Pratchett’s steamroller

Sir Terry Pratchett’s works destroyed by a steamroller – ok, never mind the ostentation, a couple of comments.

Pratchett is not the first writer to entertain such destructive thoughts. Francis Bacon, Nabokov, Kafka, even Gogol destroyed their own unpublished or unfinished works or asked for them to be burned. On his deathbed, Virgil is said to have instructed his friends to destroy the unfinished Aeneid (no steamrollers involved), but the wish was rejected by Emperor Augustus. We can thank him for that. Whilst I am sure no-one thinks Pratchett’s finished or unfinished novels can hold a candle to the Aeneid, I would nevertheless have wished to see a bit of anti-authorial opposition. The Queen could have interceded; lawyers could have found potholes in copyright and inheritance law. Readers of Italo Calvino could have petitioned the executors of Pratchett’s will, who turned out to be nothing more than the executioners of his inheritance. When Kafka asked his literary executor to destroy his unfinished works, the latter refused, and had them published instead. Imagine Van Gogh issuing a similar order, wouldn’t we all stop dead in our tracks? Kierkegaard imagined a textual error mutinying against its author. Why couldn’t a finished book take offense at the claim of its own insufficiency and request a royal pardon? And this brings me to my second point.

Whatever Roland Barthes may have thought about the demise of the modern author, it is clear the author is not yet completely dead, but still in control of his work, even after his death. Fascinated with the spectacle of evil, Dante allowed Virgil, his character, to reprimand him, in one of the most postmodern scenes of the Divine Comedy. For all his historicity, Terry Pratchett, in this story of destruction and oblivion, is also a narrative invention, a device meant to control other narratives – and in this case, to smash them out of existence.

Finally, the steamroller. One must ask why the harddrive had to be destroyed using a steamroller, and not burned nicely, as if it were a scroll, a codex or a paper pile. The immateriality of electronic storage has been overcome by the tawdry, strepitous machine. Pratchett might have gone for poetic closure, but what comes to my mind, inextricably, is Marianne Moore’s indictment of the modern world in her invocatory poem ‘To a steamroller”, where a sort of totalitarian mindlessness levels everything in its path:

“The illustration

is nothing to you without the application.

You lack half wit. You crush all the particles down

into close conformity, and then walk back and forth

on them.”

Literary destroyer required. Apply within. In this final gesture, Pratchett’s legacy, whatever the quality and success of his work, becomes one of complacent wastefulness.

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