lee and Eco will be remembered with fondness and admiration for generations to come.