In the British Museum, London, there resides a very, very old papyrus scroll on which is written a work of wisdom from Ancient Egypt. Its argument was exceeding radical for the time (around the 12th century AD): writing is a surer path to immortality than fine tombs. The Immortality of Writers, as the scroll is known, includes these words:
…Those writers known from the old days, the times just after the gods. Those who foretold what would happen (and did), whose names will endure for eternity. They disappeared when they finished their lives, and all their kindred forgotten. They did not build pyramids in bronze with gravestones of iron from heaven. They did not think to leave a patrimony made of children who would give their names distinction, rather they formed a progeny by means of writing and in the books of wisdom they left…
They gave themselves [the scroll as lector]-priest, the writing board as loving son. Instruction are their tombs, the reed pen their child, the stone surface their wife…..Man decays, his corpse is dust. All his kin have perished; But a book makes him remembered through the mouth of its reciter. Better is a book than a well built house…
Better is a book than a well-built house… It must have been hugely controversial at the time, but today I think this argument strikes a chord with many people. No matter how much we advance as people, no matter how far technology takes us and how much civil rights activists have transformed society, one driving, terrible force remains in humanity: the fear of death. Or, to be more specific, the fear of nothingness – of ceasing to exist.
How do creative people handle that fear? They leave pieces of themselves behind; they immortalise themselves through their art. For some, the remnants of their being after they pass away are few and small. For others, the body of work is revered, so that artists like Michelangelo and writers like Victor Hugo and composers like Beethoven and architects like Frank Lloyd Wright are known by many people. Whatever your idea is of an afterlife, it is easy to imagine such creatives happy to see their legacy live on beyond their mortal body. As Jorge Luis Borge said, ‘When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.’
But what if you’re not a creative? What if, instead, you are like Paolo in my novel The Echoes of Love and a keen spectator, not a performer: like him, you‘spend a lot of time reading about beautiful things and like to surround myself with them’. How can you tap into the immortality of the writer?
Well, between now and 20 November, you have the chance of being a character in a novel by one of these acclaimed writers: Margaret Atwood, Joanna Trollope, Martina Cole, Will Self, Sebastian Faulks, Tracy Chevalier, Alan Hollinghurst, Ken Follett, Ian McEwan, Robert Harris, HanifKureishi, Zadie Smith, Kathy Lette, Adam Foulds, Adam Mars-Jones and Pat Barker.
Seventeen authors are ‘donating a character’ to raise funds for the charity Freedom From Torture, which cares for people who have been tortured. Anyone can bid in the ‘Literary Immortality Auction’ at the Freedom From Torture website, and the bids will feed into a live auction on 20 November at The Royal Institute in London.
Character options depend on the author, but as a minimum your name can appear. Tracy Chevalier, for example,explained:
I am holding open a place in my new novel for Mrs. (ideally a Mrs.) [your surname], a tough-talking landlady of a boarding house in 1850s Gold Rush-era San Francisco. The first thing she says to the hero is ‘No sick on my stairs. You vomit on my floors, you’re out.’ Is your name up to that?
Author Ian McEwan made a powerful case for entering the auction:
Forget the promises of the world’s religions. This auction offers the genuine opportunity of an afterlife. More importantly, bidding in the Freedom from Torture auction will help support a crucial and noble cause. The rehabilitation of torture survivors cannot be accomplished without expertise, compassion, time—and your money.
The fundraising initiative has certainly given me something to think about. I wonder, would my own readers enjoy such a competition?