Friday, October 18, 2013

6 Tragically Unfinished Books and Why We Should Read Them

Many authors leave behind unfinished work. While it can be enormously frustrating to be deprived of the character and plot resolutions, and most unfinished work will lack the polish of a fully revised manuscript, these writings so often reveal unexpected facets of a writer's genius, provide glimpses of the birth of new ideas, or are purely and simply beautiful works of art. Just as Mozart never finished his sublime Requiem and Leonardo da Vinci never finished his Gran Cavallo, these authors never finished their great books.

6. Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman - Mary Wollstonecraft
This novel would have been the fictional counterpart to Wollstonecraft's revolutionary feminist treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a dramatic depiction of the abuses and limitations women were forced to live under within marriage, an institution that Wollstonecraft felt was patriarchal and injurious to all women. Maria, trapped in an unhappy marriage, has been locked in an insane asylum by her husband (this was an entirely legal practice at the time), but she finds ways of preserving her well-being through a romantic affection for another unjustly imprisoned inmate and a friendship with the servant entrusted with her care. This friendship is significant because it marks perhaps the first instance in feminist fiction of a binding friendship between women across classes. Wollstonecraft died before completing the manuscript, leaving us with a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been a seminal work of feminist fiction.

5. The Dark Tower - C. S. Lewis
This is a short fragment of a possible sequel or prequel to Lewis's science fiction trilogy, which Lewis scholar Walter Hooper rescued from being burned by Lewis's brother in a moving day bonfire (an act that makes my blood curdle - what ended up in that fire?). The manuscript is less than a hundred pages, with occasional sections irrevocably lost, and there is some debate about its authenticity, but unpolished and unfinished as it is, the draft starts an engrossing and fascinating story about time, memory, identity, and self-determination. A fictional version of Lewis, along with Elwin Ransom, the hero of the science fiction trilogy, and other scholars at Cambridge come together to experiment with a "chronoscope," a device that allows them to see some sort of alien world they call "Othertime." An adventure in interdimensional travel commences, though sadly we'll never know just where it was to bring us.

4. Dead Souls - Nikolai Gogol
This satiric masterpiece about the flaws of the Russian social character ends mid-sentence. Originally meant to be a trilogy, with each part a parallel to the three parts of Dante's Divina Commedia, Gogol only completed part one. Chichikov, in a cunning attempt to become wealthy and powerful, travels through the countryside offering to buy "dead souls" - serfs that had died but remained on census records and were taxable until stricken from those records - thereby gaining legal ownership rights and the chance to take out a substantial loan against his serfs. Chichikov is one of the best characters of Russian literature - cunning, complacent, morally corrupt, and yet guileless - and his string of misadventures is both hilariously absurd and unexpectedly tragic.

3. The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Originally intended to be the first part of a massive epic novel that was never completed due to Dostoevsky's death, The Brothers Karamazov is a spiritual and philosophical novel that examines morality, free will, and religious doubt. After Fyodor Karamazov, a callous and brutish landowner, is ruthlessly murdered, his sons' lives are torn apart - Ivan is on the verge of a psychological breakdown, Mitya is suspected of the murder, and Alyosha tries desperately to keep his family from falling apart. Enormously wide in scope and shot through with the visceral pain of complex moral dilemmas, this is one of the truly essential classic novels.

2. The Confessions of Felix Krull - Thomas Mann
A parody of Goethe's autobiography Poetry and Truth, Mann's last novel tells the story of Felix Krull, a narcissist and conman, whose flexible morals reward him with a life of sumptuous luxuries and hedonistic love affairs, always on someone else's bill. Krull writes his memoirs, claiming to fully condemn himself to honest self-reflection, and excelling rather at self-important apologetics. The unexpected windfalls and disasters are engrossing, and Krull's egotistical fatalism and capricious whimsy are delectably charming. This book is also proof that Mann had a sense of humor, and a well-developed one too, something that is often lacking in his other great works, much as I love them.

1. Suite Francaise - Irene Nemirovsky
Nemirovsky had completed only two of the five planned parts of her novel in 1942 when she was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus. The first part of Suite Francaise follows a group of diverse people, from all walks of life, living in Paris as the Germans march in and defeat the French, while the second part is about the inhabitants of a German-occupied French village as they adjust to defeat and occupation. The fact that Nemirovsky was writing these scenes as they actually occurred gives the novel a visceral intensity and heartbreaking immediacy. A rare work that allows us, decades later, to relive the terrifying uncertainty of the early years of World War II, this novel would have been an extraordinary achievement if Nemirovsky had survived the war and finished it, but her death renders the work all the more significant - it is a first-hand record of what life was like, without the reflections of hindsight, and a testimony to a great and silenced voice.

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