Unfinished Business

5 Feb

We all know the parlor game of – if you were able to choose – bringing back one of the rock stars who died prematurely (plane crash, drugs, whatever) so they could continue and complete their life work. Well, the answer to that one is blindingly obvious. Sam Cooke of course.

Let’s shift the game to different terrain. Many authors have died with the pages of an incomplete work on their desks, leaving their followers to tantalizing speculation. In no particular order, let us sift among them. Stendhal? Well, I’ve never read LUCIEN LEUVEN (if that’s how it’s spelled). So I’m not too concerned there. THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD is the incomplete novel that Dickens left behind. Simply, knowing, going in, that the book ends in mid air makes me not want to read it. Why frustrate yourself.

Here are some of the ones I do care about and gnash my teeth over. One of them is an oddity. It’s an abandoned graphic novel by an author who is very much alive. Alan Moore, writer of WATCHMEN and FROM HELL among others. In the thick of the Thatcher era in England, Moore launched what looked like being a social epic on the time and place. BIG NUMBERS. I have the first two issues. I don’t believe any more came out. The reason for the abandonment of the project was a clash between Moore and his picture maker. And then Thatcher got deposed. And the world moved on. And there was just no point in trying to resurrect the project any more. But they were a terrific two issues. A shame.

Three easy ones from the 19th century. SANDITON. Who would not want another Jane Austen novel. What she left us was only eleven or twelve chapters.  Not enough. THE WEIR OF HERMISTON. Stevenson himself thought this was going to be something special. What we have of it is more than special. BILLY BUDD. This was one of the first films I remember seeing as a boy. I can still see Robert Ryan as Claggart, lowering over the spirit of the crew. And that last line from Terence Stamp, about to be hanged, calling out “God bless Captain De Vere.” I was amazed to find upon reading the actual tale that it was unfinished.

Okay, the top three. I am in the camp of John Fowles who was a great admirer of Truman Capote. Ruled out of the great writer of his generation stakes by his butch competitors, Capote nevertheless was the most talented of them all. Name me a single character out of Norman Mailer who rises above the pages. On the other hand think of Holly Golightly. Capote could create character. He was a brilliant reporter. Try THE MUSES ARE HEARD. He was a natural travel writer. And he pulled off the feat of IN COLD BLOOD. And then for years, he basked in the recognition and hinted at the modern Gilded Age society magnum opus that he was working on.  Clearly, it was to be his masterwork. He let slip the title coyly. ANSWERED PRAYERS. Eventually, three chapters saw the light of day. Grotesque betrayal of his high society friends. That was the instant reaction. He showed, or claimed to show the dirty linen. He was banished from the kingdom. And when he died, it seemed that the magnum opus did not exist. And yet, he had the talent and the knowledge. His prose was always luminous. What happened? If only he had endured to set it all down, I am convinced that he would have been acknowledged as the most talented of his generation instead of the gadfly image he paraded on television talk shows. Only Salinger could match him in the prose department.

Scott Fitzgerald left a Hollywood novel unfinished. THE LAST TYCOON. What we have of it contains some of his most vivid writing. Images still burn. The giant Buddha floating in a flash flood between the studio sound stages for example. He left us the outline of how it was going to finish. Which makes it all the more frustrating. His talent was still there.

The final one, the one I regret the most is – sadly – the least known these days. It is the work of the great novelist Richard Hughes, writer of A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA and IN HAZARD. It is his attempt at writing the great novel of the 20th century. The first volume was extraordinary. THE FOX IN THE ATTIC. We had to wait a decade or more before the second volume THE WOODEN SHEPHERDESS.  It was equally as good. I was passionate about Hughes as a writer and I was thrilled to find out that one of my tutors at university John Buxton knew him. I asked him why it took Hughes so long to write, expecting to hear an answer along the lines of “Oh, he carves out every sentence and revises endlessly.” Not a bit of it. Buxton said airily “Oh, it’s pure laziness on his part.” A chill fell over my heart. I somehow knew that the work was never going to be completed. Sure enough, he wrote only twelve chapters of the next volume. And yet what we are left with is still one of the greatest novels in 20th century English literature. From the moment a man walks out of the mist carrying a dead girl in his arms we are hooked. This is the one for me. And I still have the infantile urge to go and jump up and down on Richard Hughes’ grave and scream ‘How could you not finish it?’

A postscript thought occurs to me. These books have all been fictions. Out of non fiction I would have to mention Patrick Leigh Fermor’s third volume, finished by other hands. And we should be grateful for what we have.

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