In search of Harper Lee

It's the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, but the author is maintaining

Spare a thought for residents of the small Bible Belt town of Monroeville in Alabama, where this week a horde of journalists were traipsing the sun-baked, dusty roads in search of anyone who might know a shy old lady living in the town's sheltered housing complex.

July 11 marks the 50th anniversary of 84-year-old Harper Lee's landmark civil rights novel To Kill A Mockingbird, which is set in a fictional equivalent of the town and draws heavily from Lee's own life experiences. Like her protagonist Atticus Finch, the author's father was a lawyer who represented black defendants in the Monroeville court house, and like her book's young narrator Scout, as a child she was tomboyish and withdrawn.

But if newspaper editors were hoping to glean something new of the author's enigmatic personality, they were surely to be disappointed. It says much about the relationship between Harper Lee and her keen press following that a five sentence exchange with Daily Mail journalist Sharon Churcher last week was re-reported the world over. In the fifty years since the book's publication, Lee has said barely a word to the media, and she has not given an interview since 1964.
 
In lieu, journalists have been speaking to friends and associates of the author, known locally as "Nelle". Taken together, these give us at least an intimation of why she has been so guarded.

The Mail's most insightful source was 87-year-old George Thomas Jones, a retired businessman from the town who has known Harper since she was a girl. He said:

I'm not a psychologist, but there's a lot of Nelle in that book . . . People say the publicity the book got turned her into a recluse but publicity didn't ruin her life: I don't think Nelle's ever been a real happy person. '[Her father] was a real genteel man, who listened more than he talked ... but he sure didn't show much affection. I used to caddy for him on the local golf course. He was so formal that he would wear a heavy three-piece suit.. '[Later] my late wife was [Harper's own] golfing partner and she knew never to ask her about [the book]. It's not just something she didn't want to talk about - it's a subject you wouldn't want to touch with a ten-foot pole.

Meanwhile, the BBC's Washington correspondent Steve Kingstone spent time with retired minister Rev Thomas Lane Butts, who describes himself as a close friend of Lee's.

She [once] asked me, 'You ever wonder why I didn't write anything else?' And I said, 'Along with several million other people. She said, 'I would not go through all the deprivation of privacy through which I went for this book again for any amount of money...[Besides] I did not need to write another book. I said what I wanted to say in that book.

The New York Times had to settle for the writer and documentary director, Mary McDonagh Murphy, who has interviewed Lee's sister Alice, and who suggested she has shunned reporters in the opinion that "writers should not be familiar and recognisable; that was for entertainers."

A three-day festival has been planned to commemorate the novel next week, including a panel discussion of the book featuring Southern scholars and writers, outdoor readings, and expert walking tours of Monroeville. But To Kill a Mockingbird's publishers have organised the festival on the assumption that Lee will not take part. A spokesperson for Harper Collins said: "The legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird speaks for itself."

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear