Monday musings on Australian literature: Unfinished books (2)

“Literary history is replete with unfinished novels which ought never to have seen the light of day.” (Alan Taylor, Scotland’s The Herald.) 

Back in 2018, I wrote a Monday Musings post on unfinished novels. I was more interested there in why they were published and what the authors may have intended. This time, I’m focusing more on how reviewers have responded to reading unfinished novels.

I have read several unfinished novels over the years, Jane Austen’s The Watsons (my review) and Catharine, or the bower (my review), for example. As many of you know, another of her unfinished works, Sanditon, was recently developed into a television series. The less said about that the better, but I am horrified that a second series has now been commissioned from this, what, 11-chapter unfinished novel. It’s all about the money. Andrew Davies and his team are not the first to “finish” this novel, but my post is on the unfinished version. Reading the unadulterated work is always my preference, because my interest is in the writer and wanting to know them better, to see where they were heading, perhaps, or gain insight into the development of their ideas or their methodology.

On reading the unfinished

All this, though, is by way of introduction, since my Monday Musings focus is Australia.

So let’s start with Patrick White, and his unfinished novel The hanging garden (on my TBR). As I wrote in my first post, he had instructed his literary agent Barbara Mobbs to destroy all handwritten papers after his death. She didn’t, and eventually acquiesced to the requests and allowed a verbatim transcription of it to be published in 2012, the 100th anniversary of White’s birth.

Being a White novel, it was, of course, reviewed by many. James Hopkin, writing in the TLS Literary Supplement, described posthumous publication against the author’s wish as “questionable, if not distasteful”, but that didn’t stop him reading it. He concluded that, although unfinished, “it works as a self-sufficient novella, and a fine one at that. (So, in this case, the publisher may be vindicated.)” I’m not sure that’s a moral justification, but it is an artistic one! Alan Taylor, whose quote starts this post, agrees that it was worth publishing. He calls it “haunting and tantalising”, and says that “the feeling that remains after reading its 200-plus generously spaced pages is one of regret and sadness at its incompletion”.

Hopkin and Taylor aren’t Australian, but Michelle de Kretser is, and she starts her discussion with:

The publication of an unfinished draft is the writer’s version of that nightmare in which you find yourself naked in the street.

But, she doesn’t exactly address the moral issue either. Instead, she looks at it from an author’s perspective, writing that “White is manifest in this book – especially in the first half, where greatness marks every page.” But as this unfinished work progresses, she says

the sense of draft, barely perceptible earlier on, comes close to the surface. Most tellingly, the grand pavane of White’s style slows and slackens. In these pages, our dominion over the dead seems brutal – surely White would never have allowed the publication of this fragmented work.

Yet the coldblooded living gain.

Ultimately, she says, “it feels like a gift”.

I also mentioned George Johnston’s A cartload of clay in my previous post. It completes his My brother Jack trilogy, and was published in 1971, the year after his death in 1970. Responses to it represent the more common gamut of responses to reading unfinished works. John Lleonart who reviewed it in The Canberra Times called it “a mellow, often distinctly melancholy autobiographical essay”. He says that while Johnston had intended it to be a novel, its incomplete nature does not detract from it. “[T]he absence of a contrived ending is, indeed, a factor in the book’s impact as a human document”.

Papua New Guinea Post-Courier‘s reviewer only partially agreed, arguing that its incomplete nature makes it “inherently unsatisfying, though it constitutes a fine piece of poignant and reflective writing”.

Writing nearly 50 years later – in 2020 in The Guardian‘s Unmissables series (see my post) – writer Paul Daley says he has often reread the trilogy, and that this third, unfinished volume, “emerges with rereading as equally compelling, and as the most stylistically elegant and, without doubt, melancholic, of the trilogy”. But, the best line comes from Johnston’s biographer, Garry Kinnane, whom Daley quotes:

“Just as in autobiography, the most complete form of ending in autobiographical fiction is the unfinished work, in which the final interruption to the self-exploration has been made by death itself.”

Love it!

My last example comes from a writer who died very recently, in 2018, the crime fiction writer, Peter Temple. I’ve reviewed his Miles Franklin winning novel, Truth. In 2019, Text Publishing published The red hand: Stories, reflections and the last appearance of Jack Irish. It includes the unfinished Jack Irish novel found in Temple’s drawer. Titled High art, it is, says Text, a “substantial fragment” which “reveals a writer at the peak of his powers”.

Text shares some responses. ABR described it as “dazzling…instantly engaging” and Michael Robotham called it “vintage Temple with black humour, crackling dialogue, suspense and achingly beautiful descriptions…I kept turning the page and holding it up to the light, hoping for more words between the lines”. Love that, too.

