Every writer eventually faces the question: Is there anything left to say?
By Roger Grenier
September 8, 2014
Translated by Alice Kaplan
Is the final work of a writer—or for that matter of any artist—final according to the writer, or final for everyone else? Few writers have willingly put their last word to paper. Few have composed the literary equivalent of a last will and testament. Most of the time, the creator comes up dry.
Joseph Conrad, who died on August 3, 1924, wrote to André Gide two months earlier: “It’s been almost four years since I’ve done anything decent. I wonder if this is the end?”
William Faulkner confessed, “I know now that I am getting toward the end, the bottom of the barrel.”
There are those who have nothing left to say, but also those on whom the ax falls, who die making plans. In Saint Petersburg, I saw the desk where Dostoyevsky finished writing The Brothers Karamazov. “I stay at my table and I write literally day and night,” he declared as he was writing Book XX and the epilogue. The novel was published in December 1880. He thought of a sequel, but he died on January 28. Just behind the desk is a dark couch. Dostoyevsky died on this couch. The desk and the couch, inseparable.
Many writers are not aware that their time to live, and so to create, has expired. Tolstoy never stopped accumulating notes, projects, drafts—then he fled home to die in an out-of-the-way train station.
Sometimes artists signify explicitly that a creation is their last. In the film Limelight, a bit of a tearjerker, Charlie Chaplin gives a Shakespearean inflection to the last words of Calvero (a double for himself), who, before closing his eyes, exclaims: “The heart and the mind … what an enigma!” Chaplin would in fact produce two more films: A King in New York and A Countess from Hong Kong. His last work was supposed to be The Freak, the story of a young girl who grows wings—a part he intended for his daughter Victoria. But he never made the film.
Molière coughed up blood and wrote a farce about a hypochondriac. He died during the fourth performance.
The temptation to write a book in the guise of a last will and testament can surface at any moment. “This book should be read as one might read the book of a dead man,” Victor Hugo wrote in the preface to his Contemplations. He announced to the drama critic Jules Janin, “This book could be divided into four parts which would be entitled: My dead youth—My dead heart—My dead daughter—My dead country. Alas!” But to the novelist and playwright Paul Meurice, he spoke of a “volume of calm verse.” And to another correspondent, he confessed a concern for décor: “I am putting the last few gold stars on the rather somber sky of the Contemplations.”
Franz Kafka said, “You speak endlessly of death and you don’t die.” A writer can complete what he considers a final work and then suddenly have doubts. That was the case for André Gide when he finished So Be It: or The Chips Are Down. So he added: “No, I cannot assert that with the end of this notebook all will be finished; that all will be over. Perhaps I shall have a desire to add something. To add something or other. To make an addition. Perhaps. At the last moment, to add something … I am sleepy, to be sure, but I don’t feel like sleeping. It strikes me that I could be even more tired. It is I don’t know what hour of the night or of the morning … Do I still have something to say? Still something or other to say?”
He confessed, with a touch of humor: “It wasn’t part of my plan to live to be this old.”
What freedom is in this, Gide’s last work, precisely because he thinks it is the last? “The blank page lies in front of me. My intention is to write anything whatsoever on it.”
“With a dispirited pen,” he skips from the memory of an accident he witnessed in his childhood, to his current anorexia (physiological and intellectual), to Ida Rubinstein, Igor Stravinsky, the dramatists Jacques Copeau and André Barsacq, and from there to poet Charles Péguy, to his journey to the Congo, to the writers Oscar Wilde, Charles du Bos, Carlos Suarès. He accumulates anecdotes and even funny stories, jokes. Memories flow without any order, gay, sad, or even tragic, such as the death of writer Eugène Dabit in Sevastopol during their trip to the Soviet Union. He is amused or upset and always says what he thinks.
Death expects nothing of us. Anton Chekhov entitled one of his one-act plays The Swan Song and gives this speech to an old actor: “I’m like a squeezed lemon, a cracked bottle.” But we can transpose and attribute the actor’s curses to a writer at the end of his tether:
Ah! I’m a foolish old man, a poor old dodderer! … Old age! … I can play the fool, and brag, and pretend to be young, but my life is really over now. … I have drained the bottle, only a few little drops are left at the bottom, nothing but the dregs.
That we are incapable of knowing how much time we have left inspired this thought of the Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, in his novel The Master and Margarita: “Yes, man is mortal, but that’s only half the trouble! The problem is that he is unexpectedly mortal, there’s the trick! And in fact, he can’t even say what he’ll be doing tonight.”
Alexandre Dumas, in the supreme moment, is supposed to have said, “I will never know how it ends.” Was he talking about his novel The Last Cavalier, which he would leave unfinished, or about something completely different?
Ludwig Wittgenstein, in the preface to his Philosophical Investigations, published only after his death, expressed regret: “I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.” Vladimir Nabokov never finished his last novel, The Original of Laura. At first, it was titled Dying Is Fun. But only a few notes were ever committed to index cards until his son had it published, 30 years later. On October 30, 1976, less than a year before his death, Nabokov wrote Victor Lusinchi of The New York Times:
In my diurnal delirium [I] kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible. Perhaps because of my stumblings and fits of coughing the story of my poor Laura had less success with my listeners than it will have, I hope, with intelligent reviewers when properly published.
Those unable to see the fatal moment nearing, who can’t imagine that their writing could ever be rudely interrupted, leave in the hands of the public a text, generally unfinished—i.e., a rough draft. What a mess Blaise Pascal left us with his Pensées! No matter how much you twist and turn it, rearrange its parts, it isn’t a posthumous work. It’s just papers—notes made by someone who was planning to write an apologia for the Christian religion. But it isn’t even a draft of that apologia.
In his notes for The First Man, Albert Camus wrote, “The book must remain unfinished.” His premature death in a car crash gave this note a tragic significance. Actually, what Camus meant was that he imagined a monument, a sort of War and Peace, spanning the life of an individual and the history of a century, with its upheavals, its wars—an open-ended epic. He only had time to write the beginning—not even the beginning but the draft of a beginning. And these pages, which have been read as a touching history of a childhood, have moved readers far more than his carefully composed, constructed, deliberate books. There is an even more paradoxical fact, which raises yet another question about what we must consider a last work. While Camus was writing The Fall, a hopeless self-castigation and a bitter settling of scores with Parisian intellectuals, he began to take notes for The First Man, which, on the contrary, was full of love and confidence in humankind. What was he really feeling? Did these works alternate in importance for him? The First Man had preoccupied him for years, whereas The Fall was only a parenthesis, the expression of a mood. The contradiction is perhaps only superficial. Clamence, the narrator of The Fall, is guilty. But Cormery, in The First Man, turns his back on his country, his relatives, his roots, and hates himself. In both cases, the vision is pessimistic. And both works deal with the theme of exile, which always haunted Camus, who felt exiled his entire life.
As he was writing Clamence’s bitter soliloquy, perhaps this exiled Camus discovered some tenderness by accessing another role for the exile: remembering childhood in Algeria, the country he has lost. Thus The Fall and The First Man would be two expressions of the same sensibility.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his agent when he started to work on The Last Tycoon: “It is a short novel about fifty thousand words long and should take me three to four months.” It wasn’t short enough, since he couldn’t finish it. At the time of his death, he was only on the first episode of the sixth chapter.
With certain authors, including some of the very greatest, we cannot speak of a last work. With them an entire life’s work is constantly put back on the loom, and so is condemned to remain unfinished. Friedrich Nietzsche, Marcel Proust, Robert Musil are in this category. Nietzsche wavers between the desire to construct and a totally free form. Only death stopped Proust from pasting strips of paper onto his manuscripts and his page proofs. With Musil, we never stop digging away at the mass of unpublished pages that supplement The Man Without Qualities. Critics attribute his inability to finish to masochism. But is having more and more to say, trying to reach perfection, really masochistic?
