An extraordinary insight into some of the literary masterpieces of recent decades has been provided by their authors in handwritten annotations in first editions of their works.
Among more than 80 writers who have reread and commented on their works are Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, Salman Rushdie, Monica Ali, John le Carré, Sebastian Faulks, Ben Okri, Ian McEwan, JM Coetzee, Peter Carey and Bernardine Evaristo.
A number of renowned artists including Tracey Emin, Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and Ai Weiwei have also contributed works to a sale to raise funds for English PEN, a human rights organisation that champions freedom of expression and defends writers at risk of persecution.
The annotations were “personal, profound, insightful and frequently surprising, adding a unique layer of intimacy to some of the most celebrated texts published in our lifetime”, said Mark Wiltshire, a books and manuscripts specialist at Christie’s.
The auction house is selling the works, under the title First Editions, Second Thoughts, and hosting an exhibition of selected lots.
Mantel, who twice won the Booker prize with her Wolf Hall trilogy, has scribbled about 5,000 words of notes in margins and blank spaces in Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light.
Speaking about the exercise, she said: “A special kind of memory comes into play – how you were when such a phrase arrived, where you were: the way the light fell in the room … Sentences struggle and twist again under your hand. Things you might have said, and the various ways you might have said them, swim back into your consciousness.”
One of her comments, about Henry VIII, reads: “I don’t think he is a monster. Or rather, I don’t think that saying he is gets us much further. He often seems terrifyingly inconsistent and flawed, but there is no type of man or woman who is suited to the exercise of absolute power.”
This, said Wiltshire, is “exactly what you want from Hilary Mantel. Brilliant.”
John le Carré began annotating his 1963 cold war thriller The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, but died when he was 45 pages in. His bookmark is still in place at the point he reached.
Next to a description of a man being shot dead while trying to cross from east to west Berlin, le Carré – a former spy – writes: “I never saw such a shooting, if there was one. The most notorious shooting of an attempted frontier crosser at the wall was of Peter Fechter, who was allowed to bleed to death on the mined strip while trying to climb. It happened over days and nights in plain sight of western spectators.”
Wiltshire said: “His annotations are so typically Le Carré. For example, he says: ‘Many agents lie about their personal lives for fear of losing their salaries. They also babble to their mistress or the stranger on a train.’ I just love that.
“He also corrects himself in various places, because the language is that of 1963. He says he wouldn’t write such passages now.
“This first edition is a valuable book in itself, very collectible. To have these annotations, made soon before he died, is utterly poignant.”
On the opening page of Brick Lane, Monica Ali’s 2003 novel about the east London Bangladeshi community, the author writes: “Haven’t read BL in last 16 or 17 years. Sense of trepidation. Also curiosity.”
In more than 1,000 words of commentary spread over 79 pages of the book, Ali says she wrote the first chapter of Brick Lane while on a family holiday in the Lake District. “We had attended my grandfather’s funeral two days previously. The story had been brewing for around a year. After the funeral, I knew I had to write it.”
In Atonement, Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel set in the 1930s and 40s, the author writes in the margin next to a description of a dinner at Cambridge: “The English class system! I see from this distance that I’ve given Robbie something of myself. Rose, my mother, left school at 14 and entered service as a chambermaid … Only later in life did I see in retrospect various slights and snobberies directed my way …”
McEwan had written “thousands of words in the margins”, said Wiltshire. “One of the things he’s done so well is to explain the psychology of these characters. He talks about how memory plays tricks on us, you know, and that of course is a central theme of the book.”
The annotations were a “big undertaking” for the authors, said Wiltshire. “It involves attentive rereading of a book, genuine reflections and thousands of words of text. It shows that the issues English PEN campaigns on are ones they really care about.”
Estimates for the works range from £1,000 to £20,000.