Recently, a scholar looking into David Mitchell’s magnum opus Cloud Atlas discovered something fascinating: The American and British editions contained different, sometimes quite different, swaths of text. According to The Guardian, Professor Martin Paul Eve of Birkbeck, University of London was busy at work on a paper about the novel, going back and forth between a British paperback and an American edition on his e-reader when he discovered the discrepancies: “As well as exhibiting many minor linguistic variations and copy-edits throughout (accidentals), these different editions also contain sections of narrative unique to each version that must change any close reading of the text,” he wrote. “Given that so much literary criticism has now been produced on the subject of Mitchell’s novel, 12 years after its publication, these version variants are potentially problematic as they have not previously been noted.”
As a professor invested in close reading, Eve was indeed perturbed by this “problematic” news. When he told Mitchell, however, the author was far from nonplussed. He explained how it happened in an interview in Eve’s paper. An editorial vacancy in the American office of his publisher led to a delay in its Stateside publication, and then it underwent a whole new round of edits to which his UK publisher hadn’t been a party. At the time Mitchell let it go, never expecting the book to be the lasting success it was, or for readers on either side of the ocean to notice the differences, even the bigger ones. “It’s a lot of faff – you have to keep track of your changes and send them along to whichever side is currently behind – and as I have a low faff-tolerance threshold, I’m still not very conscientious about it,” he told Eve. He now outsources such communications to assistants at his two publishers, he explained, to make sure the copies match up.
He seems sanguine, so should we care about the differences? Occasionally, mistranslations or edits will do a genuine disservice to a work that offends the author or takes away from its meaning (my colleague Tom Hawking noted the censoring of Japanese novel Grotesque for American audiences). Janet Malcolm and others have written convincingly about certain trendy new translations that seem to butcher Tolstoy. But this particular case involves neither censorship nor butchery; in fact, neither the author nor readers have, until this point, felt robbed of their reading experience.
This revelation highlights a paradox of literature. Yes, writers and readers both obsess over the significance of certain words, turns of phrases and sequences, seeking perfect union of form and theme and beauty of language. On both sides of the equation this creates an obsession with the final, definitive draft of a piece of work. But writers know such a thing can never exist because each draft, each attempt, (unless it is burned and perhaps even so) floats onward alongside the next version, creating a sort of parallel universe for the work.
This creates plenty of conundrums: There are often new sentences or smoothed-out errors in a paperback version, or a definitive ten year edition of a novel or memoir. Short stories or poems are different in their book form than they were in the journals where they first appeared. And with classics, the older the work is the harder to pinpoint the “true” version. Was Hamlet’s soliloquy about solid flesh or sullied flesh? Which version of John Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” counts more, his own or the one Leigh Hunt revised for publication? Should we be reading the edition of Frankenstein that includes Percy Shelley’s tweaks to his wife’s text, or the stripped-down version that is all Mary Shelley’s voice? Should we consider Go Set a Watchman to be a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, a canonical finished novel, or a piece of literary curiosity? And what about an opus like Ulysses which is so inventive that typos and transcription errors become part of the text over time, unable to be distinguished from the original?
Many writers are the first to say a work is never finished, even after publication. The “final draft” is just the most recent one. Kanye West would agree. Texts, like the people who write them, have an infinite quality to them that is thrilling, and a little bit scary. Mitchell told The Guardian it doesn’t matter, and serves him right for playing with a work after it was done. His attitude remains bracing: “In this context, I don’t think what matters is ‘which is definitive?’ but ‘which works?’ For me, in the case of Cloud Atlas, both work. Not that I have the faintest memory, after all these years, what the differences even are.” And yet scholars and readers now will surely take pleasure in looking at the two versions of Mitchell’s book to decide whether the alterations affect the meaning of the work.