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

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water