The Top 10: Artists whose instructions to destroy their works after their death were ignored
| Devendra Makkar - 02 May 2020

Iain Boyd suggested this list after reading about no 4 and rereading Eric Newby’s On the Shores of the Mediterranean, which refers to no 1. The idea of saving something that might have been lost seemed a suitable theme of lockdown hope. In chronological order of death:

1. Virgil’s Aeneid. Saved by order of emperor Augustus, 19BC.

2. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poems. His own variation on this theme: he buried many unpublished poems in his wife’s grave when she died in 1862, vowing they should remain there for eternity. He changed his mind some years later, dug them up and published them. Thanks to Dominic McKeever.

3. Emily Dickinson’s letters. In 1886, the year she died, she told her sister to burn her correspondence. Never happened. Nominated by Steven Fogel, PD Anderson and CentralneObchody (usual spelling).

4. Aubrey Beardsley’s more risque illustrations. Instructions ignored by Leonard Smithers, his publisher, in 1898.

5. Franz Kafka’s unfinished works including The TrialThe Castle and Amerika. The big one, with the intriguing twist that Kafka, who died in 1924, asked Max Brod, his literary executor, to destroy them, probably knowing that he was the last person in the world who would do that. Nominated by Steven Fogel and Cole Davis. “Brod’s refusal made his friend’s reputation,” added Graham Kirby.

6. George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter. DJ Taylor in his biography of Orwell said he “described it as ‘bollix’, and would never allow it to be reprinted in his lifetime”. But it was reprinted after his death in 1950, otherwise we might have forgotten “the wages of sin is kippers”, as Cole Davis pointed out.

7. Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, finally published in 2009 by his son, against his wishes, 32 years after his death in 1977. “Doing Nabokov no favours at all,” said Richard Godwin. “That first chapter is phenomenal, though,” added Life of Opuscula.

8. Philip Larkin’s poems and letters. An ambiguous case. Larkin asked Monica Jones, one of his mistresses, to destroy his diaries; when he died in 1985 she asked Betty Mackereth, another of his mistresses, to do it. She spent a whole afternoon feeding them into a shredder. But he also told Andrew Motion, his biographer, that before he died, “I’ll have a bonfire of all the things I don’t want anyone to see.” But he never did, and unpublished poems and letters have been coming out ever since. Nominated by Steven Fogel.

9. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Another partial case: Kubrick withdrew it from UK release in 1973. The Scala cinema in London closed after putting on an unauthorised screening in 1992, and losing the subsequent legal action. The ban was lifted only after he died in 1999. Thanks to Robert Wright.

10. Edward Albee’s unfinished manuscripts. He died in 2016, having left instruction in his will for them to be destroyed. “We do not yet know if it will be obeyed,” said Graham Kirby.

There’s always one: Paul T Horgan nominated Hitler, who issued the “Nero Decree” in March 1945, ordering the destruction of German infrastructure, which Albert Speer refused to carry out.

Next week: Rulers who, as children, met their predecessors – inspired by that photo of Bill Clinton, aged 16, shaking hands with President John F Kennedy.

Coming soon: Works of fiction named after a character who isn’t the main one, such as Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to top10@independent.co.uk


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