The Biggest Tragedy in Art

To my mind, beyond blacklisting, blackballing, banning, and burning, the biggest tragedy in art is this: incompletion.  I would go so far as to say that leaving a piece of art incomplete is worse than a piece of art being lost in history.  For example, it’s upsetting that so many of Sophocles’ tragedies are lost and never to be found, but it would be much worse if Antigone wasn’t finished.  Untimely death of the artist is the biggest cause of art going unfinished, and the other big one is the loss of financial backing.  Here’s a few examples of art we’re left to ponder about the artist’s intentions, as well as art we can only dream about.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood.   This is probably the most well-known tragedy of unfinished art, not only because it was by the beloved author Charles Dickens, but because the book was one of Dickens’ rare forays into murder mysteries.  As he died before completing it, and didn’t bother to leave sufficient notes as to the plot structure, we’re left with a mystery unsolved.  Scholars have theories as to who the murderer was, but that’ all they are: theories.

The Novels of Franz Kafka.  During Kafka’s lifetime, only a small portion of his life’s work saw print, either because publishers were too circumspectly aware of the implications of publishing the stories of a Jew in a ghetto, or because Kafka was too insecure to allow them to see print.  As the famous story goes, Kafka on his deathbed asked that all of his unpublished work be burned.  His friend Max Brod listened dutifully, but after he died, did the exact opposite, and the literary world was a better place for his late betrayal.  Kafka wrote two novels in his lifetime.  The Trial, while incomplete, at least had an ending, while his other novel The Castle does not.

Grumpy Old Men Three.  Frequent readers of my site are probably scratching their heads right now.  Admittedly, my tastes tend to meander to the artsy-fartsy and the classical, but in all honesty, I love Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men.  I’m not by any means trying to be ironic.  I don’t think there’s any movies from the 90s I enjoy more.  That’s why I was especially panged to hear that, before the deaths of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, there had been a third Grumpy Old Men movie in the works to complete the cycle.  The story was to involve Matthau going on his honeymoon with Sophia Loren and decides to bring Lemmon and Ann Margret along for no discernible reason.  Once they reach their honeymoon destination of Italy, they are confronted by Marcello Mastrianni who tells them his marriage to Loren was never properly annulled.  To me, this sounds like a delightful film, especially with the inclusion of Mastrianni who frequently worked with Loren–there said to have done somewhere around 14 films together, most of which aren’t available in America.  The third film was canned though before it even began.  Due to the financial failure of two other Matthau-Lemmon vehicles, the studio decided it wasn’t worth the money to bring the Grumpy Old Men out again.

The Love of the Last Tycoon.  This is the novel F. Scott Fitzgerald was working on at the time of his death from a heart attack.  Thankfully, he managed to complete about half of the projected novel.  Going through his things, scholars found notes written that overviewed the entire plot, so if you read the novel, you can, at the very least, read a summary about how it was supposed to end.  The book still makes for a good read, but we can only wonder just how great it might have been.

James Joyce’s Follow Up To Finnegan’s Wake.  Early on in his literary career, James Joyce decided to have his body of work mirror Dante Aligheri’s.  There is a very loose analogue for all of his books after Dubliners that relates to Dante.  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was meant to resemble Dante’s La Vita Nuovo, an early collection of poems Dante wrote to Beatrice.  Both works end with the artists deciding to forge a new art.  Ulysses is meant to resemble the Inferno (as well as The Odyssey), in that it involves a lot of characters in stasis (like the tiers of hell) while two characters move among them.  Finnegan’s Wake was Purgatoria, that’s why so much of it revolves around liminal things–things in-between.  James Joyce had projected another work to complete the cycle, this one meant to resemble Paradiso.  Because it was heaven, he had planned to use concise, clear sentences instead of the polyphonous polyglot that his last two books had.  Instead, Joyce went to heaven before he could write about it.

The Original of Laura.  At the time of his death, Vladimir was working on his last novel The Original of Laura.  Vladimir had long used the method of writing his paragraphs on notecards and arranging them later, that way he could write scenes when he thought of them, even if they took place at the end and he was just starting to write.  In this fashion, he avoided the fatigue that writer’s get when they’re writing too long.  He also avoided the quality problems that are the opposite, as in how some writers will create books where the second half is much better than the first, mainly because the writer understood the craft more as they wrote it.

Whistle.  This is the third novel that James Jones meant to end his war trilogy that began with From Here to Eternity and was followed by The Thin Red Line.  From Here to Eternity was meant to portray the soldier’s life at bootcamp while The Thin Red Line was about combat itself.  Whistle was about the process of returning home from the war.  Jones wrote several hundred pages before he died, and luckily left a synopsis of the ending, which was about as bleak as anything could be.  In the synopsis, many of the characters come back only to lose their minds or suffer from depression or long to be in the army again.

The Pale King.  This is the book I’m currently reading.  After completing Infinite Jest, D.F. Wallace is said to have began this book and had been working on it for more than a decade, publishing short stories and essays to satisfy his fans while he worked on this one.  Shortly after his death, a stack of 250 pages were found on his desk, presumably arranged as he wanted them to be arranged.  His editor, with the assistance of D. F. Wallace’s widow, combined the stacked manuscript with pages and pages of other things Wallace had written for the book that were most likely in the drafting process.  Some of the sentences here are perfect, and overall it’s more beautiful than much of his work post Infinite Jest.  In some of the prose, there is a heavenly quality.

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