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Nilanjana S Roy: Harper Lee's unreclusive years

Nilanjana S Roy 

Nilanjana S Roy

There is an unpublished novel by Harper Lee that I'd been wanting to read for years, but this desire will not be fulfilled even when Go Set A Watchman, her second book, comes out.

This is the story: in the 1970s, Nelle Harper Lee, now in her 80s, famous for her first novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, went into seclusion after the death of her agent Maurice Crain. In his biography of Lee, Mockingbird, Charles J Shields ascribes the author's well-documented reserve to grief; perhaps once the withdrawal from public life had been made, she discovered how well it suited her.

She had been working on a novel for some years. Shields writes that when a BBC reporter asked her sister Alice Lee what had happened to the second novel, Alice said a burglar broke into Nelle's apartment and stole the manuscript. "It was something about hunting a deer."

The novel that will be published this summer, 55 years after To Kill A Mockingbird came out, was written before Mockingbird. Go Set A Watchman is said to follow Scout's life as an adult, 20 years after readers first met her in Maycomb County.

I will, like every other Harper Lee fan, legions and millions of us, read it fully aware of the risk. Disappointment is inevitable - what second novel, prequel or sequel, could match Mockingbird?

This winter, turning out the books as we prepared to move house, I found three copies of To Kill A Mockingbird, from my teenage years, my late 20s and my late 30s. The one bought in my late 30s is pristine, because it is the ugliest of the editions, a cheap volume mass-produced without love. The one from my late 20s had to be cleansed of its Post-Its, a procedure not unlike delousing paper - I had scribbled so many earnest notes on yellow sticky slips that the pages drooped with annotations.

The one from my adolescence is unreadable, falling apart in sections, or rather it has literally been read to bits. I devoured that book as a child, seeing in Scout's Maycomb County halfway across the globe an echo of Delhi in the 1970s. It wasn't so different, from the cake-baking, garden-weeding, crisp-tongued ladies to the division of life by race (or class, or caste), to the recognition of evil in the court verdict that sent a man to jail for being the wrong kind of colour and the heroism of Atticus's lonely fight for justice. It seems that every reader of To Kill A Mockingbird believes, in their secret heart, that Harper Lee wrote the book just for them. I believed as a young girl that Scout's childhood was just like mine, spent in neighbourhoods where you could run around, climb trees, and be scared only of the haunted places next door.

Perhaps I was not entirely wrong; in any case, Mockingbird marked me more surely than any other novel I read growing up, and that is probably what many of its million readers would still say today.

It has been an article of faith for so long that Harper Lee, author of one of the century's most beloved books, has been a recluse most of her life that it seems a shame to point out that this is not true. Or to ask what it is that we wanted from her all these years she spent living quietly in Monroeville, Alabama.

Up to the mid-1960s, Lee wrote occasional articles for McCall's, and Vogue: "Love In Other Words", "When Children Discover America". I recognise the ring of these pieces, the feel of work done to order - everyday prose illuminated by the occasional Lee-ism. Of Lee's five published articles, her best is the 2006 letter to Oprah Winfrey she wrote, perhaps because it wasn't an article pretending to be a letter - it was a real letter, chatty, warm, curious.

She wrote about how she became a reader: "In my hometown, a remote village in the early 1930s, youngsters had little to do but read. A movie? Not often - movies weren't for small children. A park for games? Not a hope. We're talking unpaved streets here, and the Depression."

Until Maurice Crain died, Lee lead the normal life of a writer - she had accepted a seat on the National Council on the Arts, she gave interviews, if sparingly as the years piled up after the publication of Mockingbird, she appeared on radio shows, addressed schoolchildren, cadets at West Point, college students. But as she wrote more and more, she retreated from the public life. Perhaps the death of the man who was closest to understanding her as a writer gave her a certain clarity, the freedom to live her life not giving interviews, not being on television, not tweeting, not posing for publicity shots. It is so easy to mistake all these things - the space taken up in profiles and on magazine pages - for the writing itself, and for 40 years, Lee seems to have lived a good life without needing any of this stuff.

In one of the last interviews she gave, to the radio show Counterpoint, Lee spoke about living among "tellers of tales", learning as a child to become a writer by substituting imagination for the toys and games her generation did not have. On writers, she talks about Faulkner, Dreiser, Mary McCarty, Capote, Updike, how their characters make the plot, not the other way around.

She slams American criticism - gently, but firmly. It's all you could want from an author interview, but few who lament the loss of Lee's presence from our busy flickering screens actually read the Counterpoint interview. A pity, because it's here that the seriousness of her ambition comes through, one great writer aspiring to the status of another: "All I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama." Readers have of Austen six novels and little biography; of Lee two novels, and no celebrity profiles. I think that's ample.
Twitter: @nilanjanaroy

First Published: Mon, February 16 2015. 21:42 IST