Five Great Unfinished Novels

With publication of Vladimir Nabokov's last, unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, being talked about, it seems a good time to look at other incomplete works, many of which were shaping up to be masterpieces when something happened: Inspiration flagged, or time ran out on the aging author, or the project simply became too ambitious to carry out. Here are five unfinished literary symphonies, great might-have-beens that are still pretty impressive just the way they are:

1. The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil.
The man of the title may not have qualities, but this novel certainly does, among them the brilliance of its depiction of Austria in its last years as an imperial power. The novel's omniscient narrator refers to his nation as Kakania, a sniggering pun on the formula kaiserlich-königlich (imperial-royal), which described a dual form of government almost as puzzling as the Christian Trinity. But the comedy soon makes room for more serious matters, such as Musil's analysis of the relationship between an Aryan racist and his half-Jewish girlfriend. A fine English translation of what is likely the final scholarly word on the text appeared in 1995; it runs to two volumes and almost 1,800 pages, but Musil intended to write much more before he died in 1942.

2. The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Compared to Musil's effort, this book is a shrimp, a mere 190 pages, several of which are taken up by fragments and notes. Drawing on his own years of writing scripts in Hollywood, Fitzgerald set out to produce what might have been the definitive Tinseltown novel, only to die with a mere half-dozen chapters written. Nonetheless, he left a memorable portrait of his protagonist, producer Monroe Stahr, and as Edmund Wilson noted in his introduction to the first edition (1941), "Even in its imperfect state, [it is] Fitzgerald's most mature piece of work."

3. Cousin Rosamund: A Saga of the Century, by Rebecca West.
We're on firmer ground here, in that West finished and published the first volume of a projected trilogy or perhaps even tetralogy. That would be The Fountain Overflows (1956), a scintillating portrait of an intellectually and artistically talented family made miserable by the husband/father's abandonment. West wrote enough to fill two more volumes, the posthumously published This Real Night (1985) and Cousin Rosamund (1986), but ultimately admitted that in trying to encapsulate the 20th century in the tale of one English family, she had asked too much of herself (or, probably, any writer).

4. Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort, by Roger Martin du Gard.
After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1937, Martin du Gard spent almost 20 years working on this massive work, which even in its unfinished state runs to nearly 800 pages. Ostensibly the life story of the title character, who is holed up in his Normandy estate during the German occupation of France in World War II, the work is best read as an anthology of loosely related novellas, one of which rivals Mann's Death in Venice in its sensitive depiction of gay love. The English translation came out in 2000.

5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.
I know, I know: Technically, Twain's masterpiece comes to an end, but we might have been better off if it hadn't. Twain ran out of inspiration after Huck made his wrenching decision to go to hell rather than hand Jim over to the slave-catchers. Some years later, the author decided to conclude his story by bringing back Tom Sawyer, and the silly result is perhaps the biggest letdown in all of fiction. John Seelye, among others, has written an alternative ending, but my solution is simply to stop reading at the end of Chapter 31 and pretend that the misbegotten rest of it never happened.

If you have nominations for novels that are worth reading despite being incomplete, let us know.

-- Dennis Drabelle

By Christian Pelusi |  August 21, 2008; 7:58 AM ET Dennis Drabelle , Fiction
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The incomplete novel I'm looking forward to reading is the 21st book of the Aubrey-Maturin (Master and Commander) series by Patrick O'Brian. O'Brian was working on it when he died. I've read the first 16 books of the series so far and they're all amazing.

Posted by: Mac | August 21, 2008 10:13 AM

The incomplete novel I'm looking forward to reading is the 21st novel in the Aubrey-Maturin (Master and Commander) series by Patrick O'Brian. O'Brian was working on it when he died. I've read the first 16 books of the series and they're all amazing.

Posted by: Mac | August 21, 2008 10:18 AM

"Answered Prayers" showed up in Short Stack's entry about literary fiascos by great writers, and everyone remembers the one chapter about Capote's friends' scandals and foibles. However, I'm still convinced that, if Capote had kicked his addictions and his bad men and really settled down to write, he could have turned out something great. Some of the writing is just beautiful, as is the case in all his stories.

Posted by: KLeewrite | August 21, 2008 1:48 PM

The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek.

Posted by: acguil | August 23, 2008 5:11 PM

Of course, I shouldn't have forgotten The Good Soldier Schweik (as it is spelled if you can't find those Czech marks). It is definitely a comic masterpiece--and one of those books that could just jog along forever, with Schweik outwitting his superiors again and again.

Posted by: dennis drabelle | August 25, 2008 1:41 PM

There is also Franz Kafka's "The Castle", as well as his last novel, "Amerika".

Posted by: Don | August 25, 2008 5:05 PM

How about Ralph Ellison's lost second book?

Or all the posthumous works by Roberto Bolan~o?

And, in my humble opinion, the greatest work published after a writer's death . . . (who knows whether he considered it finished?) was Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita."

Posted by: dave | August 26, 2008 12:06 AM

"Whistle" by James Jones. The final volume of the trilogy that began with "From Here to Eternity" and "The Thin Red Line".

Deals with the hospitalization and re-adjustment of characters wounded in the second novel. Should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in military medicine.

Posted by: RMD | August 26, 2008 3:24 AM

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