In Praise of Unfinished Novels

I just published an essay over at The Millions about the history and form of unfinished novels. This has been a hobby horse of mine for a long time, and I’m very pleased to have finally found an opportunity to write about it.

For anyone who’s interested in such things, here’s my ongoing list of famously unfinished novels with an approximation of how long an author spent writing a given novel and a reason (in brackets) for that novel’s remaining unfinished (death = an author died during composition; design = an author intended the novel to be unfinished; agony = an author struggled to complete the novel but ultimately couldn’t):

  • Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759 – 1767) [design]
  • Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey (1768 – ) [death]
  • Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria; or the Wrongs of Woman (1792 – 1797), 7 years [death]
  • Jane Austen, Sanditon (1817 – 1817), 1 year [death]
  • Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls, (1835 – 1852), 17 years [deliberate]
  • Charlotte Bronte, Emma (1853 – 1855), 2 years [death]
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Dolliver Romance (1861? – 1864), 3 years [agony]
  • Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters (1864 – 1866), 2 years [death]
  • Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870 – 1870), 1 year [death]
  • Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard et Pecuchet (1872 – 1880), 8 years [death]
  • Wilkie Collins, Blind Love (1887 – 1889), 2 years [death]
  • Herman Melville, Billy Budd (1886? – 1891), 5 years [death]
  • Mark Twain, No. 44, or the Mysterious Stranger (1897 – 1908), 11 years [agony]
  • Franz Kafka, Amerika (1911 – 1914), 3 years [death]
  • Henry James, The Sense of the Past (1898? – 1914), 16 years [agony]
  • Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities (1930 – 1943), 13 years [death]
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon (1935? – 1940), 5 years [death]
  • Ernest Hemingway, The Garden of Eden (1946 – 1961), 16 years [death]
  • Truman Capote, Answered Prayers (1966 – 1984), 18 years [agony]
  • Vladimir Nabokov, The Original of Laura (1974 – 1977), 3 years [death]
  • Ralph Ellison, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . (1953 – 1994), 41 years [agony]
  • David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (2000 – 2008), 8 years [agony/death]

 

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