Whenever a famous figure dies there is a race to pay tribute, as though we competed against each other for our mourning black. Though I must confess to donning a virtual black armband on Facebook from time-to-time, I don’t often do my funeral keening here. Over the past twenty-four hours two well-known authors have reminded me that we are all mortal. I don’t claim to have known either of them – I had a brush with one of their publishers recently, but let’s not go there again – but I do wish to note today that each of them had an influence on my writing.
At the time I started writing seriously, Harper Lee had published one single work of fiction. However, that was the book that would come first to mind if ever one was asked to name a 21c American novel. Chances are that To Kill A Mockingbird would spring to one’s lips before anything by Hemingway, Sallinger, Fitzgerald, or even Steinbeck. Why? As a piece of literature it did not represent any great step forward, it offered no breakthrough in technique or genre. What it did do, however, was capture a 1960s Zeitgeist, and capture it early. Or did it? It was published five years after Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat in the bus, and thirty years after the era it depicted. What was outstanding about it was that, notwithstanding its being written primarily for an adult readership, its narrative voice was that of a child; that child observed no great world events, but simply watched what happened in a small town in Alabama during the Depression, noting the attitudes of people of one race to those of another. Of course there’s much more to the book than that, and indeed if there is any change in racial attitudes by the end of the story it was the merest flicker of the needle on the dial! The tabula rasa of the child-narrator’s consciousness was a wonderful device for presenting truth without judgment, enabling the reader to see beyond the rights and wrongs that thirty years of hindsight reveal, to the ordinariness and humanity of the characters. To Kill A Mockingbird has never been out-of-print, is read by young and old, and is studied both by schoolchildren and academics.
By the time I had published my second novel and had realised that neither of them was the modern, Scottish equivalent of To Kill A Mockingbird, I knew that I would never do what this writer whom I admired so much had done. I would at one time have gladly sacrificed the two fingers I use to type, if I could have written one novel that contended with Lee’s, and then retired from writing as she did. And then last year she surprised us all by publishing a second novel. Controversy surrounded Go Set A Watchman from the beginning. Was it Lee herself who had authorised the publication, or was it released under someone else’s influence? Was it a stand-alone novel or a sequel to Mockingbird? Was it anything more than a draft of some chapters of her first attempt at a novel that followed Scout Finch from childhood to womanhood and Atticus to old age? I bought it and read it – how could I not? – and reviewed it. It inspired me to write a short story – now abandoned – about the lowering of the Confederate flag outside the courthouse of a small American town.
I wept yesterday. I’m not ashamed to say, though it is silly to admit it, that I felt bereft. Perhaps it’s not silly at all, because I have felt her influence throughout my own writing career, and it feels as though something in my own life has been wiped out. So this morning I had to steady myself afresh when I learned of the death of Umberto Eco. Here was another writer from whom I claim influence. As a semiotician, Eco had a mind that was adept at cracking the codes of language, literature, culture, and philosophy, and reassembling them to tell stories. He dreamed up scenarios, pulled contexts from the thin air of history, wove plots that bent logic round like a Möbius strip, built on unlikely premises his unexpected yet inevitable outcomes, filled his books with compelling characters, played hide-the-easter-egg with references (no, not that Baskerville, this Baskerville; no, not that Foucault, this Foucault). Where he influenced me in my writing was firstly in that genius for unexpectedness. Secondly, there was his realisation that language was merely a code for something else that was going on, for a reality beyond the words themselves. I don’t mind admitting took direct from his The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana the idea of having a (supposedly) amnesiac protagonist and used it in my novel-in-progress The Deptford Bear.
Lives, ordinary or famous, do not end conveniently. Books do not close, they are left open. Curtains are not drawn, doors remain ajar, and our talk of eras ending is meaningless. What has ended, in the case of Harper Lee and Umberto Eco, is (merely?) their ongoing contribution; we may, if we wish, draw a line under the canon of each, construct a convenient timeline for them. In dying, they have not done anything that the rest of us don’t do. Their immortality will be a thing of our imagination, but in that they will be as solid to us as Atticus Finch and William of Baskerville.