In the past I’ve written about entire novels being lost or buried for centuries, but today I’m going to write about novels that were partially finished when their author died. People have been waiting 11 years for The Winds of Winter (by George R.R. Martin), and my wife has been waiting 20 years for the final book of the Legendsong Saga, Darkbane (by Isobelle Carmody). So what happens when an author dies with an unfinished manuscript?
In some cases, it is published pretty much as is. Michael Crichton had a complete novel call Pirate Latitudes found on his computer after his death in 2008. They also found a complete outline and one-third written novel called, Micro. Crichton was a household named after hits like Jurassic Park, E.R. (TV series) and The Andromeda Strain. A new Crichton novel was worth big money, so his publisher decided to get someone to write the rest of the Micro from the outline. They chose Richard Preston and the book was published in 2011. Where there is money there is a way, and his publishers also published a book Crichton had written in 1974 called Dragon Teeth. Some of the reviews I read of these novels say they lack the spark of Crichton’s works before he passed. But the lesson is that if there is money to be made, someone will complete the novel and it will get published. This was certainly the case for Robert Ludlum who had several books he’d started on completed and published posthumously. He also had others take on his characters and write many novels about them (especially the Jason Bourne series). These are conventional thrillers though. What about something more specialised?
The Silmarillion is a collection of mythopoeic stories by the J. R. R. Tolkien. The book was written (but not edited or published) before The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien continued working on it for many years before he died of a heart attack. The Silmarillion is not a novel as such but a mythology – in the same way the Greek or Roman myths are not a single story but a series of interrelated tales. Which meant that when it was released (after Tolkien’s son, Christopher, edited, updated and compiled the stories into a publishable format), it was not well received. As an aside Tolkien coined the term ‘prequel’ to describe The Silmarillion‘s relationship to The Lord of the Rings.*
Albert Camus wrote one of the classic existential novels in L’Etranger (The Outsider or The Stranger depending on your translation). It is worth noting Camus rejected the existential label, though to my mind it fits the definition perfectly. I was given my copy as a Christmas present when I was 16 (Merry Christmas, here’s some existential angst for you!). Camus died in January 1960 in car crash. The evidence suggests it was an accident, but I always wondered if it was suicide given how bleak his novel was. As such, I was surprised to discover that there has been speculation that Camus was assassinated by the KGB because he took a moral stance against the Soviet Union!1 An argument for the crash being an accident (or assassination if that’s your bent) is that 144 pages of a handwritten manuscript entitled Le Premier Homme (The First Man) were found in the wreckage. Camus had predicted that this unfinished novel would be his finest work. I couldn’t find out much about the manuscript other than it was based on Camus’ childhood in Algeria.
Sylvia Plath is a different entry on this list; unlike the others she definitely killed herself. At the time of her death she was working on her second novel, Double Exposure. Plath was mostly famous as a poet and is credited with popularising confessional poetry. Her first novel, The Bell Jar was a ‘roman a clef’ which was published shortly before Plath’s … fatal moment. Given the novel tells of a depressed student who endures ECT and suffers greatly from her mental health problems, it is hard to interpret without reference to the Plath’s own life, which meant the reception to the book was muted. Plath had started on Double Exposure at the time of her death. There are mixed reports of how completed it was (ranging pretty much across the spectrum from being barely more than a chapter outline to fully complete). There is even some reporting that there is a complete copy under lock and key at a university in Massachusetts.2 Whatever the real state of it was the novel meant to be more humorous than her previous works and “semi-autobiographical about a wife whose husband turns out to be a deserter and philanderer”.2 (Plath’s own marriage had ended under similar circumstances). The world may never know what insights the book may have contained, but given the nature of her poetry it is likely to have been confronting.
I nearly could have been a name on this list. In 2015 I was ever so briefly clinically dead, before being resuscitated. At the time my novel Incite Insight was unpublished. I had mentioned to my wife that if anything happened to me she was to publish the book and she nearly had the chance. Fortunately, I was around to see it get published. 🙂 However, this is not the reason for my interest in such ‘incomplete at time of death’ works. I am interested in them because I can’t help but wonder what might have been. What great or popular or insightful work could have been? The academic in me is curious, but the humanist voice is even stronger – what have we lost by missing out on these stories? Stories are a big part of what makes us human (as far as we know we are the only species which tells them – making this a fundamental aspect of humanity), so the loss of one is something which should be acknowledged in some way. This post serves as my little tribute to those works.
Collectively these unfinished stories are a Great Moment in Literature. Next time I’ll talk about an unusual bible. Why not subscribe so you never miss out on a Great Moment in Literature and have the convenience of getting them delivered straight to your inbox?