Thomas Sutcliffe: The dead shouldn't have the last word

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The Independent Online

One of the great deficiencies of the dead is that they never change their minds. One of their advantages is that there's very little they can do about it when someone changes it for them. Indeed, they can even be enlisted to back up their own overruling.

When Dmitri Nabokov announced the other day that he planned to publish his father's final manuscript, in direct contravention of his father's request that it should be burned, he told the German magazine Der Spiegel: "I'm a loyal son and thought long and seriously about it. Then my father appeared before me and said with an ironic grin: 'You're stuck in a right old mess. Just go ahead and publish'". So, after 30 years of tantalising seclusion in a Swiss bank vault, the extant fragments of The Original of Laura will finally be made public. Mr Nabokov Sr. wasn't available to confirm the accuracy of his son's account.

There are Nabokov loyalists who profess to be appalled by this – though I have a suspicion that they will master their affront sufficiently to read the book when it comes out. Personally I think Dmitri has done the right thing – and even if Nabokov's rough draft would have been a smaller loss than two notorious victims of successful literary incineration – Jane Austen's letters and Byron's memoirs – it is better to have it than not. Dmitri's argument – that his father would probably have thought otherwise had he had enough time to cheer up – might be specious but it will do in the absence of anything better. But all this is too flippant, some will say. If we disregard the wishes of our predecessors then we have no right to expect that our own requests will be honoured. And when it comes to property there's obviously some weight to that argument. Last wills and testaments matter because their absence would create a wilderness of competing claims.

When it comes to ideas, though, following the instructions of the dead can be far more dangerous – and obedience itself is likely to create a chaos of contending interpretations. And the greater the gap between the issuing of the instruction and our continuing attempts to carry them out, the bigger the problem gets. Some will regard Dmitri as a betrayer of his father's intentions. I take him as an exemplary hero of scriptural exegesis – wisely recognising that the ultimatum was issued under very specific circumstances and that posterity has some claim to reconsider the matter.

His decision made me think of exegetists currently engaged in a far more critical and important re-evaluation – the Muslim scholars who, in various places and to various degrees, are beginning to suggest that simplistically literal readings of seventh-century writings might not match every detail of contemporary life and that it's important to maintain the distinction between the hadith (or sayings and deeds of the prophet) and the divinely dictated word of God.

It's not a distinction I recognise myself, but it's a start in emancipating contemporary Muslims from prohibitions that have long outlived their usefulness – and, like Dmitri, it argues that sometimes heirs have responsibilities other than unthinking obedience. To say otherwise is to abdicate from one of the most important human duties there is – which is occasionally to change one's own mind in the face of changed circumstances. The dead can offer us wisdom, guidance and instruction – but when they give us orders we should respectfully ignore them.

Amy – a very model of restraint

Driving through Camden late on Thursday night, I witnessed what I thought at first was a mob assault. A crowd had gathered on the pavement to harry someone who was virtually invisible at the centre of the pack. It looked like a crow being attacked by starlings.

And then, as I drew alongside, I saw the flashes and realised that the crow was Amy Winehouse, enjoying a quiet night out with the British press. And having seen this, it struck me as extraordinarily forebearing on her part not to hit someone every time she goes out. If all paparazzi pictures were accompanied by another one – taken from far enough back to show how feral the throng is – I think we'd be a bit more sympathetic about the horror of celebrity.

* The proceedings of the Old Bailey, a huge assembly of trial transcripts just released online, is going to be an absolute treasure-house for the historically-minded browser.

I'd leave it for a week or two, because the site is currently so crammed with digital tourists that you can barely move for the crush. But even one random stab at this resource turned up something engrossing in an account of the trial of James Stockdale, hanged for murder in 1753 after his pistol accidentally discharged during a robbery.

In the trial transcript, you discover that he and his accomplice were identified because a witness recognised a wen on the leg of one of the getaway horses they'd hired – much as a modern bystander might clock a broken tail light on a speeding Ford Mondeo. The speed of retribution is appalling – the crime was committed on 18 June and Stockdale hung on 23 July – but there's no denying the appeal of CSI: Newgate.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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