Thursday, January 17, 2008

Burn the Manuscript.


I’m generally not a fan of posthumous books by great authors for the simple reason that most of what surfaces after a famed scribe’s death suffer in the goriest possible terms. After the fact manuscripts by Elizabeth Bishop, Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson and (most grotesquely) Ernest Hemingway are less than the respective genius enthralled in the reader. Rough drafts, juvenilia, awkward early writings where one was working toward a mature style, and copious late-career self-parodies are all things I‘d have preferred to remain in the drawer, or in the box; it’s embarrassing to have a book in your hand who’s publication wasn’t approved by the author in which there’s writing that falls below the superlative standards the author set for himself or herself. Ralph Ellison hasn't fared well with the editor-gathered publication of his incomplete second novel Juneteenth, a rambling and unshapely project he worked on for decades and never finished ; the selected publication of this mess sullies , I think, the reputation of a writer who one could read and at least be content with the knowledge that while he wasn't prolific the books published under his watch at least showed him at the top of his game. Juneteenth, great as it may have been and perhaps is in parts, dampens one's estimation. Modern Library has plans to publish the entire thing in 2008 under the title Three Days Before the Shooting, a task they might have considered before since it would be fairer to Ellison's reputation; instead of pretending to have released a finished novel, one can enter into this posthumous zone knowing that what they might behold was a work in progress, and as such bears every inconsistent quality such things inevitably contain.

The prospect of Vladimir Nabokov's final work, an unfinished tale he ordered his brother Dimitri to destroy after his death, finding it's way for public view makes me queasy, something like the extended final tour the body of the late James Brown was forced to take as he got funkier due to nature's way, not natural rhythm.

Hemingway’s reputation as a stylist diminished in the view of critics of critics and readers with the surfeit of previously unpublished manuscripts had the tendency to be mawkish and sentimental in his rawest form, and you wanted to avert your eyes from the page of a work he wanted to remain apocryphal. Mailer fanatic that I am, there’s no thirst on my part to read incomplete and unpolished prose from the late writer set between book covers; it seems immoral to let the less tidy writings be presented as “unpublished gems” , or “lost masterpieces”. It’s a dishonest cheat, a fraud laid upon the readership. Nabokov was painstaking in his craft, and it’s his judgment I trust if he deemed the manuscript unpublished. Burn it and allow us a genius unspoiled by erring scholars and eager publishers.

4 comments:

  1. Bill Perrine3:06 PM PST

    Agreed. Everybody is bringing up the Kafka/Max Brod parallels but the situations couldn't be more different; Kafka was a meek man with little worldly success and perhaps a lack of self-confidence in his own work. Nabokov was anything but. He wanted that mofo burned like the Motor City.

    Also, my kitchen smells like Larry King's breath; onions and sourdough.

    ReplyDelete
  2. kitchen smells like Larry King's breath; onions and sourdough.

    Quoting Celine will get you nowhere, buddy boy.

    We can all thank Max Brod for his select betrayal of Kafka's last wishes, but for all the noise some bring up about the genius that was saved, I think it was just a fortune confluence of circumstances. That is, I think the Kafka retrieval from the fireplace was the rare instance where genius was at stake. It's just that I'm feeling burned by the surfeit of second rate post mortem manuscripts that have emerged from dead writers, and I feel another burn on the horizon with the Nabokov issue. It's all commerce; in fact, I suspect this issue is a psuedo event contrived by agents, publishers and the VN estate to create a demand for the potential book. It's like that bit in Disney's Peter Pan where the boys and girls in the audience are entreated to think good thoughts so that Tinker Bell will again shine bright in her Lantern. I'm afraid we're about to get hosed again.

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  3. In any case, there's still plenty of Nabokov's genius to go around.

    Speaking of things to be tossed in a fire, here's my blog:

    http://fleshgarbage.blogspot.com

    Spread the word to the Ted Burke Nation.

    ReplyDelete
  4. A fine blog it is, matey. You're on my blog roll.

    ReplyDelete

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