Saint Bonaventure, the Franciscan philosopher nicknamed the Seraphic Doctor, supposedly had the unique privilege of continuing his memoirs after his death. François-René de Chateaubriand, the first great French Romantic, was jealous: “I don’t hope for such a privilege, but I would like to resuscitate at the ghostly hour—at least to correct my page proofs.”
This chimerical wish was provoked by Chateaubriand’s worries about his Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb. More than once, this monument, which he intended to be posthumous, was in danger of becoming antehumous, due to the financial problems that always plagued the viscount. He gave some readings from the Memoirs in February and March 1834, and accounts of those readings were published. One can find fragments of the memoirs in his 1836 “Essay on English Literature.” Yet he complained, “I prefer to speak from the bottom of my grave.” In 1836, he sold the Memoirs to a company that promised to publish nothing until after his death. The affair took a worrisome turn in October 1844. The company sold rights to Emile de Girardin to publish excerpts from the Memoirs in his newspaper, La Presse. An unhappy Chateaubriand later wrote about seeing his Memoirs reduced “to bits and pieces”: “No one can form an idea of what I have suffered in being compelled to mortgage my grave.”
The company’s stockholders grew impatient. The writer was living too long. Publication of the excerpts was to begin on October 14, 1848. Chateaubriand died on July 4. He had nearly missed his mark.
Writing forces you to consider the problem of posterity, even if you don’t give a damn. Stendhal’s wish is well known. He saw himself winning the lottery—either around 1880, or around 1935. Scott Fitzgerald expressed his hope in a timid, modest fashion: “I am sure I am far enough ahead to have some small immortality, if I can keep well,” he noted as he was working on The Last Tycoon. That small immortality was granted him. I remember that the novelist Romain Gary confessed to me, in a completely objective tone, “I believe that I am one of those whose work will survive.” I had the impression that he had considered the issue dispassionately, as if he were thinking about another person. Besides which, he wasn’t wrong. A quarter-century after his death, his work is read and studied.
For Jean-Paul Sartre, the last work was by definition the one he was in the process of writing, which was, by definition, better than the one before:
I’m thinking that I would do better today and so much better tomorrow. Middle-aged writers don’t like to be praised too earnestly for their early work; but I’m the one, I’m sure of it, who’s pleased least of all by such compliments. My best book is the one I’m in the process of writing; right after it comes the last one that was published, but I’m secretly getting ready to be disgusted with it before long. If the critics should now think it’s bad, they may wound me, but in six months I’ll be coming round to their opinion. On one condition: however poor and worthless they consider the book, I want them to rank it above all my previous work. I’m willing to let them run down my whole output, provided they maintain the chronological hierarchy, the only one that leaves me a chance to do better tomorrow, still better the day after, and to end with a masterpiece.
The popular science writer Jean Rostand says the same thing: “No sooner have you published your book than all you care about is to erase it, to obliterate it with the next one.”
In response to the question, “What feelings does the word ‘posthumous’ awaken in you?” the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño replied, “Something like a Roman gladiator. An undefeated gladiator. Or at least that is what the poor Posthumous wants to believe to give himself courage.”
In my job as editor, I once had a pretty awful experience. A writer who knew he was dying of cancer brought me three manuscripts. When I finished reading them, he looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Do we publish this one before or after my death? … And this one? … And that one?” In other words, it was up to me to decide which would be his last work.
In 1888, Herman Melville had been forgotten for a long time. He had recently retired after many years as a customs inspector for the port of New York. Death lurked around him. He started to write Billy Budd and had just finished it when he died, in 1891. The book was forgotten until Melville’s first biographer, Raymond Weaver, found the manuscript in 1919 and had it published in 1924.
Let’s give the last word to Joseph Conrad: “I was within a hair’s breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say.”
Roger Grenier is the author of more than 40 works of fiction and nonfiction. He is one of France's most distinguished editors.