Fasten your dungarees. Practice your Southern drawl. Fire up the Cajun barbecue and hurry down to your local bookshop. 'Go Set a Watchman', the publishing event of the year – nay, decade – is upon us, and it can only mean one thing. That most communal, least literary of events: the midnight launch party. Yay!
At the Dorchester Waterstones, planning for the 14 July release is already at an advanced stage. A “tequila mocking bird cocktail party” awaits, as does a quiz, fancy dress (Scout-style overalls encouraged), and several buckets of Alabama-style fried chicken. The choice of food, among other things, may prove contentious. Harper Lee mentions over 50 foodstuffs in 'To Kill a Mockingbird', the 1960 sister novel to 'Watchman', and avid fans may have hoped for a more recherché choice: an alternatives menu might have included cornbread, scuppernongs (large Southern style grapes), and cats and squirrels (the imagined diet of Boo Radley).
Meanwhile, screenings of the 1962 adaptation of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' are pencilled in at independent bookshops from London to Hove to Shrewsbury. And elsewhere Waterstones and Penguin Random House have even managed to produce an “exclusive” edition of 'Mockingbird', based on the original 1960 publication (I examined the new copy yesterday – it has a different cover).
All of which, of course, is grist to the mill of marketing this most hotly-awaited book. But amid the screenings, the releases, the re-releases, and the opening parties there is of course one figure conspicuous by her absence – the author. Eighty nine-year-old Harper Lee, less a mockingbird, more these days an endangered Melodious Warbler – the rarest of birds with the sweetest of unheard voices – will not be attending. Waterstones may as well have invited Boo Radley.
Best summer reads 2015
Best summer reads 2015
1/23 Best summer reads 2015
The Girl In The Spider's Web will continue Larsson's story of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomqvist
2/23 Best summer reads 2015
'The Buried Giant' by Kazuo Ishiguro
3/23 Best summer reads 2015
'The Story of the Lost Child' by Elena Ferrante
4/23 Best summer reads 2015
'Purity' by Jonathan Franzen
5/23 Best summer reads 2015
Milan Kundera’s 'The Festival of Insignificance'
6/23 Best summer reads 2015
Candace Bushnell’s 'Killing Monica'
7/23 Best summer reads 2015
Mikhail Bulgakov’s 'The Master and Margarita'
8/23 Best summer reads 2015
'Alice in Wonderland' by Lewis Carroll, first published in 1865
9/23 Best summer reads 2015
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
10/23 Best summer reads 2015
Roberto Saviano's 'Zero, Zero, Zero'
11/23 Best summer reads 2015
'It’s All in Your Head' by Suzanne O’Sullivan
12/23 Best summer reads 2015
Sunjeev Sahota’s 'The Year of the Runaway'
13/23 Best summer reads 2015
Benjamin Johncock’s 'The Last Pilot'
14/23 Best summer reads 2015
'Things We Have in Common' by Tasha Kavanagh
15/23 Best summer reads 2015
'The New Sorrows of Young W' by Ulrich Plenzdorf
16/23 Best summer reads 2015
Evie Wyld's 'Everything is Teeth'
17/23 Best summer reads 2015
'The End of Days' by Jenny Erpenbeck
18/23 Best summer reads 2015
Jane Hirshfield's 'The Beauty'
19/23 Best summer reads 2015
'The Beautiful Librarians' by Sean O’Brien
20/23 Best summer reads 2015
Miriam Toews 'All My Puny Sorrows'
21/23 Best summer reads 2015
'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier
22/23 Best summer reads 2015
Ezra Pound's 'Cathay'
23/23 Best summer reads 2015
'Emma' by Jane Austen
One wonders, of course, what Lee – now almost blind and deaf after a stroke in 2007 – can or does make of this all. One treatment her new publication will receive is having 'Go Set a Watchman' publicly “speed read” at the Forum Books shop in Corbridge, Northumberland. Anne Jones, a world champion speed reader, will try to read the text in under 30 minutes to a live audience – a stimulating spectacle, no doubt.
Lee, meanwhile, will see out the celebrations from her care home in Monroeville, Alabama – the assisted living facility which has been her home for the last eight years. It is unclear how much she welcomes the release. Indeed, the genesis of the novel – the story of the story, and its complicated publication history – continues to fascinate would-be readers.
A report from the New York Times says the manuscript of 'Watchman' (actually written before 'Mockingbird'), was rediscovered in 2011, and subsequently buried again at the request of Lee and her then lawyer and sister Alice Lee. But Lee’s new lawyer, Tonja B Carter (Alice Lee died last year at the age of 103) claims to have discovered the manuscript of Watchman in a safe deposit box as recently as August last year. Commentators infer the worst. Was Lee tricked into the release?
The argument, of course, rests on whether Lee had the capacity to make such a decision.
On Mockingbird’s penultimate page Lee’s narrator, Scout, announces that she feels “very old”. Scout is a mere seven years of age but the implication is that the weight of her experience dwarfs her years. Harper Lee has felt similarly old, at least in the public imagination, for a long time. She published 'Mockingbird' aged 33, but experienced the brunt of fame harder than most. Accusations that 'Mockingbird' was actually the work of her childhood friend Truman Capote, the pressure of a follow-up, and invasions – still ongoing – into her private life quickly followed the novel’s release. Her life itself was subsumed into fiction, make-believe and mythology.
In 2005’s film Capote Lee is depicted as attaining recognition from everyone except the person from whom she seeks it the most: her friend Capote. This, again, is a half truth. In an early letter Capote expressed praise for the novel, though the two writers drifted apart soon after: Lee into careful solitude, Capote into alcohol and drugs – both victims of a kind to their own success.
July 14 offers the next chapter in the lives of Jem, Atticus, and Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. A day of celebration, Cajun chicken and speed-reading, yes – but also a day to reflect on one of the 20th Century’s greatest mystery stories: what became of Harper Lee’s life?