Many readers fear the demise of their creative idols: with it comes the realisation that they’ll never experience a new work from the writers they love. While their work lives on, sometimes the ending isn’t quite complete. Be it due to lack of time, loss of interest or just not being able to beat death, many great writers have left behind unfinished works that have intrigued and fascinated us. Sometimes we’re satisfied with what we have and other times we’re disgusted that anyone ever let it out into the open. Here are just a few of the most famous examples. Please withhold all George RR Martin comments until the end.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood: It’s bad enough to read a novel without an ending but a mystery novel without an ending to answer the whodunit at the end of the story is just cruel. Not that we can blame Dickens for dying on us, especially since he had been so prolific in life. His final story has inspired many a writer to take up the pen and finish the tale, and has been adapted into everything from the staple BBC period drama to a Broadway musical.
The Pale King: David Foster Wallace is generally regarded as one of, if not the single finest writer of his generation. His articles are as fascinating as they were varied and his magnum opus Infinite Jest continues to be a revered and often infuriating challenge for many a reader. After struggling for many years with depression, Wallace committed suicide in 2008, but not before tidying up the unfinished manuscript of The Pale King for his wife to find, along with a series of meticulous notes to help finish the story. This is a rare instance of an author wishing for their work to be finished after their death instead of destroyed before their heirs hear the cash machines ringing. Even unfinished, the novel was rapturously received by critics and short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize.
Sanditon: Jane Austen’s unfinished tale is another one that has inspired many a writer to create an ending, although the promise of instant name recognition on a public domain property may have helped as well.
The Faerie Queene: Another incomplete epic poem, Edmund Spenser’s allegorical fantasy follows a group of virtuous knights through a Faerieland that spends an awful lot of time making coded references to the glory of Queen Elizabeth I. It paid off for Spenser, who received a pension for life for his efforts, although nobody’s entirely sure if the queen actually read it herself. The poem was intended to be 12 books long, although Spenser’s death prevented him from fulfilling his epic plans.
The 120 Days of Sodom: The Marquis de Sade was a prolific peddler of filth. Not even imprisonment in the Bastille could stop him from stirring up controversy with his tales of the most perverse inclinations. His most infamous title was written in the space of 37 days in the tiniest handwriting imaginable on one 12 metre long roll of paper. Originally thought lost to the French Revolution, the work was published over a hundred years later, finally able to cement de Sade’s reputation as one of the most depraved minds of our times. The story follows four wealthy libertines and their quest for pleasure through the logical route of rape, orgies, scat, infanticide, disembowelment of pregnant women and torture. As you do. It’s sick, of course, but it’s also so ridiculously over the top that many scholars have categorised it as satire. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film updated the setting to Mussolini’s Italy but kept every other disturbing detail. The Criterion Collection, of course, loved it. (For anyone who’s interested in de Sade, read Doug Wright’s play Quills or watch the film. I’m not just suggesting this because it’s my 2nd favourite movie of all time. Honestly.)
The Original of Laura: Vladimir Nabokov’s prose is universally accepted as some of the best of 20th century literature. It’s the kind of stylistic work and control of vocabulary that makes most other writers’ toes curl with envy. However, even he knew that he wasn’t infallible, and instructed that his unfinished novel The Original of Laura be burned after his death, never to be seen by the paying public. His estate decided that was a silly idea, and after 30 years in a Swiss bank account, decided to publish it. The results were hardly a masterpiece or even the rough draft of a masterpiece. Described as “a novel in fragments” (which is putting it lightly), Laura is merely a series of notes on cards, not what anyone had really waited 30 years for. Critics did not take too kindly to the published results and lambasted the Nabokov estate for it.
Don Juan: Generally considered his magnum opus, Lord Byron’s epic satirical poem based on the legendary womaniser is over 16000 lines long yet still a canto short of completion. While some may be surprised that Byron found time to be so prolific while having multiple affairs, partying to excess, fighting the Ottoman empire and creating Ada Lovelace, the good Lord wrote the poem over a number of years until his death. The first two cantos were published anonymously in 1819 and elicited the kind of outrage one expects from the notorious libertine, as well as the kind of public popularity filth brings. Today, the poem is a university staple and remains Byron’s most popular work.