Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Go Set a Watchman

the title is from the Bible (Isaiah 21,6) and in I think all the English versions has a comma: Go, set a watchman. The text is about conscience, and that is what the title of this book means. The watchman is your conscience, so you will know if you are doing something wrong.

There cannot be many who have escaped the publicity around the publication of Harper Lee's second novel, Go Set A Watchman. It is the one she wrote first, 55 years ago, and her editor preferred the back story, of Scout Finch's childhood, and her father's defence of a black man accused of the rape of a white girl. So she wrote that instead, and the world got To Kill A Mockingbird.

I have read Mockingbird at least a dozen times since I was about ten years old. I read it in different ways over the years, as you do. When I was ten I enjoyed the child's-eye view, and I envied those children the father they called by his first name and who never came into their rooms without knocking. I don't mean anything sinister about my own childhood by that, it's just that the notion of personal autonomy for children didn't mean that much to my parents until we children reached our teens, and sometimes not then. Later I loved the notion of respect for all people as individuals that is at the heart of Mockingbird. But as I grew older I began to worry about the book . I began to see that something was missing. There was a mystery at its heart. This was not helped by the film, excellent though it was, which showed Atticus Finch as a strong and sensitive hero played by Gregory Peck. Many of those who have complained about Watchman for its portrayal of Atticus as much more flawed and complex than he appears in Mockingbird are thinking about the film and not the book. The complexity is there all right in Mockingbird, it is just portrayed as a child would experience it, so it is not to be explained.

When I first knew that Go Set A Watchman was coming out, my first thought was that here was a predatory publisher/editor looking to make some money from a vulnerable elderly woman before she died. My second thought was that maybe now we would learn something about the mystery at the heart of Mockingbird (critics never seemed to talk about any mystery, but I always found it mysterious). My third thought was that maybe she would address the notion of race, because if you are a white Southerner as Harper Lee is you probably have to. In particular the notion, archaic now but surely normal in the 1950s, that if black people are to be saved from injustice and terrible fates then white people must do it for them. Well, address the notion of race Harper Lee does, and it is shocking.

"If the Negro vote edged out the white you'd have Negroes in every county office"... "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?" This is Atticus Finch speaking. And yet nothing in Mockingbird contradicts this. Atticus Finch says in Mockingbird you need to get inside the skin of another person to see things as they do. But - now Scout realises - he meant another white person's skin. The fact that racist language wasn't used by her father when she was growing up meant that she grew up colour blind. And in the South of the 1950s that is very blind indeed.

A US bookstore called Brilliant Books is offering refunds to people who bought Watchman and found it not what they had expected. I think this is a mistake. Because what do we "expect" when we buy a book? To enjoy it? To respect it? That it should be just the same as everything else that author has written? I submit, none of those things. The most interesting writers are those that make you wonder, when a new book of theirs comes out "What have they got up to this time?"

The (mostly) science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin writes about Go Set A Watchman on her blog. She wonders, as I have over the years, why Harper Lee never wrote anything else after To Kill A Mockingbird. Maybe, she says, because that book wasn't true. Because it was dishonest. Maybe, I wonder too, if Harper Lee was a bit dismayed by the huge international bestseller status Mockingbird immediately acquired and has never lost. That people regularly put it down as their all-time favourite book (I have done this too). Le Guin ends by saying that Harper Lee "wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults and omissions, asks some of the hard questions To Kill A Mockingbird evades."

Go Set A Watchman is shocking. Such a book could not be written now, I am quite sure. The South, just at the start of civil rights, knowing that everything was about to change and fearing chaos, and yes, being swamped. Class, and race, and how we fail to see what is before our eyes because it does not fit with how we have decided things and people are. All these are timeless matters. And not that many writers have seriously tried to ask questions about them.

Harper Lee, I salute you. If you can, please tell us more. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Apparently there is a third book in the vault - a sort of interim between the two. it was all one work originally I have heard. I bough Go Set btu have nto read ti yet. I pre-ordered it with some trepidation - but nto because fo the usual reasons. Actually, I hated To Kill a Mockingbird. I have taught that book until I am blue in the face. Boo Radley coming out et al - Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell. I know them far too well for my own liking as I do Scout and Jem and Dill. However, I am looking forward to reading Go Set because it seems not to be about the unrealistically saintly Atticus, going on about walking around in another person's shoes. It is not going to be about Calpurnia's saintliness. Perhaps, just perhaps it will have more of the reality than the SCHMALTZ of Mockingbird. I saw the black and white film with Gregory Peck when on holiday with my parents in Minehead. We had gone to the flicks because it was raining. I didn't like the film then. I never liked the book. I hope and pray that this one will be better - away from the original editors' saccharine children's fairy story that Mockingbird most certainly is.