Blake Morrison's new novel on a literary executor's tussle over a poet's posthumous publication
John Murray: Byron’s publisher and literary executor burned Byron’s memoirs (METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1937)
The task of the literary executor must be a thankless one. When a writer dies, the literary vultures gather. Will there be any pickings from the author’s papers, a cache of letters perhaps, a revealing diary, best of all a brilliant unpublished novel? The public may want to read such stuff, but there are other people to consider, notably the next of kin, who may not be at all keen on releasing unflattering material that might hurt the writer’s posthumous reputation.
Andrew Motion’s biography of Philip Larkin, drawing on his papers, did lasting damage to the poet (though not in everyone’s eyes); Valerie Eliot was both widow and executor and made sure that no biography of T.S. Eliot would be written, though she supervised the publication of two fine volumes of his letters. Most notable of all was the burning of Byron’s memoirs by his publisher John Murray and his friend John Hobhouse to protect the poet’s reputation and spare his half-sister and estranged wife. The Irish poet Thomas Moore, to whom Byron had entrusted the memoirs, was in favour of publication but had to stand and watch the pages go up in smoke in the publisher’s Albermarle Street fireplace, an act of literary vandalism that still rankles nearly 200 years later.
In Blake Morrison’s new novel, literary journalist Matt Holmes learns that his old friend and former teacher Rob Pope, a well-known poet who rather faded from view in his last years, has appointed him, rather to his surprise, as one of his literary executors — and he finds himself caught up in a tussle with the widow, Jill, over publication of a sequence of poems he gradually unearths in Pope’s study. As a distinguished poet, novelist, memoirist and literary journalist himself, Morrison is completely at home here, filling in the background to Holmes’s quest with wit and economy: the roots of his friendship with Pope on an American campus, the books department of the London newspaper where Holmes toils as deputy literary editor (superbly described), the ever-threatening shadow of redundancy, the mid-life crisis flirtation with the pretty young colleague, his wife’s angry reaction. But the heart of the book is Matt’s gradual realisation as he studies Pope’s skilfully hidden poems, which draw on Classical precedent to describe his late friend’s secret and rich love life, unsuspected by anyone, least of all Jill.
Or do they? Are they autobiographical or fiction, “the lies that writers told”, as Pope puts it in one of the poems? Matt shares them with Jill, but she is adamantly and understandably opposed to publication. Pope’s agent and publisher aren’t too enthusiastic either (shades of Murray and Hobhouse). Morrison sets out the legal arguments with such skill, drawing on the very latest case law, that his novel should be required reading for every media lawyer in London.
The resolution may leave the reader slightly disappointed — no High Court battle, much less a funeral pyre of poems — but no matter, for the book has a second climax: the poems themselves, “Love’s Alphabet” by Robert Pope, and they are extraordinary, possibly the best poetry Pope — sorry, Blake Morrison — has ever written, an erotic tour de force.
Of all his women, Pope/Morrison concludes: “If I’d been free to be with them, they’d not have loved me as much./If I’d loved them more, I’d not have been free to write.”