Terence Blacker: The dead are public property

The fictional version of contemporary heroes and villains tend to be an odd conflation of what he actually was and what the world which survived him wants him to be

Share
Related Topics

Did Anne Frank have sex? The unlikely and, some might say, impertinent question has been raised in the publicity surrounding the publication in the autumn of a novel for teenagers called Annexed. The book's author, Sharon Dogar, is said to have included "intimate scenes" in what is a fictional diary of Frank's close friend Peter van Pels.

For many, The Diary of a Young Girl by Frank has been part of the cultural landscape for so long that what she might or might not have done in her life is a literary question along the lines of "How many children had Lady Macbeth?" It is as artistically acceptable to use the story of a young Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis and eventually died in Belsen as inspiration or starting point for new work as it would be to work around Romeo and Juliet or a Greek myth. For others, reality is what matters. Buddy Elias, a first cousin of Frank's now in his eighties, is angry about Annexed. "Anne was not the child she is in this book," he has protested. "I also do not think that their terrible destiny should be used to invent some fictitious story."

He is, of course, fighting a battle that is already lost. Some people are fated, or doomed, to become larger-than-life figures after their deaths, representing all sorts of values and trends which are important to those left behind. When the person is a writer who has provided a version of his or her life, the scope for myth-making, for finishing an unfinished story, is all the greater.

I have sympathy with Buddy Elias, and his determined clinging to his memories of the real person, having recently had a small, and very different, experience of the way posthumous fame can work. When my good friend Roger Deakin died in 2006, he was the author of one remarkable, highly praised published book about swimming across Britain, Waterlog; his two final works were published after his death.

He was an extraordinary, lovable, utterly original man whose view of the world around him was always curious, well-informed and impassioned. Soon after he died, it became clear that another Roger was under construction. His became a name to drop in essays about nature, environmentalism, England. An editorial headlined "In praise of Roger Deakin" appeared in a broadsheet. He inspired websites and festivals. His books received new attention. A theatrical one-man show based on Waterlog was written. A BBC film is in development.

Those who knew the original version are likely to have mixed feelings about the process; gratitude that his worth is being recognised is cut with a niggling unease that the real, complex human being is being lost and that a plainer, smoother imitation is being erected in its place.

Humans need a story with shape and coherence, even in the context of something as gloriously shambolic as a human life. A must lead to B. Actions must have consequences and, even more importantly, causes. When I recently attended a reading of Andrew Burton's stage version of Waterlog, I began to understand why there is often so much trouble surrounding the way a writer is presented after his or her death. Thoughtfully put together and well staged, the play pleased the audience, which was then invited to stay for a question and answer session with the writer and director.

As the discussion eddied around me (Should Roger's death have been included? What were the causes of his loneliness?), I found it difficult not to flee the theatre. The problem was not just that the public, much discussed Roger was different from the one I remembered, but that my own memories of him felt weirdly threatened.

No wonder there are rows around literary estates. The fictional version of contemporary heroes and villains tend to be an odd conflation of what he actually was and what the world which survived him wants him to be. Quite soon, it is that which becomes the truth. The real person, the wonderful human mess that they were, fades in the memory as history takes over.

terblacker@aol.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Administrator / Planner

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Associate - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Law Costs - London City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee