Posts Tagged ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’

On vicarious experience

April 11, 2017

When my father used to get infuriated by my referring to books I’d read when I was arguing with him, he would point out that you can’t learn everything from books, and nor can you believe everything you read in books. What he was referring to was the importance and the value of lived experience, and the lessons that you learned from it, and I belatedly have to admit that he was right. His outlook on life was irrevocably shaped by very harsh experiences in his younger years, and yet, at the same time, he sowed the seeds in me at a very early age of the desire to study and learn, and to go off to university eventually: he very much wanted me to have the education he’d never been allowed to have.

And recently I came across a quotation which I know I’d have thrown back at my father in those younger days, had I known it then – the idea that if you don’t read, you only live one life, but if you are a reader, then you live thousands of lives. Yes, I know that’s vicariously, but it’s still a very powerful notion. Of course, I’ve forgotten where I came across the quotation and who said it…

This got me thinking. Of course, there are history and geography books, and films, television and documentaries that can teach us about other times and other places, but they are not the same as living through a character in a novel set in another country or century, where you can get inside the mind, thoughts and feelings of a person – admittedly fictional, but carefully and consciously created to be convincing – and the point is that, until time travel is invented, that’s the closest any of us is going to get to living in another age. Yes, we could move to another country rather more easily, but would we want to, and could we experience and understand life as, for instance, a Russian, having been born and brought up as English? A skilful writer can take us as close as it’s possible to get to that experience; perhaps we might enhance it with a visit to that country.

Then, of course, we might think about emotional experiences: how many different kinds of love, relationships and affairs, happy and tragic, have we encountered? And do we, can we learn anything from reading about such things, does our reading make us any the wiser in terms of managing our own lives? Can I, as a man, really learn and understand anything about the life and experience of being a woman, from reading? I’d argue that I can and have, even though it is inevitably rather limited, and obviously cannot be the real thing. Does reading about madness help us know or understand anything about different mental states?

A few years ago I calculated that I’d probably read upwards of three thousand books so far; that seemed both rather a lot and not very many. Where have I lived, and when? Some books that I feel have given me some profound insights: what day-to-day life in Nazi Germany was like: Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin; living in the time of Stalin’s purges: Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; a utopia I think I’d quite like to live in: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; some understanding of life in a totally different culture: Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy; an insight into the mind of a committed Nazi intellectual: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones; what if the Soviet Union had succeeded: Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda; an insight into the meaning and power of patriotism and loyalty: Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March; a vivid impression of the Deep South: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman…

I could find more examples with a bit more searching, I’m sure, and there will surely be people who can tell me, “But it was nothing like that!” But I maintain that literature – reading – has broadened my horizons immensely, and given me insights into people, places and times I would otherwise never have begun to understand.

My A-Z of Reading: X is for XXXX (censorship)

December 26, 2016

I have always had the impression that a great deal of swearing goes on in the armed forces. There is the story that NCOs were forever yelling at squaddies, “Get your f***ing rifles!’ but they knew that if one yelled, “Get your rifles!” then the situation was for real, deadly serious, and reacted accordingly. And so, a play set in the trenches during the First World War will be full of expletives… or not. Journey’s End, by R C Sherriff, a play I know extremely well from my teaching years and from the study guide I wrote about it, contains no bad language at all. Until the nineteen-sixties, all plays staged in Britain had to be passed for performance by the Lord Chamberlain, and profanity was not permitted. You can even find examples, comparing different versions of Shakespeare’s plays, where the language had to be toned down after James I inveighed against bad language onstage…a look at the textual variations in Othello is quite interesting.

More serious, of course, is the censorship of undesirable ideas. Graphic descriptions of sex (among other things) restricted publication of such classics as James Joyce’s Ulysses and D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (now utterly toe-curling); would-be British readers had to smuggle such books in from France! And there was the hilarious court case about Lawrence’s novel in the early 1960s when Penguin Books first published it in this country. Political correctness now demands censorship of some American classics such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, even To Kill A Mockingbird, because they all contain a certain word beginning with ‘n’. Grossly offensive though that word is, I’ve always felt that the shock effect of actually meeting it in a novel, and the brief discussion that could ensue when a class did meet it and realised that the word used to be ‘acceptable’ in the past, was better than neutering the book.

