The Original of Laura and 8 Other Unfinished Novels


The wait for Nabokov’s unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, is almost over (countdown to November 17th, people). The story, if you hadn’t heard, is that before his death the grand master ordered his son, Dmitri, to destroy the notecards on which he had been crafting his newest novel. Dmitri, after much struggle (both in the press and personally, we expect), has decided to publish the thing anyway, and we hear it’s true-to-form amazing.

If you’re really anxious (or just a fanboy), check out the awesome-sounding celebration of Nabokov’s work at the 92nd Street Y the day before Laura comes out. Martin Amis, Brian Boyd, and Chip Kidd will be there. Or while away the hours by starting in on our list of the most exciting unfinished novels, both classic and forthcoming.

Franz Kafka – The Castle, The Trial, Amerika

We’d argue that Kafka isn’t really a novelist so much as a short story writer — after all, he left all three of his novels incomplete: The Castle notoriously ends in the middle of a sentence (“She held out her trembling hand to K. and had him sit down beside her, she spoke with great difficulty, it was difficult to understand her, but what she said”), Amerika breaks off halfway through with no conclusion, and The Trial has whole chapters missing from the middle. Like Nabokov, Kafka notoriously demanded that all his unfinished work — all his work, in fact — be destroyed upon his death, but his best friend and editor, Max Brod, thankfully ignored him, and published his work anyway (though there is some contention about the liberties he may or may not have taken with some of the original works). We think that the unfinished quality of Kafka’s novels only adds to their frustrating, endless nature, making them even more — dare we say it? — Kafkaesque.

David Foster Wallace – The Pale King

For the scores of disaffected youth in love with David Foster Wallace (count us among them), the great writer’s suicide in September of 2008 was more than heartbreaking. But to ease the pain we will soon have a missive from the grave: DFW’s final unfinished work, The Pale King, which will be published in the fall of 2010 by Little, Brown. From everything we’ve heard, it continues in the vein of his later writing — exhibiting a decidedly Buddhist preoccupation with mindfulness and mental process (Read: for Wallace, boredom). The Pale King centers around a group of IRS agents struggling through their mind-numbingly boring jobs in the Midwest. In D.T. Max’s profile of the author, he reveals a typed note hidden within the pages of the unfinished manuscript:

“Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”

New York Mag wonders if it will be the boringest book ever — but having read all 1104 pages of Infinite Jest, we think not. And, having read all 1104 pages of Infinite Jest, we are astounded that Wallace reportedly referred to The Pale King to his editor Michael Pietsch as “The Long Thing.” Clearly this bodes well.

Unlike Nabokov and Kafka, it seems that Wallace meant for his final unfinished work to see the light of day — reportedly, he tidied up the loose pages of his manuscript before his death so that his wife might find them, and he allowed at least part of it to be published during his lifetime. So if you want a taste, check out the two sections that have been published in The New Yorker — the first, “Good People,” in 2007, and the second, called “Wiggle Room,” in March of this year.

Roberto Bolaño – 2666

Bolaño’s masterpiece has been credited as being the best book of 2008, a feat considering it was unfinished at the time of his death, only 4 1/2 parts of an intended 5 having been completed. It doesn’t seem to make too much difference though — with a book this large (over 1,100 pages, tome status) there’s bound to be some strings left untied. His translator, Natasha Wimmer, has attested that the novel was only “months away from completion” and that the average reader wouldn’t notice the incompleteness. She’s probably right — after all, with so many pages, how much longer could Bolaño have kept at it?

Jules Verne – Voyages D’Etudes

Apparently, Verne only wrote about 50 pages of this novel before abandoning it. His son, Michel, reworked it, calling it L’etonnante aventure de la mission Barsac, but Michel’s stuff is just not as good. What a shame.

Michael CrichtonUntitled

According to the New York Times, there are not one but two posthumous Michael Crichton novels in the works. The first, Pirate Latitudes, will be released November 24th, and the second, which is reportedly only one-third completed and currently nameless, will come out in the fall of 2010. All we know right now is that it is a “technological thriller” and that we’re hyped.

Jaroslav Hasek – The Good Soldier Svejk

Hasek’s famous satirical novel was meant to come in six installments, but was abbreviated to four when he died of tuberculosis in 1923. The novel follows Czech soldier Svejk in the Austro-Hungarian army in WWI, who is so enthusiastic about his duties and about serving the emperor that his fellow soldiers can’t decide whether he is actually being subversive or just an idiot. This book has been claimed by many literary critics as one of the first anti-war novels — more importantly, Joseph Heller has claimed that had he not read The Good Soldier Svejk, he could never have written Catch-22. Heavy.

Bonus: Both Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Spenser’s The Fairie Queene are actually unfinished. Bring that up in English 104.