The recent publication of Nabokov’s index cards in The Original of Laura made me consider the fate of similar projects during the past few centuries. It’s striking how often we novelists are struck down in the middle of writing our weakest work—and yet these novels intrigue because, if only the writer had lived, the book might have really “come together.” As my days dwindle down, I contemplate writing chunks of say, four or five different novels: That’ll make them miss me when I’m gone! And yet what self-respecting writer doesn’t have those four or five novels already, in some drawer somewhere or deep in an old hard drive, the first fifty pages of unfulfilled promise? Booksellers and Millennium Trilogy fans are hoping that the rumors are true and that Stieg “Dragon Tattoo” Larsson wrote at least a chunk of a fourth Salander novel. And what about that David Foster Wallace book? Will it really come out next year? In the meantime, here are a handful of books to ponder, cherish, or cast away in disgust.
Austen’s production quite overwhelmed her ability to publish all her work, and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were both published posthumously. After finishing Persuasion, and in the last six months of her life, Austen began the story of Sanditon, completing eleven chapters before her fatal illness. This lengthy fragment had to wait more than one hundred years to find publication in 1925, but since then all sorts of Austen fans have tried to finish it for her. The challenge is to find an edition that isn’t “continued” by a hack.
Like Sanditon, this book represents a bewildering new direction for its author, who died halfway through its composition, and left not a clue as to how any of its complicated mystery plots should wind themselves up. Well, he asked his illustrator to prepare some sketches for scenes that might have been written, but the relation of these sketches has been witheringly debated since 1870 by whole camps of “Droodians” (or “Druids,” as the Drood-geeks are called). There have been many completions of Drood, several via séances with Dickens himself, and in the 1990s there was even a big Broadway musical with Betty Buckley that allowed the audience to vote each night for who they thought done it. I always voted for Betty Buckley, and still do.
Fitzgerald’s friend, the critic Edmund Wilson, who edited this manuscript after Fitzgerald’s death, is largely responsible for the cult of the fragment in contemporary criticism. It was he who first suggested that The Last Tycoon, a thinly veiled roman à clef about Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg, was the project into which Fitzgerald most completely displays his mastery of form and depth of characterization, suggesting that its very incompleteness possesses the most Fitzgeraldeqsue bouquet of all. (Wilson published Fitzgerald’s notes as an appendix, so we can sort of see how it might have wound up.) It remains a mystery, and the 1976 Elia Kazan/Harold Pinter/Sam Spiegel movie retains some of its valedictory je ne sais quoi, but it’s still pretty bad.
Capote spent the last twenty years of his life lying about the progress of Answered Prayers, his iteration of Proust with all the sin and scandal and sex we love in Remembrance of Things Past. Then came the shock of his death and the double shock of discovering there wasn’t any more to Answered Prayers than the chapters we already knew about. In fact there was less, for “Mojave” was subtracted and published in another collection of Capote remains. Almost as if to compensate, a dustman discovered the typescript of Capote’s putative first novel, Summer Crossing, in a cardboard box and unleashed it onto the world in 2005. Admit it, didn’t you think that Capote’s account of junking the Summer Crossing MS was just more bullshit on his part? “Oh, it wasn’t perfect, so I trashed it.” Yeah right, Truman!
Like Capote, Ellison was plagued in his later years by well-wishers wanting to know what he was working on now. But unlike Capote, Ellison was actually writing something. It took him forty-three years, and wasn’t finished until he died, but the executor that Ellison’s widow named, John F. Callahan, edited a cohesive chunk and published it as Juneteenth in 1999. Fans wondered however, how much editing went on? Was this a Gordon Lish-style wholesale slaughter of what Ellison intended? Hemingway readers are vaguely aware that the versions of Islands in the Stream, The Garden of Eden, and the unspeakable True at First Light aren’t exactly what Hemingway had in mind; and who knows what’s what with Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. As if in his own defense, Callahan came forward with Three Days Before the Shooting . . . (2010), the collected manuscripts for Juneteenth.
And don’t get me started about Hergé’s Tintin and Alph-Art!
Kevin Killian is the author of the story collection Impossible Princess (City Lights, 2009) and a 2008 book of poems called Action Kylie, among other titles. His novel, Spread Eagle, is forthcoming from Alyson Press.