In the days of the USSR, many entire books went unpublished. Writers wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’, knowing that their manuscript would have to stay in their desk. And they wrote anyway. Vassily Grossman was told by a KGB officer that it would be at least two hundred years before his novel Life and Fate could possibly be published. The effect of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch being published in a Soviet literary magazine was like that of an earthquake; none of his other novels was allowed to be published and he was eventually driven into exile and obscurity, like a number of other dangerous authors.

Books and ideas can be very dangerous to established power. The Catholic Church maintained its Index Librorum Prohibitorum up until a generation or two ago, and books can still be shunted into a religious limbo by being denied the official imprimatur of the Church. A small plaque in the Bebelplatz in Berlin marks the site of the Nazis’ public book-burning. And in Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell saw the advantage to the state of controlling everything in print, of rewriting the past, and of manipulating the language itself, far more clearly than anyone else has done. Ray Bradbury eliminates print and writing totally in the society of his novel Fahrenheit 451.

I have always regarded censorship as a very dangerous thing. And yet, I have also always felt a profound unease with the simplistic idea of the free speech argument: why should one allow free speech to those who would use that very ability as part of their struggle to destroy that very free speech for everyone? That’s a circle I’ve never managed to square for myself; I think we must acknowledge that we live in a very imperfect society and that ownership and control of the means of publishing and disseminating ideas is not neutral in itself.

My A-Z of reading: F is for Film

October 27, 2016

Novels get made into films. Sometimes we like the film version of a book we know well, sometimes it’s awful. But how much thought do you give to the transformation that takes place? The two media are so radically different. The printed text relies on verbal description to create place, setting, atmosphere: a film can do this in seconds, perhaps much more effectively, with added music and sound effects. A novel can take us deep inside a character’s mind and thoughts: how do you do this in a film? And what difference does any of this make, anyway?

I’ll start with Jane Austen. Her novels have been filmed numerous times, for the cinema, and as series for television. And here we find another difference: a film has a relatively fixed time duration – let’s say from an hour and a half to two and a half hours. A TV series could easily be twice as long. What is left in, and what is cut? Again, how does this affect the story – when does it cease to be the Jane Austen novel we know and love, and become something else? Film can do the settings, the houses, the costumes and the looks and interaction between the characters, but what about the thoughts, what about the irony, the subtle authorial interventions? These are lost. Some may be hinted at or suggested through refashioning dialogue, but… And what about the invented moments, Colin Firth‘s famous wet and clinging shirt in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, or the kiss at the end of Persuasion. These things may look good on screen, but are they not also doing violence to the original? No, a film is always a version of the original…

I have always liked the film of The Name of the Rose. Sean Connery works as William of Baskerville. The locations and the use of light create a very effective sense of atmosphere; the library is superb and the apocalyptic ending is marvellously done. And yet, only after watching it is it possible to grasp how much of Eco’s superb novel is missing: the stunning erudition, the theology, Adso’s reflections. The film is faithful to the original, but only so far. Similarly, Gunter Grass’ pre-war Danzig is superbly recreated, both visually and atmospherically by Volker Schlondorf in his film of The Tin Drum: the subtly growing Nazi menace creeps up on everyone, and we are not spared the horrors, but the film is only half the novel. It doesn’t matter whether you feel that it’s the better half, my point is, it’s hardly Grass’ novel!

There are more film and TV versions of Sherlock Holmes than you can shake a stick at. Some are passable, some truly dire, some hardly Holmes at all, but I’m of the generation that was captivated by Jeremy Brett’s mannered performances in the 1980s for Granada TV. Fantastic attention to period detail, some re-arrangement of plots for dramatic effect, but fidelity to Conan Doyle’s original is perhaps easier to achieve when we’re (only) dealing with short, detective stories.

