Posthumously Famous Authors
In recent times there have been many previously forgotten or unrecognised authors who’ve had individual works lauded after their death. It may be the most poignant and bittersweet kind of literary success but it is of some consolation to remaining family and friends, and to readers who can discover previously unheralded but remarkable talents. […]
In recent times there have been many previously forgotten or unrecognised authors who’ve had individual works lauded after their death. It may be the most poignant and bittersweet kind of literary success but it is of some consolation to remaining family and friends, and to readers who can discover previously unheralded but remarkable talents.
Suite Francais – Irene Némirovsky
Irene Némirovsky was born in Kiev, the daughter of a successful Jewish banker. She grew up in St. Petersburg, but her family left the country after the Russian Revolution. After a brief stay in Finland the family left for Paris in 1919, where she lived until 1940. Her childhood governess had been French so it was almost her native tongue. In the next two decades she married, had two children, and published several novels that were well received. However her family was refused French citizenship in 1938 and within two years France was invaded.
As the Nazis advanced on Paris, the family fled to Issy l’Éveque, a small, insular Burgundy village in the middle of France. The puppet Vichy government issued new laws against “stateless people”. Némirovsky was arrested in July 1942 and deported to Auschwicz, where she died of typhus a month later. Her husband died in Auschwicz soon after that. Their two daughters survived owing to the kindness of one policeman, and they took what possessions they could, including manuscripts written in tiny handwriting. The eldest daughter, Denise, retained them for sixty years, believing them to be her mother’s diaries, too painful to read. Némirovsky’s name meanwhile drifted into obscurity, her published works long forgotten.
Eventually it was realised that the manuscripts were an original literary work, set in France under Nazi attack and conquest. Suite Francais was envisaged as five books, but only two were written. The two surviving works, “Storm in June” and “Dolce” were published together as Suite Francais in 2004 to great acclaim for its literary style and content. It won the Prix Renaudot, previously only given to living authors. The novel covers a traumatic period in France’s history that had rarely been explored. Unlike other novels about the War, it offers the immediacy of witnessing fateful events overtaking people of every social stratum, and it succinctly describes the personal compromises and confusion in a country under occupation.
Stoner – John Williams
John Williams spent his life as an academic, but also published four very different novels, which received positive reviews but sold poorly. Stoner, published in 1965, was at face value his most autobiographical novel, written in luminous prose, concerning the titular character, William Stoner, and his life and trials in a small provincial university in Missouri. Like Williams, the central character came from a rural background and found meaning and solace in literature. The novel sold about 2,000 copies initially and went out of print relatively quickly. Williams died in 1994, but the novel’s reputation was kept alive by fervent admirers like Ian McEwan, Colm McCann and John McGahern. It was reissued in 2003, with an introduction by McGahern, and become a bestseller throughout the world almost a half-century after publication, moving from a treasured literary secret to a more widely appreciated modern classic.
A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
During his tragically short life, John Kennedy Toole tried to find a publisher for the picaresque novel he had written, set in his native New Orleans, detailing the adventures of his comic creation, Ignatius J. Reilly. He committed suicide in 1969, aged 31. His mother spent the next decade striving to get the manuscript published, ultimately finding success when she persuaded novelist Walker Percy to read and champion it. In 1980 the novel only won the Pulitzer Prize – only the second ever given posthumously. It has retained its high regard amongst a new generation of readers who weren’t even born in 1980.
The Millennium Trilogy - Stieg Larsson
A workaholic journalist who had exposed the activities of many far-right extremist organisations in his native Sweden, Larsson was the subject of death threats and led a stressful life, fuelled by fast food and cigarettes. He wrote his fictional trilogy by night, drawing on some of the knowledge gained in his career. He knew by late 2004 that his novels would be published nationally by Sweden’s oldest publishing house. On 8th November 2004 he went to his offices, and as the elevator was broken, he climbed seven floors and suffered a fatal heart attack. The trilogy became a phenomenal global success after Larsson’s death but there has been a dispute about the literary estate between his partner of thirty two years and members of his family.
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