Sunday 23 October 2016

Dated and flawed original that spawned the timeless classic

Fiction: Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee, William Heinemann, hbk, 288 pages, €23.99

John Boland

Published 19/07/2015 | 02:30

Harper Lee smokes a cigarette as she sits on the porch of her parents home in Monroeville, Alabama in 1961, a month after 'To Kill a Mockinbird' was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
Harper Lee smokes a cigarette as she sits on the porch of her parents home in Monroeville, Alabama in 1961, a month after 'To Kill a Mockinbird' was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
Go Set A Watchman

Harper Lee's surprise second novel is ultimately a much lesser achievement than 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.

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There are two shocking revelations in Go Set a Watchman - which, as almost everyone with access to the media now knows, was written before To Kill a Mockingbird but is set two decades after the events chronicled in that classic novel.

The first revelation concerns Jem, beloved older brother of tomboy Scout/Jean Louise and played memorably in Robert Mulligan's 1962 movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird by Philip Alford. Eleven pages into Go Set a Watchman, we're abruptly informed that the brother of the now 26-year-old Jean Louise had "dropped dead in his tracks one day".

And then, less than halfway through the novel, we learn that Atticus Finch, who in To Kill a Mockingbird was both an exemplary father to Scout and Jem and a caring advocate of liberal values - indeed, one of the most sainted figures in modern literature - has become in his advancing years an opponent of social and educational advancement for black Americans: essentially, a segregationist.

This has already gained the book considerable notoriety, especially in America, where To Kill a Mockingbird, in the half century since its 1960 publication, has come to be regarded almost as a sacred text, taught in schools both as a luminous novel about childhood and as an essential treatise on race relations, with Atticus elevated to the status of ideal American paternalism in his wisdom and goodness.

It helped that in the movie version he was played by Gregory Peck, whose decency and gravity, too often in other movies veering towards the stolid and the somewhat dull, proved a perfect fit for Harper Lee's conception of Atticus.

As it happened, and like many others, I saw the film before I read the book and was greatly affected by it - not just by Peck and Alford or by Mary Badham's wonderfully good Scout or Robert Duvall's haunting Boo Radley, but also by how it powerfully evoked both a sense of place and of period.

Later, when I got round to the book, I found that's the film's tone and atmosphere were all there in Harper Lee's limpid prose.

The prose is limpid, too, in Go Set a Watchman, though the book is a much lesser achievement than To Kill a Mockingbird. Indeed, one can only marvel at the perceptiveness of the publisher to whom it was submitted in the late 1950s and who suggested to Lee that she instead write a novel in which the reminiscences of childhood were made central rather than incidental.

That famous book has now acquired a timeless quality, but part of the problem with Go Set a Watchman is that, being published so belatedly, it now comes across as very dated. This is not just evident in its constant use of the terms "negro" and "colored" but also in those heated race debates between the idealistic Jean Louise and her father and boyfriend that might have seemed genuinely radical in the late 1950s but seem very old-fashioned and even beside the point in a vastly changed world (even if America's racial divide hasn't much altered, if at all).

And unfortunately the last third of the book degenerates into a somewhat wearisome tract, with Jean Louise as the representative of enlightened new values and Atticus an emblem of the old - even if the rather dubious moral at the close is that everyone should respect the prejudices of others, whether these be liberal or reactionary.

But Lee's psychological acuity and her mastery of the telling phrase help to save the book from its soapbox tendencies. We're drily told at the outset that, since leaving her Alabama hometown for New York, Jean Louise had turned into "a reasonable facsimile of a human being...easy to look at and easy to be with most of the time, but she was in no sense of the word an easy person".

That's beautifully put, as is her assessment of her father when she arrives home on the visit that occupies the course of the book. Atticus is now in his seventies, though Jean Louise "always thought of him as hovering somewhere in his middle fifties - she could not remember him being any younger, and he seemed to grow no older".

Then there's Alexandra, who is Jean Louise's aunt and Atticus's sister and who is "one of those people who had gone though life at no cost to themselves; had she been obliged to pay any emotional bills during her earthly life, Jean Louise could imagine her stopping at the check-in desk in heaven and demanding a refund".

As for Atticus's brother, Uncle Jack, "he was a bachelor but gave the impression of harbouring amusing memories".

All of these pithy observations occur in the opening 150 pages, and if you mislaid the book at this point, you'd be entitled to think you were missing out on a novel of considerable distinction. Indeed, it is only after Jean Louise slips into the gallery of the courthouse (where in To Kill a Mockingbird her father had memorably defended a black man accused of rape) and hears her father participating in a racist debate, that the book lurches towards an unrewarding polemic from which it never really recovers.

Still, even this polemic, simplistic as it may be, might well engender useful - and sadly still relevant - debate in those American classrooms which have always regarded To Kill a Mockingbird as a bible of tolerance and good behaviour.

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