What will survive of us…

A most memorable quote from Philip Larkin, and very appropriate, since I was listening to a radio programme about authors and their estates the other day. One of the authors discussed was Larkin, and by his biographer and executor, Andrew Motion. I found it fascinating, and I threw up so many issues that had me thinking about how much (if any) an author – any author – owns of their work and their life.

This isn’t personal: I’m realistic enough to recognise that my own life isn’t of any interest to anyone but friends and family, although I hope my writing is of wider interest. But authors such as Hardy, Eliot, Joyce and Larkin, who achieved great fame within their own lifetimes, must have had to anticipate the demands for knowledge from future generations, and to set their literary estates in order.

Those prominent writers who keep diaries must, while they live, decide on preservation and future access. They must must decide who to appoint as gatekeepers for access to published and unpublished papers, how their work may be quoted. I thought John Banville made some good points, suggesting that it his right to decide now what will be kept, and what will be burned. Fair play to him, but the case of Franz Kafka, whose executor refused to comply with the explicitly stated wish that his manuscripts should be burned, shows the other side of the argument.


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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2 Responses to What will survive of us…

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    It’s the distinction between a writer’s life and his work that’s so problematic since the latter is a natural outgrowth of the former and wouldn’t exist without it. I am, as you may be aware, am a huge fan of Beckett and few writers have had their work and lives probed as much. My wife recently bought me the first two volumes of his letters and apparently Beckett had stated, realising that publication somewhere down the line was inevitable, that only those letters that had an immediate bearing on his writing should be published after his death. The problem there is deciding where that line should be drawn. His executors saw that some letters were not included but I suspect more were made public than Beckett would have cared to see made available to all.

    Beckett did include biographical data in his works but when you study his early drafts it’s clear that he often only used these details as placeholders for want of a better word and as he reworked the text he would gradually strip out much that was personal; he called the process “vaguening”. The ticket-buying public don’t care about stuff like that but people like me who’re interested in how he wrote lap up every morsel we find. We’re happy to enjoy his plays as they stand but we want more. Do we have a right to more? No. A writer’s entitled to his privacy same as any other man and that right doesn’t end with his death even if he’s not around to be enraged or embarrassed by any revelations. If he want to keep his processes to himself then so be it. Most magicians take their secrets to the grave I suspect.

  2. sunnydunny says:

    Thanks for this Jim. That’s most interesting about Beckett and, I think, proves that the reader, like myself, wants to know more about his writing process, even if that involves delving into his ‘private’ letters. The line is blurred, as you suggest. Colin

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