In the past week (and indeed on one particular day) the literary world lost two huge talents: Harper Lee and Umberto Eco.
I wrote a bit about Harper Lee a few months ago now, upon the release of her second novel, Go Set a Watchman. (Which I still haven’t read. Sigh.) I don’t want to go over all the same ground again, although I did read that plans for a Broadway adaptation of Mockingbird will now proceed, despite Lee being steadfastly opposed to the idea her whole life. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the decision to publish Watchman (and I doubt we will ever really know, now), this seems like astonishingly bad taste.
I have no doubt a Broadway Mockingbird will sell tickets and make people rich(er), but I wish the will of the woman who wrote the book would still be respected. If she didn’t want her book adapted in that manner, leave it at that. There are writers who would leap at the chance to have their stories brought to Broadway. Go do one of those.
In any case, Lee was remarkable for a variety of reasons, among which was her impact and standing in the literary world as a writer who had – until quite recently – only ever published one book. It’s hard to think of another author in quite the same position. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most famous novels in English, most would say deservedly so. It has been taught in English literature classes for generations, now, and although there’s been some controversy from time to time, few people argue with its presence on the syllabus.
It’s astonishing to think of writing a book that good and then never writing, or at least publishing, anything else. (Remember, our best information is that Watchman, despite when it is set, was written prior to Mockingbird) Harper Lee is well-known for being a reclusive person and uncomfortable with her fame, so perhaps that’s why. Perhaps she never had another story she thought needed telling in quite the same way. Maybe, with the immense impact of Mockingbird, she was understandably a bit daunted at the prospect of coming up with something that would measure up to it. (From my own extremely limited experience as a writer, I can tell you that having people say they enjoyed a book is of course wonderful, but does add a little extra pressure to writing the follow up – I don’t want to let them down)
I wonder what would have happened if Lee had published several more novels. It’s unlikely (I guess) that they could all have been as good as Mockingbird (although you never know); how would she have been regarded then? Would her standing have been diminished by producing additional work of a slightly lesser quality? Is part of her appeal that (again, until very recently) that she gave us one fantastic piece of literature, and then nothing more? It’s hard to know. I suspect that Mockingbird would have had much the same impact regardless of what followed it (and I don’t expect it to be really diminished by the appearance of Watchman) and so all that would have happened was that her fans would have had more of her work to enjoy. It’s sad that that will never happen, now, but there can be few writers who have touched as many lives as Harper Lee.
I trust that will continue. And I will read Watchman, eventually.
Umberto Eco is probably not as well-known as Lee, in part because we (probably) didn’t read him in high school. On the other hand he wrote a great deal more, and I regret that I haven’t read more of his work. (More things to put on my pile of ‘things that must be read’, which always gets bigger) Reading reactions to his death, though, you can see that this is a writer who touched people on a very deep level, and reading his own ideas about the craft of writing, you can easily tell that this was a person who deeply loved the written word.
I’m not sure it’s possible to study medieval history without having read The Name of the Rose, which is probably (?) his most famous work. Some scholars will quibble with pieces of the novel’s portrayal of medieval life, certainly not everyone likes the book in the same way (or at all, to be fair to some student who find it on their required reading list) but few people really debate the importance of that portrayal and its usefulness in starting a conversation about medieval society. Personally, I found it a rich and compelling piece of entertainment as well. It is a book that uses a fine story to make you think, and although not every book necessarily needs to do that, the ones that do tend to stick with you for a long while.
If that was all Eco had written, I think by most standards he would have done all right. Of course Eco wrote a great deal more, both fiction and non-fiction, and for people who know all of his work very well, Name of the Rose isn’t (I gather) always their favourite or considered his best work. I haven’t read enough of his stuff to be able to say, although I can say that everything I have read from him has always seemed incredibly perceptive of what people are like and impressively thoughtful. Eco understood the impact the written word could have and knew how to use his tools to reach his audience on a level not many writers get anywhere close to. I tend to use the word ‘artist’ for writers in general; I think Eco is one who very clearly deserves it.
So, not incidentally, does Harper Lee.
I love what Eco wrote about his discomfort with the label of ‘intellectual’. He said (I paraphrase, obviously) that the label was often misused – used to denote academics and scholars nearly exclusively. However, a professor who has been giving the same lectures for 40 years (and we probably all had at least one of those) without thinking about their content isn’t really doing any work with their mind. A craftsman, though, who comes up with a new way of solving a problem of construction or creation, certainly is, and that’s what Eco thought an intellectual really was: someone who does work with their mind, bringing forth new ideas.
It’s a great point and it makes many things into ‘intellectual’ pursuits; I suppose it flatters me slightly in that writing fiction has a case for the label. Overall, though, it’s a wonderfully anti-elitist way of rethinking a term that we tend to use in fairly static fashion, and it makes the idea of being an intellectual sound rather more attractive than its usual connotations of a distant ivory tower. If we accept Eco’s definition, then we can all be intellectuals, regardless of formal education or whatever our job is. We should certainly try.
With ideas like this, it’s not hard to understand the grief at the loss of Umberto Eco to the world. Whether he liked the intellectual label or not, it’s clear that his mind was a very bright light and it is sad that it has now gone out.
One of the great things about writing, though, and one way in which writers are very fortunate, is that their ideas are still with us, and will be as long as the written word endures. We can regret that there won’t be any new work from these amazing artists (although I see that Eco’s publisher is moving up the release of what will be his final book), but we still have what they already gave us.
It’s a comfort.
Go be intellectuals.