I have singularly failed to watch Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch in the film of To Kill A Mockingbird. We set out to watch it in class one day, but found the opening so crass, so clumsy and so unconvincing after our reading of the novel that the class virtually booed it off-screen: I stopped the video after about fifteen minutes and we gave up… It was instructive to watch and compare the two versions of Lord of the Flies: the aged black and white version made with non-actors that was so faithful to the original yet so ineffective twenty years after it was made, and the horrendous ‘updated’ US version with swearing, rewritten plot and so many other pointless alterations bore almost no resemblance to the original.

Perhaps the most successful – or do I mean accurate? – film version of a novel that I can recall is Richard Burton’s last role as O’Brien in 1984, and John Hurt’s superb performance as Winston. Orwell’s vision of London is visualised stunningly effectively, apart from the smells, of course, which Orwell himself was only able to describe in the original. Fear, paranoia, menace all loom out of the screen; even excerpts from Goldstein’s book – often skimmed by reluctant readers – are read into the film. Brilliant; closest to being a film of the novel rather than a version of it. Unless you know better?

My A-Z of reading: B is for Beginnings

October 16, 2016

What’s the most effective and memorable beginning to a novel (or a play or poem, for that matter) for you? Many will perhaps default to the obvious ones, like the opening line of Pride and Prejudice… but what makes a really effective start?

I suppose there are the ones we remember, and the ones that actually work, the ones that have an instant effect, and the ones that creep up on us. I’ve always liked the opening of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-fourIt was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. That works for me partly because of the immediate shock – what sort of world is this, where clocks actually strike thirteen? And it takes me back to my childhood, at the end of the 1950s in the little village where I was born, where the next-door neighbour but one, a reclusive old woman, actually had a decrepit clock that did strike thirteen. This astonished me, and I used to love listening to that final, wrong strike.

But the one I remember most often is not actually an opening sentence, but the opening incident: the narrator of Lawrence Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy is telling of the Sunday night ritual in his parents’ household: Sunday night is intercourse night and he is about to be conceived, when in medias res his mother enquires of his father if he had remembered to wind the clock… for me, this sets the tone for the rest of this wonderful novel, the longest shaggy-dog story in the world as someone once called it.

When teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, I was often conscious of the long opening section – Part One – which is getting on for a third of the entire novel, and appears to go absolutely nowhere. Occasionally a class would become somewhat restless as we read, and this caused me to reflect on it as the opening to a novel; it was often only at the end of the entire book that we could go back and reflect on what Harper Lee had been doing with that lengthy introduction – “too much description, sir!” – creating such a vivid sense of place that we could actually fit ourselves into Maycomb. The book needed it, before the real story of Tom Robinson could start.

Plays are no different, and looking at what Shakespeare does is instructive. Often he hurls us head-first into the action – the witches in Macbeth, the storm in The Tempest: we are instantly gripped and cannot look back, and in different ways he develops the stories and sweeps us forward. And yet, he can do slow and subtle, too: the discussion of Antonio’s melancholy at the start of The Merchant of Venice, for example, or the gentlemen comparing notes about the king’s erratic behaviour at the start of King Lear.

John Donne has some wonderful opening lines in his Songs and Sonnets: Busy old fool, unruly sun (The Sun Rising), for example, or For God’s sake hold your tongue (The Canonisation), or When by thy scorn, O Murderess, I am dead (The Apparition), or Mark but this flea… as an exercise in seduction technique unequalled by any other poet I know.

So what works, and how? Something must intrigue us, either instantly and suddenly as in the Donne poems, or it must begin to insinuate itself, to sow a trail of loose ends and possibilities that we find sufficiently interesting to continue to pay attention, rather than go off to something else, as Shakespeare intrigues us at the start of King Lear. And whatever bait a writer or poet dangles before an audience or reader, it must go on to offer the promise of (eventual) satisfaction after that initial flash of inspiration.

