Sunday, 13 June 2021

Writing on death row

In James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice Frank Chambers gets away with one murder but is convicted of another that he didn’t commit. In the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There Ed Crane gets away with one murder but is convicted of another that he didn’t commit. While they are on death row, both characters write down their versions of what has happened – Ed for a magazine that’s paying him 5 cents a word, Frank writing the book the reader is reading. Writing is not going to save either of them from the noose or the electric chair, so why?

Every so often – sometimes not for weeks, sometimes every hour of the day – I do wonder about the trust that is placed in the written word, a trust at least as widespread among those who don’t regularly read or write as among literary folk.

Both Cain’s novel and the Coen Brothers’ film echo the ‘True Confessions’ of prisoners awaiting execution in the early 18th century that jump-started the English novel. Jack Sheppard’s first-person account (‘as told’ to Daniel Defoe) of his robberies and his several escapes from prison has everything that many readers expect of modern fiction: crime, Houdini-like breakouts from chains and manacles, love interest, betrayals, kindness to an elderly mother and an abiding concern with ‘justice’. He is telling his tale, he insists, ‘to satisfy the curious, and do justice to the innocent’. Sheppard’s words gained authority from being spoken ‘on the brink of eternity’. Aged 22, Sheppard was hanged in November 1724; a third of the population of London followed his progress from Newgate in an open cart to the gallows at Tyburn. 

Frank, Ed and Jack Sheppard – none of them is exactly innocent, but they all want to get their stories out into the world and they trust the written word to do them justice. Not legal justice, which is hit-or-miss: except in books, most rapists, murderers and corrupt politicians aren’t even brought to court. The very basic justice they want – like most of us, and we are all on death row – is to be paid attention to. Which doesn’t sound much to ask but in fact is huge.

To trust something (or someone) is a wager, a gamble. There’s a thrill in that; it’s a large part of why we do it. There are no guarantees. It could be a stupid mistake. It’s probably rash to trust in things made from the ordinary stuff we use to order coffee, say hello and goodbye, curse, praise, grumble, get through the day with others – language is implicated in the confusion of the world, language is not innocent. (But what else have we got that could do the job any better? Set a thief to catch a thief.) It’s probably also rash and it is certainly vain to trust that our written words will outlast us: posterity is a tease, most books have a very short shelf-life.

To believe that one is worth being paid attention to is itself vanity. Some people don’t have this, or recoil from it – Jonas Milk in Simenon’s The Little Man from Archangel, for example, who is suspected of the murder of his wife, who has disappeared. He didn’t do it; in fact he loves her, in his way, but it’s not a way that either his neighbours or the police can get their heads around: ‘They hadn’t understood him, or else he hadn’t understood the others, and this latest misunderstanding was beyond all hope of being cleared up.’ There’s a tree, a clothes line, a chair, and a brief pause before Jonas hangs himself: ‘He had a momentary impulse to explain everything in a letter, but it was a last vanity of which he was ashamed, and he rejected the idea.’ Luckily – not for Jonas, who was destroyed, but for readers – Simenon had the necessary vanity to do the job on behalf of his character.

I’m vain too and I’ve written a book about books, mostly, titled The Other Jack. I have a surely not uncommon awkward relationship with the whole matter of books. Justice is in the index but also jokes and happiness and self-loathing and privilege and umbrellas. The book can be ordered here. Or it can be part of a Lockdown Subscription, available on the home page. We may be coming out of lockdown but the cost – £70 for 10 books, post free – is still locked down, and it’s a bargain.

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