But it’s Anna Creer, in The Canberra Times, who gets to the heart of the experience of reading an unfinished novel:

The delight of reading High art eventually turns to reading despair as it ends abruptly with a body being discovered in a drain.

This seems the perfect point to hand it over to you. Do you read unfinished novels, and if so, what is your experience?

48 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Unfinished books (2)

  1. I know one person who will be delighted there is second series of Sanditon – the landscape gardener we employed a few years ago who had a role in the series (non speaking). Fortunately he’d finished our project by the time the series aired because it would have been embarrassing to admit we gave up on it after episode one. Dreadful stuff.

    Yes I’ve read a few unfinished novels, only one of which was finished after the author’s death but that was at her request. It does seem in bad taste to completely disregard an authors wishes for the material to be destroyed.

    • Thanks Karen. Glad you agree re Sanditon, but a nice job for your landscape gardener to have had!

      Why have you read those unfinished novels? Same reason as mine?

      Generally, I agree with you re its being in bad taste to disregard authors’ wishes. In Patrick White’s case, though, I have sympathy with Barbara Mobbs. He was a MAJOR writer. She thought for years and years, and was probably bombarded. It probably both helped and made it harder that after his partner’s death there were no close relatives (no children, and parents and sister deceased) to be concerned about or to consult re the decision.

      • Curiosity I think was the driver. When I had read and enjoyed most of their other works I was hungry for more and curious to see what we missed out on. I should learn not to do this though because invariably the experience didn’t live up to my expectations which I should have known that would be the case

  2. I do read unfinished novels.
    1/ The Watsons and Sanditon are interesting and illuminating about the way Jane Austen wrote: she created a skeleton first then added flesh later (I can see some of that in Persuasion). Sanditon is also interesting because it shows that she was again moving in a different direction.
    2/ Kafka’s novels are all unfinished, including The Trial.
    3/ The Tale of Genji, one of my favourite novels, ends in mid-sentence. It may or may not be intentional. Another favourite novel, Hong lou meng, has 120 chapters but only 80 chapters were definitely by Cao Xueqin, the last 40 have disputed authorship. I only read till 85 and stopped (because the writing wasn’t the same), so for me the book is unfinished.
    I haven’t seen the series Sanditon, but I won’t, because I don’t like Andrew Davies.

  3. “High Art”, yes. It’s PETER TEMPLE ! – my favourite writer of all times.
    I can’t agree with Anna Creer in that I started reading it with my heart full of despair.
    The gods must be crazy.

  4. Well, Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet. I suppose that one can’t really count In Search of Lost Time, but only two volumes were in print when Proust died, and I have to wonder whether he wouldn’t have tightened up some the later work.

  5. Di(Yee) has reminded me of the Good Soldier Schweik. A great book, but one I sadly haven’t read for a while.
    I have all night but the only Australian example I can come up with is Eve Langley’s The Saunterer which was unfinished and (disgracefully) remains unpublished as does the majority of her writing. I would publish it in a heartbeat, not that I think Langley would have minded, though I wonder what she might have thought of Lucy Frost’s ‘abridgement’ Wild Eve – at least it’s out there.
    I have no moral position about dead authors. As a literary executor I’d probably say publish the lot and hang the author’s intentions.

    • Haha, Bill, I “love” your lack of moral position. I can’t fully agree with it, but on the other hand I find it hard to agree with the inflexible moral position too. Most things are more nuanced than black-and-white positions, but nuance brings risk.

      I mentioned Eve Langley in my first post, because of all those unpublished works of hers, but I don’t think I identified “unfinished” titles, which I should have given the topic was “unfinished” not “unpublished”. So, thanks for this.

  6. I’ve read Sanditon, but wish I hadn’t and I didn’t watch the series…by the sound of it, no loss!
    And I have a copy of The Hanging Garden, but haven’t read it yet. I’m not sure that I ever will, mainly because of the risk of disappointment.
    I’ve been an executor twice, and it can be a difficult and distressing task. The thing is, an executor is chosen because they were trusted by the deceased to fulfil their wishes, and the executor accepts that moral obligation. It’s not that the dead person could be ‘turning in their grave’ or even that interfering with a will may upset relatives still living, it’s that not fulfilling a trust is a moral burden to bear. We all have to live with ourselves and a major breach of trust like that would make me feel terrible.
    Other people wanting to read unfinished novels that were supposed to be destroyed is no different to somebody desperately wanting an item from the estate (a painting, a vase, a piece of furniture) that is supposed to be sold and its value distributed to the beneficiaries. Perhaps they want it for sentimental reasons, perhaps they just like it, but the executor has no right to interfere with the will. If they want it, they have to buy it at market value…

    • Yes, I remember your response to Sanditon, Lisa, and as you know I don’t agree. For Austen fans it is so interesting, because of the hints it gives re new directions in her writing and new targets for her quick-witted mind.