From page to screen

May 31, 2016

I suppose I’ve always been a purist when it comes to adapting a novel for television or the cinema: a book is a book for a reason, and converting it into something else – a play, a film, a TV series – always loses something. However, there are also times when something is gained…

Other forms (I’ll write more fully about significant form in a future post) add a visual element to something that was originally written to appear in print. It’s important to understand how it replaces a space that existed for the imagination to work in when we are reading: we visualise characters and places as we read, often working from our stock of memories of all the people we have ever met and the places we have been to. Thus, when we see a film after having read the book, we may feel that the casting or setting jars with what our imagination had created for us originally. Equally, if we watch a film or television adaptation first and then go on to read the book, our imagination may well be constrained by what we have seen. I do think that it’s important to allow free rein to the imagination, especially in a child’s formative years: if it’s fully developed, it will always be there; it’s a valuable and necessary part of us in so many ways.

Although adaptations add visual elements (which are often powerful and moving), they usually also necessitate trimming or cutting of much material that’s in the original text. Logically, if it takes us a total of, say, twelve hours spread over a few days to read a novel, then to turn it into a two-hour film inevitably means losing something, even though the visual elements are clearly a short-cut and substitute for many pages of written description. Even the first TV adaptation of War and Peace in the early 1970s, which lasted twenty hours (!) had to lose a great deal of Tolstoy‘s masterpiece.

So decisions are made, and can outrage us if we have read the book first and we feel that vital elements have been cut, or even worse, changed, for the sake of – what, exactly? a series suited to the US market, perhaps? However, if we come to the text after the film, we may well be enlightened by the richness of what the author offers us in the original.

What gets cut? Characterisation and location are relatively easy to do with visual support; action has the advantage of looking good on screen and keeping the viewer engaged; visual elements can create atmosphere very effectively indeed. What often suffers are the broader themes and ideas which a writer may have spent a good deal of time on: these may be lost, and their absence contribute to a more lightweight and superficial visual experience.

Things are added, too – and these are the kind of things that really jar for me. Examples: the marvellous adaptation of Jane Austen‘s Persuasion which works beautifully until the very end when the hero and heroine were instructed to kiss – for goodness’ sake! for the US audience. The adaptation of Mansfield Park where we were shown Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram in bed committing adultery. Colin Firth’s pool plunge and wet t-shirt moment. I could go on, but you get the idea, I hope. And please don’t tell me it’s all about making something relevant for a modern audience…

I have come across very good translations from book to film. I’ll cite the original TV adaptation of War and Peace again, because it was a masterpiece of its time; the early 1970s adaptation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy which many of my generation remember with great fondness, but which seems to have been lost forever; the TV adaptation of Middlemarch which did its best with a doorstopper of a novel; Volker Schlondorff‘s film of GrassThe Tin Drum, which, although only the first half of this epic novel, was stunningly faithful to the original.

Horrors include most adaptations of GCSE set books turned into theatre by companies desperate to milk the school market for cash, such as stage versions of To Kill A Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men.

Lastly, it occurred to me that science fiction comes off pretty well in the cinema, and I’m wondering why – perhaps it’s partly because of its emphasis on spectacle and imagination rather than ideas (gross oversimplification here, I know) but films such as Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly managed to enhance their original novels, and I’m looking forward to seeing the series of The Man in the High Castle at some point…

Harper Lee

February 19, 2016

So, what did she achieve?

She painted a wonderful, if romanticised, picture of the Deep South, in which her love of the place shone through clearly. However, she was also very aware of its troubled past and present. She brought childhood innocence to life in the children she created, again perhaps romanticised, but that is what most of us do to our childhood memories. And she showed how that innocence is often cruelly dispelled.

She wrote an engaging story, that unfolds initially in a very leisurely manner, reaches one  conclusion, but then continues, to an ending which takes us back to childhood, and to the cusp of adulthood, first shocking and then comforting and reassuring her readers.

Because I taught it so often, and always insisted on reading every word aloud in class, it’s probably  the novel I’ve read more times than any other, and I know it extremely well. Its lessons – about racism, about childhood, about families and parenting, have never palled, and with every class I taught it to, raised different questions and discussion points. Sometimes it took a while for some students to grow to like it, but I think they all did.

