Unfinished, Not Unpublished

Sanjay Sipahimalani
Dead Tree Diaries
Opinions - IN

Decades ago, while browsing at a bookstore on Park Street in Kolkata, I came across a novel by P.G. Wodehouse with the most un-Wodehousian title of Sunset at Blandings. Upon examination, it turned out to be the novel he was working on when he died. The unfinished manuscript was subsequently published, padded out with the addition of Wodehouse's notes on the plot and an introduction by Richard Usborne.

I put the book back on the shelf. It remains one of the few by the novelist that I haven't read, simply because I'm sure I'd be stricken by an awful sense of melancholy on every page, however sprightly Wodehouse's sentences.

Clearly, not everyone would be as melancholy when it comes to a favourite author's last words, as exemplified by the continual publication of unfinished manuscripts. The latest case in point is David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, which he was working on at the time of his suicide. It was published last month to — so far — glowing and respectful reviews.

Wallace's editor, tasked with assembling the book from hard drives, floppy disks, notebooks, binders, sheaves of handwritten pages and notes, has written that it was "a challenge like none I've ever faced". Though "not by any measure a finished work", he adds, "The Pale King seemed to me as deep and brave as anything David had written". What we have, then, is an editor's version of what Wallace intended, something he readily acknowledges. And this is an issue that bedevils any such work: the final version isn't the author's, but those of others who work towards what the author intended.

The attention garnered by The Pale King brings to mind another recent unfinished manuscript: The Original of Laura, by the redoubtable Vladimir Nabokov. There were strong opinions on whether it ought to appear at all — Nabokov was working on the manuscript when he died in 1977, and it took over three decades to see light of day. When his son finally authorized publication, the book was met with a less than rapturous response, with one critic calling it "a puzzle with too many missing pieces". The format of the book, too, was gimmicky, comprising perforated index cards, facsimiles of those that the author had written upon, with the printed text below them. In this case, perhaps his heir would have been wise to respect Nabokov's instructions to destroy any unfinished work that remained after his death.

"Caress the detail, the divine detail", Nabokov once wrote, and it's unlikely that he would have been happy with readers poring over a work lacking in caressed detail.  (In passing, here's another one of his aphorisms, one that would have delighted David Foster Wallace:  "Existence is a series of footnotes to a vast, obscure, unfinished masterpiece". Deep stuff.)

There are many such examples over the years, and their variety points to the fact that there can really be no blanket rule on unpublished work.  The mystery of Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood will always remain unsolved, as the author left no clues, and we'll also never know whether The Love of the Last Tycoon was consummated, as Scott Fitzgerald's lips, like his grave, remain sealed. On the other hand, it would be alarming to think that we may never have had the chance to read Kafka's The Trial — to take just one of his books — on grounds that it was unfinished. Thanks, Max.

Sometimes, it's not only the Grim Reaper who's to blame for unfinished manuscripts. It's also the pressure of heightened expectations.  Ralph Ellison struggled for over four decades on the manuscript of a second novel that he hoped would match the calibre of Invisible Man. Similarly, after In Cold Blood, his "factual novel", Truman Capote tussled unsuccessfully for the rest of his life with the follow-up, Answered Prayers. (Several theories exist on how much of it he managed to finish.) Edited versions of both Ellison and Capote's novels were published posthumously, and it's a moot question as to whether the lay reader gained much by reading them.

To publish the unfinished, then, is a tricky issue to resolve, calling for not just the expertise and opinions of the authors' long-standing editors but also the sensitivities of families, not to mention express instructions that may have left behind. Those who do decide to go ahead can take heart from Paul Valery's comment: "Poems are never finished, they are abandoned". Even though some abandoned poems are more readable than others.

Sanjay Sipahimalani is a writer with an advertising agency in Mumbai. His reviews are collected at Antiblurbs.