      As for PW. I tend to err more your way than the opposite, but my view is never say never. I have been executor three times now, all for relatives, and I take your point, though fortunately we/I had no serious moral issues to confront. There was a minor one concerning my aunt and her piano, but what she said verbally she didn’t put in the (unfinished) will, and so after a brief discussion with my co-executor, we stuck with the will. But, I know we could have negotiated what her heart would have liked with the beneficiaries if we’d decided to go that way. And I guess, here is part of the rub … what do people write down in their will, what do they say, in what mind are they when they say it, who will be affected by going one way or another, and so on.

      It’s a heavy load and I truly think Barbara Mobbs didn’t break White’s wishes lightly. I’m not sure whether it was in his will or whether he just told her, but the latter carries significant weight too if you are an ethical person. I’m also assuming that little if anything else of White’s will see the light of day.

      In the end, though, I would have to be very well convinced to go against express wishes, because the moral burden would be powerful.

      I may or may not read my copy of the book. I don’t really fear being disappointed because I know I will be! Its being unfinished protects me – I can excuse any failings, and just focus on what I learn…

  7. I get it that some of you think it’s rude to ignore an author’s wishes, but if Max Brod hadn’t ignored Kafka’s wishes, we wouldn’t have had ANY of his works. We wouldn’t have had Kafka, and he’s one of the most influential writers of the 20th century literature.

  8. Sanditon is the one of the few unfinished books I’ve read – too bad she didn’t finish it, it might have been her masterpiece. I also read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, many, many years ago. I wouldn’t mind reading The Watsons, but I tried reading her Lady Susan and DNF it!

  9. Great subject to explore! I’ve not read any of these (and don’t think I’d properly registered that Peter Temple had died) but I have read a few books like this in collections about the writer’s work, more as an academic exercise than as a reader. I can’t think of a specific right now, but I think maybe some of Louisa May Alcott’s scraps? One of those things that are more interesting (possibly even illuminating, if one has studied the author in detail) than entertaining, I’d venture to say?

  10. I HAVE read unfinished work, mostly Zora Neale Hurston. She’s published, to my knowledge, three books since her death. On the one hand, I’m not sure she wanted her papers published. On the other hand, she was ostracized and rejected in her lifetime and died poor and homeless, tossed into an unmarked grave. If she could have found a publisher back then, she may well have published more. Currently, her papers are collected and cared for, and thus, as more is gone through by researchers, more is published.

    As for finishing someone else’s novel? Like another writer? Some fantasy authors started huge series that their children or good friend carried on upon their death. When I was in grad school for fiction writing, a classmate and friend was working on a fantasy novel. When he died by suicide, I asked his wife if any of us could finish his book. She said no, that he wouldn’t want that.

    In one sense it’s like fan fiction to complete a beloved author’s novel. Fan fiction is nothing if not an act of love for a writer’s work and not so much a money grab for many people. The whole thing around Harper Lee felt morally disgusting, a money grab of the worst kind that not only failed to expand our understanding of the author, but ruined her in the eyes of many.

      • My beef is that from what I heard on NPR, she didn’t even write most of it. Someone else came in a filled in most of the gaps on a manuscript Lee didn’t believe in, didn’t want sold. And then as she was dying — an invalid — there was some legal fancy footwork to get it published. On that one, I can’t get past the ethical dilemma.

    • It’s a really complex area isn’t it Melanie? I’m not a huge fan of fan fiction and while it might be an act of love, mostly, I’d rather they keep their love to themselves.

      Wouldn’t it be great to know what Zora Neal Hurston would have like? Its great though that her papers are being basted for and loved.

      I haven’t read Watchman so have no real opinion on that whole story. Somehow all the publicity put me off.

      • Personally, fan fiction should live online. On the one hand, that seems the natural place for it, like a blog that the author updates chapter by chapter on a schedule if possible. This kind of writing is huge in Japan. When it becomes a book, we start to judge it as a literary thing because it now lives in a different container, and I don’t think that’s fair.

        • Interesting point Melanie. In one sense I agree but it does depend for me a bit on intention. An amateur fan blog, say, is different, to my mind, to a published book I’m paying someone for. I would assess each one according to context.

          I like the idea of fan fiction livimv on line, but I think there are fans who aren’t teach savvy and don’t like online content?

        • Haha Melanie, that’s probably your age group?! There is a Wikipedia page devoted to Jane Austen fan fiction which runs the gamut of genres and forms. Fan fiction has really taken off with the WWW but it’s not limited to the internet.

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