Some people have carped and cavilled about this or that aspect of her novel. It’s not perfect. She wasn’t Jane Austen or Tolstoy. But she wrote a novel which has endured for over fifty years, more than can be said about most of the other novels from that time. It’s a novel which countless thousands of school students have enjoyed, and Michael Gove – philistine idiot – has deprived English schoolchildren of that possibility now.

I’m saddened by her death, and very grateful for what she gave us. RIP Harper Lee.

The staircase (concluded): Themes & Ideas

January 25, 2016

I suppose, in terms of my teaching, the themes and ideas were the optional extra, as I explained in that introductory post: there don’t actually have to be any, and plenty of novels are successful enough without them. It’s where works of fiction become more complex and demanding of their readers, and novels which are set for examination or other kinds of study will normally be chosen because they contain ideas and issues for the student to explore.

Clearly, it’s possible to read a novel and ignore or skate over the ideas because what you are interested in is the plot or the characters, particularly in that first reading; maybe they are not particularly noticeable or evident; perhaps you will deliberately look for them later. I’ve always enjoyed and responded to what I call the literature of ideas, not that I don’t enjoy fiction to relax and unwind with, like my collection of science fiction and detective novels. But – and I don’t know whether this came about because I turned into a student of literature – writers have usually made me think, at the same time as entertaining me.

Here I realise we come on to another idea which isn’t perhaps widely considered, that once an author has published a book, it is public; that is, the author no longer has sole ownership of it and what it says or contains. A reader may find something, interpret something in a way that the author didn’t originally intend, or didn’t think of when writing: that is a valid idea, or interpretation nenetheless. So, these themes or ideas that I’ve been writing about may be deliberately intended to form part of the work by an author, or they may be accidental, and this is not always clear; it has seemed to me that the more time that elapses since the first publication of a novel, the more open it becomes to a wider range of interpretations and meanings than the author may originally have intended. Her or his novel is in the public domain (I’m not meaning the legal sense of the term here), in the wild, as it were, with an existence and potential for understanding that are its own. Some authors openly acknowldege this, some may have not even thought of this possibility…

I’ve written theoretically thus far about the concept of themes and ideas, the third step of my staircase; now I’ll consider two texts in the light of the theory, by way of illustration.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a story. A brother and sister grow up, in a single-parent family, with their father who is a lawyer and who undertakes a particularly challenging defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman, in the racist society of 1930s Deep South USA. He loses the case. That’s the novel, and yet we can look at it from a number of other angles: it’s about growing up in a racist society and the different ways people respond to this; it’s about parenting and how parents shape your life; it’s about the relations between parents and children; it’s about adults and children; it’s about growing up and how you change in the way you see and respond to the world. All of those are the bigger ideas or themes lurking in the novel, and surely there cannot be many readers who have not noticed some of them.

Birdsong is a story of the First World War, the horrors of the trenches and how men survive or not, set against he background of the Battle of the Somme. And yet… it’s a novel about comradeship; it’s a novel about how men react when pushed to the absolute limits, when any minute might be their last, living amongst unspeakable horrors; it’s a novel about the power of memory, across the generations, and the power of memory to shape lives. Faulks very carefully weaves a number of different threads together to bring out each of these key ideas and more…

My reading of fiction has always seemed the richer for being able to see such connections, and an even broader picture than just those of the plot and the characters; if students are encouraged to look more widely, they will surely enhance their understanding of a text, write more intelligently about it, and glean higher grades.

The staircase (continued): Character

January 24, 2016

This is the next level in terms of depth of engagement with a text: there are various questions to consider. Is a character convincing (if the writer is writing a realist novel)? If it’s a fantasy, then the criteria may be rather different, but somewhere along the line issues of plausibility or credibility come in to play as necessary to convince us to stay with a particular text. We need to be interested in a character’s progress and development – hence the popularity of the bildungsroman, for example. That’s what keeps us interested in Jane Eyre, in Villette, in some of Somerset Maugham‘s novels, to name a few.

