The unfinished manuscript


February 28, 2008 by Tracey S. Rosenberg

So say you’re the literary executor (and son) of a famous, well-respected, highly lauded author, and you end up in this situation:

You know, my father left an unfinished novel at the time of his death, called ‘The Original of Laura.’ According to a note of his, he had written half before he died. He saw his own writing more or less as undeveloped film: images that still required to be recorded — on paper, in this case. There was only one such project left at the time of his death, and he ordered it destroyed. Burned, incinerated, whatever. He didn’t like unfinished things.

(Dmitri Nabokov quoted in Salon back in 1999, about Vladimir Nabokov’s final and unfinished work, The Original of Laura.)

The manuscript still exists and awaits its fate – patiently, as I assume manuscripts must – in a Swiss safe deposit box. It’s become something of a cause celebre, as most recently discussed in Slate, and is officially mainstream now, which means lit scholars get more attention, which is always a good thing in my book.

On the one hand, being someone’s literary executor means they trusted you enough to follow out their wishes. On the other hand, the dead don’t always get their own way, and frankly, if you want something done, the best way to ensure it’s done is to do it yourself. Somerset Maugham, for instance, set about burning his correspondence, thwarting the guy assisting him (who kept tossing packets of letters under the sofa) from saving them.

Personally, I think I’d rather have the manuscript stick around. Whenever any author dies, there’s a sense of what-might-have-been-written, and the unfinished work at least lets you see where they were heading. Admittedly, there’s always a fear that the next work isn’t going to be as good as what came before, and you want to go out on a high note. But life isn’t nicely tied up, and to pretend that an author’s career ended with the last period of their final completed work [unless it actually did, which I suppose happens sometimes] doesn’t prevent people from wanting to know what you were writing at the end.

I can see why you wouldn’t want literary scholars poring over your manuscript pages, though.


2 thoughts on “The unfinished manuscript

  1. Karie says:

    Wasn’t it good old George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron who had his diary destroyed?! Damn..

  2. kicking_k says:

    Well… speaking as an archivist, I tend to agree with you that if you REALLY don’t want something read, you should destroy it yourself or not write it in the first place. But then I am a cagey soul who has great difficulty in dismissing the inner censor, so perhaps not the best person to ask.

    My mother does not want her children to read her diaries (fifty years of them so far). We are begging her not to destroy them. I have offered to find her somewhere that will take them as archives with a 100-year closure period if that would help!

    She, in turn, is annoyed that my grandmother didn’t keep my grandfather’s letters to her when they were courting. (He kept hers, but she says she will destroy them, and since she wrote them I suppose she has the right…)

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Tiny bio

I live, work, and write in Edinburgh. I travel to other places as much as I can. To contact me, email writingmostly at gmail dot com.


CURRENTLY READING: The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo.

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