A great writer dies. Her heirs find a neatly corrected, typewritten manuscript locked in a desk drawer. Or perhaps it is not an heir, maybe it’s an editor, or worse—an agent. And maybe it’s not neatly bound, maybe it’s a scrambled bunch of notecards some canny reader puts into just the right order (or is it?). What is the resulting object? A masterpiece? A cash cow? Maybe a little of both.
It is a statement on both author mortality and the current state of publishing that in the above remarks we could be referring to a number of authors. It’s Roberto Bolaño, right? No, Vladimir Nabokov. Or David Foster Wallace, or Janet Frame, or Mark Twain. Those are all from just this year, but it could as well be Ralph Ellison, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, maybe even Virgil, who legend has it wanted the Aeneid to be burned. Well, he was wrong about that.
As long as editorial will reigns and readers wonder what if?, it’s clear that the dead will never have the last word—the bigger question is, should they?
The appeal of the unfinished work is undeniable, even to those of us who reserve the right to disdain it. Geoff Dyer nails this appeal in Out of Sheer Rage, his book about failing to write a biography of D. H. Lawrence. He writes:
As time goes by we drift away from the great texts, the finished works on which an author’s reputation is built, towards the journals, diaries, letters, manuscripts, jottings. This is not simply because, as an author’s stature grows posthumously, the fund of published texts becomes exhausted and we have to make do not only with previously unpublished or unfinished material but, increasingly, with matter that was never intended for publication. It is also because we want to get nearer to the man or woman who wrote these books, to his or her being.
Sage thoughts indeed, but please do not fail to take Dyer’s words with a grain of salt: after all, his book is famously about not writing about Lawrence (Dyer was unflaggingly distracted away from the supposed object of his critical affections). We cannot help but wonder if all those lovely diaries and letters and jottings were just another aid to procrastination.
For those who can claim to have read every page of Wallace (well over 4,000 of them), or all of Nabokov (18 novels, plus 1,000 pages of stories, plus two books of lectures, numerous volumes of poetry, and translations . . .), or even the bilingualists who have exhausted Bolaño, then perhaps they can claim that an unexpected addition to an oeuvre is like a seductive phone call from beyond the grave. But for those of us who have yet to complete these authors’ works, our cynicism insists that the unpublished manuscripts are just an excuse to gossip about so-and-so and get excited about the publication of a “new” book, an item for which, we must observe, we are not currently lacking. Wallace, Nabokov, and (now) Bolaño are brands, and brands sell, especially in times of economic uncertainty. It’s easy to generate press for Wallace’s “last” “novel,” not so much for Wallace’s first novel, to say nothing of midlist author X, whose last book (total sales of around 5,000 copies in cloth and paper) generates a lukewarm brush-off from Barnes & Noble’s computer algorithm.
Still, we would be remiss if we did not admit that an unfinished work’s very nature promises certain pleasures that no completed work can. There is something humbling, if not a little satisfying, to know that the force that could produce Invisible Man could also struggle for the rest of his life to again satisfy his muse. Well, let’s see why! Crack that ms open!
The intrigue is inarguable. In the unfinished novel we can see the writer in all her wretched humanity, prone to distractions and failures just like us. At the same time, all those lacunae and disjunctions, the scribbles and blots and jagged lines, afford us unprecedented access to the creative mind at work. So now we have finally secured an invitation to our favorite writer’s study; we can hover like an unwanted in-law, make little snorts and suggestions at the writer’s trembling pen, project our own petty psychological theories. All this will make great banter at the next party.
So okay, we can argue the pros and cons back and forth all day, but in the end we must admit that if the manuscript is there for us then the author has given tacit approval to publish. Let’s not be naïve: any writer working today knows that whatever is left behind is fair game for editors and publishers, no matter what instructions they leave. After all, nearly a century ago Henry James was a devotee of the burning barrel. He knew whatever he left behind was going into print. And it has long been supposed that even that lover of the match, one Franz Kafka, knew his adoring secretary could never bring himself to burn his idol’s manuscripts.
In light of the fact that anyone working today cannot possibly believe that her unpublished work is safe, we must assume that no matter what an author says, if she didn’t burn it up to ashes she at least a little bit wanted it published. And so, in hopes of squaring readers’ and publishers’ interests with authors’ quite legitimate need to not have someone sully their work, we offer the following compromise:
1. If it’s not burned you can publish it.
2. But, you have to publish it just as it was left.
That is, “The Original of Laura” should be available as a little stack of notecards secured with a handy steel ring. “The Pale King” should come packaged in numerous filing cabinets and some twine. Bolaño’s remaining manuscripts should come in spiral binders bearing the musty smell of moldy paper. And so on and so forth. Undoubtedly this arrangement will lead to production challenges that will make the large-scale manufacture of some of these posthumous manuscripts difficult, if not impossible. To which we say: oh well.
For those who still love a manuscript that was meant to be published, there’s a lot to appreciate in our 16th issue. We also offer a preview of the long-deceased but never-before-translated Argentine Macedonio Fernandez, whom we profiled in Issue 12 as Borges’s mentor. Although this exceedingly odd text was very much meant to be published, once you read it you’ll agree that it sure looks like someone’s rough notes toward a book (albeit, rough notes that begin to take on a certain logic and end up undeniably beautiful and profound).
Also on the translation front we offer an essay on and excerpt from the Mexican writer Juan Villoro’s novel El Testigo, considered by some the “great Mexican novel” and currently unavailable in English.
For those who want their literary superstars, we have a lengthy essay that pulls together Cormac McCarthy’s entire oeuvre, chronicling how his style and concerns have developed over 40+ years. Travis Godsoe takes on the most famous Peruvian novelist (and failed presidential candidate) of the 20th century, Mario Vargas Llosa, and his classic novel about the real-life history of a rebel commune of slaves and the poor in 19th-century Brazil. Jeremy Hatch jumps off from Cyril Connolly’s interesting book Enemies of Promise to ponder which of our writers will last 10 years or more. Elizabeth Wadell considers the great New Zealand author Janet Frame, looking at the points of divergence between her autobiography and a novel she deemed too personal to be published in her lifetime. And John Herbert Cunningham draws connections between the careers and work of three great Latin American poets.
In our reviews, we look at titles from six different continents, a new record for us. (To our knowledge penguins still don’t write, but when they do, we’ll add the seventh.) That includes new works translated from the Chinese, scads of poetry, a classic work from Soviet Russia, a new anthology of literature from Africa, a lauded contemporary work from a major Mexican writer, a review of Amanda Michalopoulou’s groundbreaking book (and an interview with her and her translator), a review of the novel that was recently thrust into President Obama’s hands while he was in Turkey, and a whole lot more.
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