This is also the next level of analysis: we can consider not only the individual characters, but also the relationships between them, and whether we find their interactions convincing. We may encounter such things as the development of romance, feuding, issues of loyalty and betrayal, exploration of friendships… We will also have our own response to specific characters – we may like or dislike them, want certain things for them in terms of the plot development: they take on lives of their own, independent of the author, even though they are the creations of that author. This can lead to us disliking the ending of a novel because it does not turn out the way we think it should have done…

For an illustration, I turn to two of my favourite characters, Holmes and Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. The relationship between them is quite sketchy, as are their individual characters in general. But there is a relationship, starting off from an engineered encounter, introductions and their negotiating the terms on which they will share rooms. As the stories progress, we see through small details the trust that develops between them, the things they like and dislike in each other, the differences between them. Watson is twice married in the stories, and moves out of 221b Baker Street; he has a medical practice of his own at one point, and yet what we might find rather unconvincing is the ease with which his long-suffering wife allows him to join Holmes on any and every caper when he is asked… Holmes’ response is very touching on the couple of occasions where he realises he has overstepped the mark, and exposed his loyal friend to too great a danger. Though the detective stories are the most important thing, as readers we are glad to meet the pair again, in some familiar surroundings, but about to embark on a new adventure. Incidentally, this is probably why I do not like the new modern takes on Holmes, but that’s another matter.

Looking at a couple of more serious examples, from a novel I loved to teach – To Kill A Mockingbird – we can see how skilfully Harper Lee uses her characters in the book. We have the complex relationship between brother and sister, parent and child relationship between them and their single parent father, and then more generally the whole range of relationships between adults and children is put under the microscope: Dill’s sad and fantasised relationship with his father, the strange relationship between Boo and Arthur Radley, Boo’s protectiveness towards the children, Mayella’s appalling relationship with her father which is shockingly laid bare at the trial…

Because we are people too, we can live vicariously through the characters of a novel, and this seems to me why the characters are the make or break element in the success of a book: if there’s no-one who speaks to us, to interest us, to grab our attention and have us interested in their fate – imaginary though it is – why would we bother?

Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A Mockingbird compared

January 23, 2016

51CC2jfysbL._AA160_51A6rmAqknL._AA160_Anyone who looks at the two books side by side (which probably means every reader) will be shocked and surprised by the changes to and differences from what we have always been familiar with. We have to remember that GSAW was written first, and that Harper Lee was sent away by her editor to rewrite it. And we need also to remember that TKAM is set in the 1930s, whilst GSAW is set in the early 1950s. Finally, it does no harm to recall that the time of the writing of GSAW – the first novel – was much closer to the time when the novel is set, and the complex racial politics of the US at the time. Nowadays those political arguments are remote, perhaps half incomprehensible: what informed the editor’s reaction to GSAW all those years ago?

I remember (and perhaps some of my readers may, too), a GCSE oral coursework task that I occasionally set, which involved a hot-seating monologue about a chosen character from TKAM twenty years after the events of the novel. Varied and interesting as the students’ performances were, none approached the power of GSAW’s arguments.

Congenital heart disease kills Scout’s mother in both novels; it explains the non-appearance of Jem in GSAW. Sexual abuse and incest, only alluded to in TKAM in Mayella Ewell’s courtroom testimony, is clearer and plainer in GSAW. Both Scout and Jean Louise visit the negro quarters; the encounter with Cal in the 1950s is far harder and more upsetting in the 1950s context. The disapproving Aunt Alexandra is there, as is the mad Cousin Joshua; the isolation of Maycomb and the strange history of the county is there, almost unchanged; missionary teas happen in both novels, though much more carefully choreographed and bitingly satirised in TKAM.

The visit to the black community’s church is a powerful episode in TKAM: the white church service in GSAW falls rather flat; there is a flashback to Atticus’ successful defence of a black man accused of rape by a white woman during the children’s childhood in GSAW; the courthouse scenes are obviously right at the heart of TKAM, whereas the courthouse is the focus of a racist gathering, Atticus’ attendance at which triggers the explosions that shape the conclusion of GSAW. Epsiodes from the children’s lives (Jem, Scout, Dill) figure in both novels.

