How can we know what dead people want?

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

In 1999, Patrick Hemingway published True at First Light, a new novel by his father Ernest. In his role as literary executor of the late writer’s estate, Patrick edited an unfinished manuscript of some 200,000 words down to a more marketable ‘fictional memoir’ of less than half that length. The book hit the bestseller lists but received largely negative reviews, most notably from Joan Didion in the New Yorker. ‘This was a man to whom words mattered,’ she wrote. ‘His wish to be survived by only the words he determined fit for publication would have seemed clear enough.’ To which the man charged with safeguarding Papa’s posthumous reputation responded, somewhat plaintively:

I think it’s a very valid argument. The only trouble is my father did leave the material; he didn’t destroy it. Perhaps he didn’t intend to have it published, but when people are dead it’s hard to know what they want.

The setting of Blake Morrison’s new novel is that zone of uncertainty: how can we know what dead people want? Matt Holmes is the deputy editor of the books section of a broadsheet newspaper. When his friend, the moderately successful poet Robert Pope, dies unexpectedly, Holmes is appointed literary executor. But the discovery of a cache of hitherto unknown, sexually explicit poems casts doubt on what Holmes thought he knew about his friend, his life in the suburbs, his work and his relationships, particularly those with his wife Jill and with Matt himself. What should happen to the poems? Should they be suppressed?Or should Matt publish and, like Patrick Hemingway, be damned?

The extent to which we can ever really know other people — and ourselves — is of course a subject Morrison has written about before, most famously in And When Did You Last See Your Father? In The Executor he asks not just how much one can know a writer via their work but also, topically, how much we should allow details of an artist’s private life to inform our judgment of their art. Morrison lets the reader be present at the discovery of several different drafts of Pope’s love/lust poems and to accompany Matt as he attempts to understand them, frame them and, in collaboration with Pope’s widow Jill, his agent Louis and editor Lexy, prepare them for publication. At the end of the novel we are given this posthumous selection Love’s Alphabet in full — as the agent puts it:

The book. As edited by Lexy. She gets a collection she can be proud of, Jill’s appeased, and we do our bit by Rob… if the response is good we’ll do an expanded version in a year or two.

Morrison is of course a gifted poet with a career somewhat more glittering than the fictional dead poet he ventriloquises here. Pleasingly, this means that for the purposes of this novel he has composed good poetry, mediocre poetry and, occasionally, plain bad poetry too, inviting the reader’s complicity in the editorial process of what to discard:

I can’t help loving your friends. Sally, Brigitte, Daphne, Cindy — not all at once. But each has been to bed
With me. If you knew, you’d call me indiscriminate.
But would you want me to sleep with someone you hate?

(For what it’s worth, that one doesn’t make the cut.)

The Executor is a literary detective story with a decidedly literary twist and a depiction of the sort of competitive male friendship where the demise of one chum serves only to ramp things up a notch. To be appointed literary executor is to be the recipient of a questionable bequest, one involving thankless labour, intense rivalry and inevitable compromise — which may be, Morrison suggests, exactly what the dead want all along.

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