Several years ago, I spent a summer traveling back and forth between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to visit the Ralph Ellison papers stored at the Library of Congress. I had long been enthralled by Invisible Man, Ellison’s seminal 1952 novel of race and identity in the waning years of Jim Crow. But I wasn’t taking the train into the nation’s capital twice a week because of anything he had published during his lifetime. I was there to immerse myself in the26 folders containing the thousands of pages of drafts and notes for a second novel Ellison had spent 40 years writing but never completed.
Ellison began work on the untitled novel (long excerpts of which were published in 2010 as Three Days Before the Shooting . . .) less than a year after the publication of Invisible Man. He had envisioned it as a sweeping tragedy of race in America centered on the story of a boy named Bliss, whose skin appears white but whose parentage is ambiguous. Adopted by a former black jazz trombonist turned preacher named Alonzo Hickman, Bliss would eventually discover the protean power of racial ambiguity and reinvent himself as a white, race-baiting United States Senator from Massachusetts. Years after his ascent to political prominence, he would deliver an improvised speech on the Senate floor that would be cut short when his estranged son attempted to assassinate him from the balcony. After being shuttled to a local hospital, Bliss would confront his own tragic past alongside the man who had raised him.
Shortly after Ellison died in 1994, his wife, Fanny, implored Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan, to tell her whether her late husband’s second novel had a beginning, a middle, and an end. As Callahan sifted through the reams of writing that filled Ellison’s home office, he found only fragments, some of which were virtually novels unto themselves.
As I sat in the Library of Congress’s reading room poring over drafts swamped with marginalia, paragraphs for episodes that never materialized, and ephemera scribbled on the backs of grocery store receipts and old envelopes, I was alternately entranced and dismayed. Amidst this thicket of sentences and ideas, I had hoped to discover a plan, an ending, or—better yet—an explanation for why this writer of the first order hadn’t completed what he was certain would be his magnum opus. I never found any of these. Instead, I was given an inside view of artistic struggle stretched across decades that had resulted not in the conquest of an author over form but in a sprawling curiosity cabinet of literary possibilities.
The duration and singular focus of Ellison’s work on his second novel seemed to me without parallel in literary history. Even Robert Musil, who had spent two decades laboring over The Man Without Qualities (still only half the time Ellison spent), managed to publish two volumes of the work during his lifetime. Ellison’s failure to finish his novel struck me as something for the record books, unintentional though it may have been. The thrill I felt in living in Ellison’s unfinished world—where a scrawled note or a stray revision could shuttle me down a new intellectual rabbit hole—was distinct from my experience with completed novels. It was more collaborative, more free-wheeling, more alive with—for lack of a better word—novelty. And it led me to wonder if unfinished novels constituted a genre of their own and, assuming they did, whether it would be possible to assemble a canon of literary catastrophes.
After scouring archives and bibliographies in search of this canon, it became clear that not all unfinished novels are unfinished in the same way. The most familiar type, I discovered, were those left unfinished at an author’s death that would have almost certainly been completed had the author lived a year or two longer. This is especially true of unfinished novels from the Victorian era, a period known for prolific writing. Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Wilkie Collins’s Blind Love, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters are just a few examples. Later in the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert died while writing Bouvard et Pécuchet. And more recently, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño managed to produce a fair-copy manuscript of his masterpiece, 2666, before he died of liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50.
Some novels left unfinished by authorial death are also haunted by mortality, which makes their unfinishedness feel more fitting. Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, about a group of hypochondriacs languishing at an English health resort, is such a novel. Its obsession with illness infects the narrative, enervating the central courtship plot. According to the critic D.A. Miller, the novel’s prose is similarly depleted, which led him to quip that Sanditon is the sole Austen novel to feature a death, that of the author as inimitable stylist.
There are occasions, too, when an author, anxious about the fate of their unfinished work, seeks to destroy it before it can be made public, incineration being the preferred method. Franz Kafka asked this of Max Brod in the 1920s and Vladimir Nabokov of his wife and son in the 1970s. Nikolai Gogol took it upon himself to burn most of the second part of Dead Souls shortly before he died in 1852. In 2016, the late fantasy writer Terry Pratchett told his friend Neil Gaiman—in what I take to be a wry commentary on this trope of literary obliteration—that he wanted all his unfinished projects “to be put in the middle of the road and for a steamroller to steamroll over them all.” This request was executed last fall in Salisbury, England, by a steamroller named Lord Jericho.
But the most interesting unfinished novels, to my mind, are those whose authors strived tirelessly to complete them but who, finally, couldn’t.
The term we often hear used to describe this vague condition is “writer’s block.” This pseudo-psychological diagnosis is so common as to be immune from critique. Yet it profoundly mischaracterizes the turmoil and energy that are elemental to literary failure. It implies immobility and obstruction when, in fact, unfinishedness is often a consequence of overflow and excess. Mark Twain wrote multiple iterations of his unfinished novel The Mysterious Stranger, Nathaniel Hawthorne aborted three romances in as many years at the end of his life, and David Foster Wallace generated heaps of prose for The Pale King before he committed suicide in 2008.
A more accurate term, I think, is “agony.” Although the word now denotes intense mental suffering, the Greek word agonia originally meant a “struggle for victory,” and the combatant who did the struggling was called an agonist. The agony of authors like Ellison, Twain, and Wallace, along with others like Truman Capote, combined these senses. In their unfinished novels, we bear witness to a contest between an author and their work beneath which flows a current of psychological anguish. This palpable sense of friction is one of the chief beauties of unfinished novels.
Ralph Ellison’s agony was visible in the ebb and flow of his writing process. Periods of concentrated forward momentum were followed by periods of furious revision and, occasionally, of inertia. What he produced is a work that stretches both up (via his obsessive rewriting of episodes) and out (the sequences he wrote in his later were sometimes hundreds of pages long) as he ceaselessly searched for a coherence that ultimately evaded him. Although Ellison continued to assure even his closest confidantes that he would complete his novel, certain episodes he composed late in life betray his own suspicions that the work might, perhaps, be unfinishable.
In a particularly poignant sequence from the 1980s, the elderly preacher Hickman spies a tapestry depicting Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in the lobby of a Washington, D.C., hotel. Breughel’s original painting imagined the grand tragedy of Icarus’s hubristic flight to the sun within a medieval world whose daily rhythms of commerce and labor reduce the boy’s fall to insignificance. The painting is so alive with the mundane activities of normal folk that Icarus is but a dot in the distance, unacknowledged by the painting’s occupants and barely visible to the viewer. As Hickman ponders the tapestry and teases out its many meanings, Ellison seems also to be reflecting on how his own novel had become a picture frozen in time, its central tragedy overwhelmed by the elaborate world he had built around it.
Although Ellison never capitalized on this insight into his own work, one can hypothesize an alternate universe in which he had embraced the unfinishability of his novel and published it as a fragmentary narrative without conclusion. Such a decision wouldn’t have been without precedence either.
In my ambles through the history of literary failure, I discovered that not every unfinishable novel is as tortured as Ellison’s was. Indeed, many embrace unfinishability as an aesthetic virtue. This is certainly true of postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which revel in their potential endlessness, but earlier centuries had their partisans of the unfinished, too. Herman Melville concludes a chapter of Moby-Dick, for instance, with the declaration, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”
One of the most famous examples of this kind of work is also among the earliest. Laurence Sterne’s rollicking 18th-century comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, begins with its titular narrator declaring his intention to relate the story of his life only to get hopelessly lost in digressions that derail any narrative momentum. Like Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights, he writes to defer death, every digressive thread extending his life by a few pages. Sterne published the novel in parts between 1759 and 1767 (about two volumes every two years) with the hope that he would never stop. “The whole machine,” observes Tristram, “shall be kept a going [for] forty years.” The fact that the ninth and final volume ends four years before its narrator’s birth proves just how long Sterne could have kept this up. He died in 1768.
Ellison never wrote an ending to his second novel. In the four decades he worked on it, he jotted only a few scattered notes hinting at the aftermath of his tragic hero’s death. As it stands, the novel abruptly ends in a small hospital room in Washington, D.C., with the old preacher resting beside the nearly lifeless body of his adopted son as the latter prepares to draw his last breath. That he never does leaves readers on a narrative precipice with neither catharsis nor resolution to comfort them.
That Ellison never finished his novel does not diminish his achievement, but it does alter our view of it. Unfinished novels prod us to relinquish conventional approaches to reading and to seek literary pleasure elsewhere than narrative unity. They demand that we attend to dead ends as well as to false starts, to charged silences as well as to verbal excesses. They ask us to see what meanings can be gleaned from a process that has not yet hardened into product. Though their plots may be arrested, this fact does not make them any less arresting.
Image Credit: LPW.
Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony was a literary romp and a cultural riot. One giant limerick.
Rather than overwhelm his audience with grand formations and laser beams, the filmmaker chose to tell us the story of his country — and season it with a very British sense of the absurd. Or, in the words of England’s master of nonsense verse, Edward Lear, “pure, absolute nonsense.”
When the old girlie (the Queen) sate upon a whirly and the man in tails (Mr. Bean) ran slower than a snail, one could almost hear old Lear’s ghost chortle into his bushy beard. Like any good limerick, Boyle’s had music and rhythm, and for all its choreographed barminess, was underpinned by a surprisingly sound logic. Perhaps most crucial of all, it was a collective effort. The best nonsense poetry, George Orwell once said, pointing to the literary form’s folk origins, is that which is “produced by communities rather than by individuals.” And what else was the London opening but a terrific display of team-work, with thousands of volunteers rehearsing for months in the rain and snow for no fee, but just the fun of it?
The Olympics have opened in the middle of Edward Lear’s bicentennial. And though he is being commemorated in England and Europe, the celebrations have all but been drowned out by the obsessive focus on the other birthday boy, Charles Dickens. Having the bad form to be born in the same year as a literary rock star is a fate the self-ridiculing Lear would have accepted with a joke and a shrug. The 20th in a brood of 21 children, he was a bronchial, epileptic child who never got the attention he deserved or fame where he craved it most. History remembers him as a writer of limericks who gave us unforgettable characters like the Jumblies, the Qangle-Wangle, and the Pobbles, or even as a brilliant ornithological painter second only to Audubon. But this versatile Victorian’s great love was something else — landscape painting — and his gravestone in Italy simply reads: “Landscape painter in many lands.”
Again, the “many lands” we associate him with are not those he painted — Corfu, Italy, England and Egypt — but fictional ones he dreamed up to amuse little children. At the Olympics ceremony, when the parade of 204 competing nations marched around the stadium, some of the tinier countries sounded as if they had been plucked straight from Lear’s crazy cartography of places like Buda, Tring, Ischia, and Chankly-Bore, peopled by eccentric old men and women doing silly things like waltzing with cats and making tea in hats, and constantly vexing their straitlaced neighbors, always referred to by that ominous and slightly rude pronoun, “They.”
Fortunately, Lear hasn’t been completely forgotten by London’s Olympic mandarins. One of the events commissioned as part of the Cultural Olympiad is an opera based on his most famous poem, The Owl and the Pussycat. The opera was staged on a barge that floated down London’s rivers and canals and was open to the public. In an inspired choice, the Royal Opera House asked Monty Python member Terry Jones, now 70, to write the libretto. Jones’s energetic opera works as a prequel to the poem — what were the circumstances, he asks, that brought these strange lovers together? — and crosses Lear’s quaint Victorian nonsense, which Jones complained had no drama worth the name, with a more Pythonesque brand of postmodern comedy. Fans of Monty Python may recall how they once conducted their own Olympics, with a traditional 100-yard race except that it was open only to athletes with no sense of direction. Consequently, the sportsmen ran all over the place in an earnest display of silliness that no doubt Lear, who once expressed a wish to hop around on one leg, would have heartily loved.
Anyone less confident than Terry Jones might have blushed at the generous use of the word “pussy” in the poem — when Lear wrote it, it meant cat, not twat — and even attempted to substitute it with something hideous like “kitty.” To cite a related example of censorship, in the BBC’s recent adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the young heroine, who in Dickens’s unfinished novel is always referred to by her nickname, Pussy, is called Rose, which is her real name that no one uses. Un-hustled by these displays of political correctness, Jones has stuck to Lear’s ballad, and in his production, too, the elegant fowl strums on a small guitar and sings those marvelous lines, “Oh beautiful pussy, oh pussy my love, what a beautiful pussy you are, you are. What a beautiful pussy you are.”
Apart from being one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, Lear’s endorsement of an inter-species marriage fits right in with Boyle’s Olympian theme of multicultural inclusiveness, something that he literally spelled out by flashing Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web motto of “This is for Everyone” in towering letters across the stadium. Reacting to the opening ceremony, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a fearless and outspoken critic of his own government’s totalitarian ways, put his finger on the zeitgeist when he said that only a free country could have pulled off this kind of an idiosyncratic entertainment that reflected the character of a free people rather than the marketing vision of a police state.
Freedom, or a mousy longing to be free, is at the heart of Edward Lear’s writing. It is this radical element that made Aldous Huxley, an altogether more serious wit, turn to Lear again and again in moments of depression. There is a certain freedom in being completely inconsequential, and Lear offers no dearth of unadulterated silliness. But his nonsense verse, though light-hearted on the surface, also has a persistent and often violent pattern of rebellion that slips in and out like a dark ripple. His Book of Nonsense, for instance, is full of pain and death, grotesque conflict and romantic heartbreak. Michael Rosen, Britain’s former children’s laureate and Lear admirer, calls it a pattern of “disruption.” Lear, he says, not only delighted in disrupting language by conjuring up new words, he also reveled in disrupting bodies and dress and notions of propriety in an age where morality and sexuality were suffocatingly corseted. So his old man on a hill runs up and down in his grandmother’s gown; another old man with a poker paints his face with red ochre; and yet another prances around in an outlandishly oversized ruff. Not only does the moral majority, the nameless “they,” frown on these men in drag, they are subconsciously so afraid of them that they take matters into their hatchet-happy hands and serve out punishment. So the old man of Whitehaven who dances with a raven gets smashed, as does another old man who incessantly bangs on a gong. The courageous young lady of Norway, who is bold enough to sit in the doorway, gets squeezed by the door. In each case, the harmless eccentric pays dearly for being different.
Which is what makes The Owl and Pussycat so extraordinary. Here, finally, Lear gives his inner demons the slip, and goes for a full-on happy ending. We leave the blissful and quince-and-mince-fed newlyweds in a trance of happiness, dancing hand in hand in the moonlight. Rosen calls it one of the “purest” love poems in the English language — which is a lovely irony given that it celebrates a gender-ambiguous, bird-beast union that the “they” would no doubt condemn as a gross impurity straight out of “Leviticus.” With quiet cunning, Lear withholds the gender of his two lovers. Perhaps the owl, who serenades his beloved, is male; but then Pussy is the one who proposes, which makes it rather confusing. The Owl and the Pussycat was published in 1871, in an era when homosexuality and miscegenation were serious crimes. In one of Lear’s most ruefully direct political limericks, we are told of the man from Jamaica who married a Quaker: “But she cried out, ‘Oh, lack! I have married a black!’ Which distressed that Old Man of Jamaica.” If even a Quaker — a denomination known for their progressive social views — balks at a black husband, think of how the dreaded “they” would react to such a union. Or to that of raptor and feline.
So is The Owl and the Pussycat Lear’s vehicle to assert in a charmingly inoffensive and anthropomorphic way that marriage is a many-splendored thing? That in a perfect, fantasy world, the word marriage — something which the real world is struggling with today — could embrace a same-sex, trans-species love as well as a more conventional inter-sex, same-species one? “All great humorous writers show a willingness to attack the beliefs and the virtues on which society necessarily rests,” writes Orwell in his essay on nonsense poetry. “Boccaccio treats Hell and Purgatory as a ridiculous fable, Swift jeers at the very conception of human dignity, Shakespeare makes Falstaff deliver a speech in favor of cowardice in the middle of a battle. As for the sanctity of marriage, it was the principal subject of humor in Christian society for the better part of a thousand years.”
The laws of love and marriage are the windmills Lear chooses to tilt at. The owl and the pussycat overcome society’s marital taboos by resorting to one of the oldest tricks in the book, elopement. Lear’s characters frequently run away — whether it’s the Old Person galloping away from the people of Basing or the heartbroken Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo racing across the ocean on the back of a turtle — and they usually run away to sea — sometimes in a sieve. The sea is a symbol of endless adventure and freedom, so instead of going to Gretna Green, the runaway couple hops into a pea-green boat and sails far away to a land where the Bong-tree grows. But it’s not as if convention is completely flouted — wisely, they take with them plenty of money, some food and a famous spoon, and make sure that their marriage is sealed with a ring and by a religious minister, even if, parodically, the ring is a pig’s nose-ring and the minister is a gobbling turkey.
This tension between flouting the establishment and accommodating it is an accurate manifestation of Lear’s conflicted personality — one replete with inner longings that he never really had the courage to pursue. Like the young lady of Portugal whose ideas were “excessively nautical” but who didn’t have the gumption to leave Portugal, Lear never really broke the rules the way his characters did. So he lived vicariously through them, and in this poem he seems to be telling us that fowl and feline may come from two very different worlds — even if, as Terry Jones helpfully points out, they both eat mice — but with some smart planning and a little luck, omnia vincia amor— love can conquer all.
Love didn’t play much of a role in Lear’s lonely and wandering life. Many scholars have dwelt on the phallic imagery in his poems and drawings and his suppressed sexuality — the fact that he never married and had only one middle-aged romance that ended badly and made him flee into himself like the poor Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. Orwell says “it is easy to guess that there was something seriously wrong in his sex life.” Several biographers have suggested that he was “spiritually or emotionally homosexual.” In her biography, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, Vivien Noakes describes Edward as a “rather ugly, short-sighted, affectionate little boy” frequently given to bouts of depression which he called “the Morbids.” He also suffered from epilepsy, which was debilitating enough without the cruel belief at the time that it was a curse caused by masturbation. The shame must have destroyed young Edward and deformed him emotionally. As for that sigh of sadness that runs through even his funniest verse, what else would you expect from a man who, as a little boy, was taken to see the clowns and began to sob uncontrollably?
Image Credit: Flickr/Nick J Webb