The focus is different: GSAW is Jean Louise’s novel, whereas TKAM belongs to a whole raft of characters, shifting subtly as we get inside the skin of so many of the characters.

Both books are, in their different ways, about growing up, the loss of innocence; I found myself initially judging that this is less skilfully done in GSAW, but then I was less sure. It’s done very differently, to be sure, and perhaps the young Scout’s adventures in TKAM are cosier and more endearing, less challenging and threatening than those undergone by an adult. Certainly GSAW is much bleaker: Jean Louise has lost Cal, and fears she has lost her father and the rest of her family, too.

In the end, I did feel that GSAW is a much cruder novel, and I can see why an editor would have said ‘go away and do a lot more work on this book’. The initial set-up is rather bald: Jean Louise the outsider returns home to be shocked by how racist her home town seems to be. There’s a great deal of preachiness about the racial problems of the 1950s, and at times I felt the novel slipped into didacticism. And yet, I can accept that this may have come from Harper Lee’s genuine love of the Deep South as her home, and a picture of it very different from the rest of the US which was still, a century after the Cival War, trying to impose its values and methods on the region. Special pleading? But certainly an editor might judge it a barrier to its success as a novel. The more romanticised picture which emerges in TKAM certainly guaranteed success.

My perspective is also probably different from others’: having taught TKAM so many times in my career, I feel I know it like the back of my hand. And GSAW is both a fascinating insight, and thought-provoking complement to its – much better – successor.

 

Harper Lee: Go Set A Watchman

January 23, 2016

51CC2jfysbL._AA160_I finally got round to acquiring and reading this book, and I’ve thought about it quite a bit. I think it’s impossible to write about without the shadow of To Kill A Mockingbird hovering in the background, as I can’t imagine anyone who has picked up this book to read without having read the world-famous best-seller. Nevertheless, I will try… (Cue usual spoiler alerts, if needed!)

Firstly, after reading it myself, I cannot recall a single review or article about the book (which henceforth I will refer to in these posts as GSAW) which did it justice: it’s far more interesting and complex than has been allowed. Like TKAM, it’s a novel about growing up.

The heart of the novel is a lengthy, complex, powerful and sustained argument about the racial politics of the Deep South in the early 1950s, that rages between Jean Louise Finch, a woman in her early twenties who now lives in New York but who has returned to Maycomb for a vacation. She argues with her childhood sweetheart (who would be her fiance), her Aunt, her father Atticus and her Uncle Jack. As a young adult she realises that her father and family are not the people she thought they were when she was a child but judges them hypocrites; innocence must be shed, painfully, as part of growing up and becoming a person in one’s own right.

The structure of the novel feels rather loose, especially in the early stages, which are the build-up to the argument outlined above. I didn’t really find Hank, her childhood sweetheart, terribly convincing, either as a character or as a potential husband for Jean Louise, and, interestingly, he almost seems to fade out as the novel works towards its powerful denouement.

The elderly Atticus is crippled by arthritis and looked after by his sister Alexandra; his brother Jack lives close by: Maycomb is a place where you belong or don’t belong, and Jean Louise doesn’t know whether she fits any longer: do you inevitably become an outsider once you leave a place?

Throughout GSAW – though it is in many ways a rougher and less well structured and shaped book than TKAM – there is evidence of real subtletly in character portayal and development; one is aware of the beginnings of the talents that would shine through more clearly in TKAM. The real origins of that successful novel are here, and one is left with the impression of Lee learning on the job.

The tone of the novel is livelier, less leisurely and dreamy than TKAM; there is already some of the dry humour and folksy wisdom that we perhaps came to know and love in that novel. I read it quickly; I couldn’t put it down (I refer you to my remarks on plot in my previous post!); I know I shall go back to it and re-read much more carefully soon.

Next post: Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A Mockingbird compared.

%d bloggers like this: