Apprehension as Harper Lee looks to follow up on perfection

‘New’ novel preceded Lee’s classic but was not published at the time

 Harper Lee will publish her second novel, ‘Go Set a Watchman’, 60 years after the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Photograph: Getty

Harper Lee will publish her second novel, ‘Go Set a Watchman’, 60 years after the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Photograph: Getty

 

There is something alluring about perfection; it is so rare that most people would understand the feeling of wanting to keep it that way.

An initial reaction to hearing that Harper Lee’s first novel, the one which in fact gave birth to what became her classic To Kill A Mockingbird (1960), is about to be published 60 years after she wrote it – only to have it rejected – may well be fear approaching dread.

This news is not quite the usual publishing story of a famous writer’s lost and or forgotten first book being either discovered or re-discovered. Such stories rarely end as well as late last year with the belated publication of French writer Georges Perec’s superb first novel, Portrait of a Man.

Frustrated by its failure, Perec put it aside claiming that either he would return to it after 10 years, or it would be discovered after his death. Which is what happened; Perec died in 1982 and his translator David Bellos retrieved the manuscript, championed it and a marvel it is.

Harper Lee’s situation is very different; now 88 she still alive and will, hopefully, turn 89 in April. The question to be answered is why wait so long? Over the years, having once announced in 1964 that she was working on another novel, Lee often commented on not having felt the need to write another book.

It was Lee, born Nell Harper Lee the youngest of five children in Monroeville, Alabama in 1926, who accompanied the weird little neighbour kid, almost two years her senior, Truman Capote, to Kansas when he was researching In Cold Blood. Throughout their friendship Capote always made it clear that he was the writer.

In 1993 Lee somewhat reluctantly agreed to write a foreword to a new edition of her famous novel which by that time had sold more than 30 million copies: “Please spare Mockingbird an Introduction. As a reader I loathe Introductions … Mockingbird still says what it has to say: it has managed to survive the years without preamble.”

Well, at least she did not rule out sequels. The only problem is that this ‘sequel,’ Go Set a Watchman, due to be published in July, was written, at least in its earliest form, in 1955. In it Scout, the narrator of To Kill A Mockingbird, is 20 years older and has returned to the fictional Maycomb County to visit her father, Atticus Finch.

It is worth noting that the court case in To Kill a Mockingbird, that of the black man Tom Robinson wrongly charged with molesting a white woman, was based on something that Lee was aware of from childhood. Her father had also been involved in a similar case, and had represented two black men charged with rape.

Lee’s original novel was turned down although the rejection was softened somewhat by the suggestion that she could consider the flashback sequences involving the adult Scout’s childhood and attempt a new narrative around them.

It is exactly what she did. Her next effort, in which the tomboy Scout observed with growing indignation the pettiness and racial cruelty of small town life, developed into a candid and beguiling narrative of moral authority.

The good thing is that Lee, a canny individual who knows her own mind, appears to be in full control. In 2011 she objected to an unauthorised biography. Unlike the unfortunate instance in 1993 of an unfinished manuscript of Edith Wharton’s final novel, The Buccaneers, being completed by an academic from notes left by Wharton, Lee’s novel does not face such risks.

Apprehension, though, may well describe the prevailing mood. Lee’s new ‘first’ and ‘second’ novel has an incredibly difficult act to follow, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Can she do better? Could anyone do better? It seems unlikely.