Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Best Unfinished Works of Art

I've always loved that Borges story about the author facing the firing squad to whom God grants a year to himself to finish his play (just in his own mind, in the half-second before the bullets are fired). Standing in that courtyard, he completes the play mentally to his satisfaction, and the guns go off as soon as he gets the last line right. Anyway, it got me thinking about great incomplete works of art. Here are some that I like:

1. 9th Symphony, Anton Bruckner

Possibly my favorite symphony. Bruckner left some sketches for the last movement but they are apparently not nearly as good as the first three (he was pretty sick at the time). I recommend the cheap and wonderful Tintner recordingon Naxos, if anyone is curious.

2. The Castle, Franz Kafka

He never actually finished a novel, did he? The Trial does at least have a conclusion written, and one could imagine him filling in the gaps pretty easily. I'm not sure how this novel could end, though.

3. The Triumph of Life, Percy Shelley

Written on loose scraps of paper, and covered with sketches of the boat that he would soon die in (with Keats's poems in his pocket). I also love the famous little "To the Moon" fragment...

4. Norham Castle, Sunrise, Joseph Turner

Part of a huge collection of canvases that he never finished. I believe he also left behind a huge sheaf of dirty drawings that were only recently discovered.

5. The First Man, Albert Camus

Found handwritten next to him in the car that he crashed in and published decades later. It would have been a masterpiece, and even as it stands is my favorite book by Camus.

6. I'll Keep It With Mine, Bob Dylan

I refer to the stopgap version on the 2nd volume of the bootleg series. I realize that there is a "completed" piano version, but it is not nearly as good as this was about to get before he stopped recording. She's Your Lover Now is a damn great fragment as well.

7. In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust

Very close to done, but there are still huge unincorporated chunks, characters that die and reappear, and other little humps that Proust could have fixed if he'd had another year or two. This should probably be higher on the list than, say, a single Dylan song, but let's ignore that.

8. Quartettsatz, Franz Schubert

A lovely first movement for string quartet. That symphony he never finished is good too.

9. Last Essays, George Orwell

His wonderful essay on Waugh breaks off mid-sentence, and the unpublished drafts of things like "Such, Such Were the Joys" are some of the greatest things he ever wrote. He really deserved a little more time. But then I suppose he did already survive being shot through the neck.


Katie said...

Also "The Buccaneers" by Edith Wharton! Beautiful, enjoyable reading that has recently been "finished" by some 20th century person who is distinctly not Edith Wharton.

And "Dead Souls" by Gogol. If he hadn't, you know, burned the 2nd part and what he'd written of the 3rd part and then starved himself to death.

And "Ivan the Terrible, part 3" by Eisenstein.

Ok. I am done now.

Katie said...

And! Also! Going along with the Russian theme (I can't help that, sorry), the sequel to "The Brothers Karamazov", which Dostoevsky had begun researching at the time of his death. The novel wasn't actually started, but the idea of it was.

Paul Morton said...

I should say that the Borges story you cite is called The Secret Miracle. I remember writing my college admission essay about it 10 years ago. It's one of Borges' least difficult stories to understand and one of his most terrifying. Rereading it some years later, I realized that it made a writing life repulsive to me.

Anyway, here are my examples:

The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway

The first half was completed, but the second half wasn't. My 17 year old self was really into the whole idea of an aged Hemingway writing a book about a man who falls in love with a bi-sexual. I suppose that was what I considered provocative then. I have no idea how I would receive the book now.

Theoretically you could argue that all the ditties on the second side of Abbey Road are unfinished. For me, they all of them feel like great songs in the making which together make one wonderful long piece. I guess that gets to that boring semantic question of what we consider a "finished" work of art.

Then there's Saul Bellow's mini-autobiography as told to Philip Roth which was published right after his death in The New Yorker. Bellow never answered Roth's questions to his full satisfaction, but what he did write was more interesting to me than most of his actual novels, which I've never been a huge fan of.