Harper Lee (1926-2016)


To Kill a Mockingbird is a book I wish I’d never read, if only because I’d love to read it again for the first time. It is one amongst many ‘first-time’ pleasures I would eagerly relive, such as the first night I spent in a hotel (I was about five years old and it was probably a three-star, but the glamour of it was overwhelming), my first glass of a really good red wine (a Nuits-Saint-Georges in a restaurant in Poole in 1975), the first time I flew in an aeroplane (to Malta in 1965 in a turbo-prop Vanguard or Viscount at an altitude of 19,000 feet) and so on. I wouldn’t, however, want to relive my first, and last, parachute jump.

Few of us will live as long as the heroine of Karel Capek’s play (and Janacek’s opera) – The Makropulos Case. Elina Makropulos possesses a chemical formula that can prolong her life indefinitely, and she’s lived a life of ever declining excitement for several hundred years. It is an instructive case. As we age, sadly, we begin to understand the potential tedium of immortality. There are fewer and fewer experiences that we can enjoy for the first time, and though the second time is almost as fun, the thousandth time isn’t. Space travel might yet be a possibility, but otherwise it’s increasingly a case of ‘seen that, done that, got the T-shirt.’ After about two hundred years, if Elina is our guide, nothing seems worthwhile anymore. (Not so, it would seem, for Doctor Who, who, even after many thousands of years, is as determined as ever to protect humankind from alien malice. But perhaps a good lesson – altruism never palls.)

As for To Kill a Mockingbird, I can even remember where I was when I finished the novel – on a bus from Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, returning to my apartment after a weekend in Vienna, probably in 1989. I came to the novel late, having been urged for two decades to read it by friends who’d read it at school, no doubt gladly, but under duress.

It is a perfect novel, a story brilliantly imagined and told through the eyes of a motherless young girl, Scout. The racism, malice and injustice she witnesses seem incomprehensible to her young mind. It’s easily readable, and politically powerful, but never priggishly didactic. It became a wonderful film, which Harper Lee admired, with Gregory Peck playing Scout’s father, the splendid Atticus Finch, everyone’s favourite father and lawyer- steadfast, handsome, principled, tolerant, sternly affectionate and loving. That marvellous moment when the black community, relegated to the courthouse gallery, stands for Atticus Finch as he leaves the courtroom having failed to obtain an acquittal for his client, who has been found guilty of raping a poor white girl, still brings tears to my eyes.

‘Jean Louise, stand up, your father’s passing.’

Harper Lee should also be remembered as the childhood friend of another great American writer, Truman Capote. She played an important part later in the research of Capote’s greatest and final book, In Cold Blood. She lived quietly after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird vowing never to publish another novel. She believed both that she had said everything she had to say in the novel, and that it was a success she could never repeat.

She was right, and I have averted my eyes from Go Set a Watchman, an earlier novel she was persuaded to publish, surely against her own better judgement, last year. I understand it portrays an Atticus Finch of very different, bigoted, racist, views, and I don’t want him spoiled.

Let Harper Lee remain a glorious one-hit wonder who gave us a novel of astonishing brilliance and knew she had nothing more to say. On reflection, I believe I will enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird even if I live for a thousand years. Its central themes will never be irrelevant.

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