Posthumous Publishing

Since it came up in my review of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 I wanted to talk a little bit about posthumous publishing. Bolaño’s is a special case: he was racing against his death to get as much work done as possible, while also providing for his heirs. There was never really a question of whether or not his work would be published after his death, but more of a question of how it would be published.

As mentioned, Bolaño wanted to release 2666 in five installments, over a number of years; his heirs felt otherwise. They knew, as well as I suspect Bolaño himself knew, that it was a more impactful work as one whole unit. Their decision to publish as such is a decision best benefiting the art, rather than their pocketbooks. (As a side note – our friend Roberto’s corpse has 3 or 4 other planned pieces in the works, due out over the next few years).

But in many cases, the decision to publish (let alone in what format) is made completely against the author’s wishes. In many of these cases heirs show their greed, and friends show what they consider their superiority of mind. The earliest example of this goes back to Virgil who, on his deathbed, asked his friend Varius to burn The Aeneid, knowing that he was unsatisfied with it. Varius promised, and then published anyway. I know what you’re thinking – Okay, so what? He went back on a promise, but look what we got out of it!

Literary history is a veritable connect the dots of instances like this, where the most brilliant or critically-acclaimed or most-studied works ended up published because their bestest friend forever decided not to burn them. Perhaps the best example of this is Franz Kafka, who asked friend Max Brod to burn everything unpublished upon his death. Had Max Brod acquiesced to this request, we would have to have been satisfied with  Metamorphoses, which Kafka published himself. The Trial, The Castle and Amerika would be ashes. (Subsequently, we would not have Theresa Rebeck’s brilliant comedy, The Understudy!)

In other cases, it is the child and heir of the author who goes against their honored parents’ wishes and publishes anyway. While J.R.R. Tolkien’s son continues to publish the occasional “middle earth” story formerly tucked away by his father, perhaps the freshest example we have of filial disregard is Nabokov’s (Lolita) son, Dmitri who (as the somewhat dramatic pattern goes) promised to burn his father’s work, should he die while it was yet unfinished.

At his death, Nabokov had been working on a novella titled “The Original of Laura” which Dmitri published within the past two years, arguing that his father would have approved if he knew how the story survived the test of time and culture, and that “despite its incompleteness…[the writing] was unprecedented in structure and style.” Neither readers, nor the critics, could agree with Dmitri’s insistence. Had it been published as an incomplete work-in-progress, perhaps it would have shone through. Instead, it was cleaned up, edited, and then left unfinished and very much bland.

The same thing happened when Ralph Ellison’s literary executor John F. Callahan stumbled across a box of papers and unfinished books (Ellison only published one novel during his life, Invisible Man) more than two years after Ellison’s death. His first attempt at publishing one of these was a flop, having whittled an expansive work of over 1,000 pages down to a few hundred, taking away so much of the artistry, that Ellison was almost unrecognizable.

It is safe to say that unfinished writings are not really literary works. Rather, they are relics, artifacts of a literary life. They should be left as-is, thereby supplying a greater truth than a whittled down novella with no character. But even that calls into question the responsibility of those charged with such works. Is it inherent that these works be saved for posterity?

It’s true that readers and critics alike have a fascination with “lost” works. There’s a novelty to posthumous literature akin to holding a séance or traveling through time. I do not deny my own literary greed. I love the novelty of these lost works. But by that same token, a little mystery can be healthy. We live in a world so focused on fact and accuracy, on instant gratification and self-acknowledgement, that we can’t bear questions to go unanswered. It’s like that Blackberry Messenger commercial, where the girl is excited to know when her friend has read her text, and now she expects a speedy answer. No one is allowed their private lives anymore. Shouldn’t we at least grant this privacy to the dead, to those who wanted it?

I think of Jane Austen in her last weeks, asking her sister to destroy the letters between them. Cassandra did Jane’s bidding. As a result, we still have many letters left of her life, but there’s a missing year, shrouded in mystery, the truth of which we shall likely never know. I say, better to let Jane live in her mystery than grant the wishes of those needing instant gratification. It’s good for you.


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