Following the excitement on Tuesday over the announcement that Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman is to be published in July, I got to thinking about the stories behind the stories that we book lovers love so much.
I’m currently reading Suite Francaise by Irene Nѐmirovsky, the story behind that novel is a sobering one. Irene Nѐmirovsky had intended that Suite Francaise would be a four part novel sequence – telling the story as she saw it of France and its citizens during the German occupation of World War Two. Only two parts of that planned sequence were ever completed –as Nѐmirovsky was killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1941. Nѐmirovsky was already a well-known writer, but this novel was lost and not published in France until sixty-five years later. Nѐmirovsky’s eldest daughter apparently had the novel in a notebook that had belonged to her mother, and for over fifty years had not read it, never realising what it was she had in her possession. An enormous best seller in France Suite Francaise was later translated into more than thirty languages including English.
Of course one of my most favourite stories behind a story is of how the wonderfully gothic Frankenstein came to be written. The story goes that while travelling in Switzerland, Percy Bysshe Shelly, Mary Shelly, Lord Byron and others in their party hit upon the idea of a competition between them, to see who could write the best horror story. Frankenstein was the result. I have read Frankenstein three or four times, I really love it – I was delighted therefore when having taken it to my book group to pitch for our banned books month in March it was picked – so next month I shall be reading it again. (It was banned in South Africa during the Apartheid era) Who could have predicted that a competition to provide entertainment during a holiday could have resulted in a novel still being read almost two hundred years later? I think the novel is still every bit as readable now as then (as long as you suspend belief a little – and keep in mind the time it was written – it was quite a controversial story in its time) but the story behind the story is every bit as absorbing.
All of that brings me back to Harper Lee – and the story behind that extraordinary announcement on Tuesday.
Go Set a Watchman was apparently lost for over fifty years; some articles I saw today seem set to temper some of that initial excitement with disturbing suggestions of sly manipulation. It is difficult to know what to believe, but just because an author is reclusive, ageing and unwell – does not mean they are also a victim. There is of course the chance that stories of Harper Lee signing papers, without knowing what they are, are true – but I can’t help suspecting the usual sceptical outpourings that result from other’s excitement. I have today pre-ordered my copy – and I await its arrival in anticipation. I hope we don’t spend the next five months listening to dour predictions that this lost first novel is going to be disappointing, (ok, yes it might be) or that Harper Lee is now a sad ageing figure to be pitied. Ageing is a difficult business, but let’s not forget the woman that she was, and still is – the story behind her stories of Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird. She wrote one of the best loved, biggest selling novels of all time, she was a friend of Truman Capote, assisting him with the research of In Cold Blood, more importantly she jealously guarded her privacy. What I do hope, is that whatever the literary merits of Go Set a Watchman might be – she is left in peace – never a woman to court publicity – I do hope the world just sits back, reads the book, and allows this legendary woman to retreat back behind her shutters if that is what she wants to do. Ultimately, while I understand where some of today’s scepticism has come from I shall have to let the book tell its own story.
While I wait (a little impatiently) for the new Harper Lee novel to be published – I intend to re-read To Kill A Mockingbird – I wonder why I have waited so long – maybe I am a little nervous at revisiting a book I loved so much in my youth.
There are simply so many wonderful books out there, written by interesting and unusual people, many of those books came about in extraordinary ways. I do so love the stories behind the stories, stories of lost books, unlikely publishing phenomenon and eccentric writers. How fitting that the stories contained in the pages of our most loved books should have a story of their very own.