Death is such a messy business. All that pain, remorse and expense. Best avoided really. And when the Grim Reaper does finally put in an appearance it’s always at a most inopportune time. You could still be plotting how to finish putting that shelf up. Or plucking up the courage to invite Rita from your whist group out for a fish supper.
Perhaps you were in the middle of writing your magnum opus. The tome that would have floored literary circles the world over. Unfinished novels are such a troublesome business. Just like that death malarkey.
Herewith, 10 great unfinished books. If only they’d tried a bit harder. Procrastinated less. Which, of course, is rich coming from us. We've never started a book, let alone not finished one.
1. The Garden Of Eden - Ernest HemingwayBuy now from Amazon
Although he started work on The Garden of Eden in 1946, it was still uncompleted when Ernest Hemingway died 15 years later. It didn’t see the light of day for another 25 years. The novel tells the story of newlyweds David and Catherine Bourne. While on honeymoon both the Bournes fall for the beautiful Marita, thus setting off a chain of destructive events. The novel itself ran to 800 pages and when it was finally published a number of cuts had to be made which upset Hemingway devotees.
2. The Mysterious Stranger – Mark TwainBuy now from Amazon
Mark Twain had worked on three versions of this novel by the time he died in 1910. Unfortunately, none were finished. However, one theme that underpinned all three attempts was Twain’s caustic attacks on the failings of organised religion. Six years after his death a version was published but seems to have clumsily pieced together bits of the different versions. Twain, who was endlessly debated during his lifetime, was continually pored over in death.
3. The Ivory Tower – Henry JamesBuy now from Amazon
The creation of modern America towards the end of the 19th Century was a rich source of material for novelists of the age. Henry James was one such writer, his books, drenched in realism and literary allusions are now seen as fascinating critiques of this time. The Ivory Tower was one such book – a tale of unfathomable riches and the consequences of such wealth upon two families and the rising industrial classes – it was left unfinished when James died in 1916, although it was published the following year.
4. Poodle Springs – Raymond Chandler (And Robert B Parker)Buy now from Amazon
Philip Marlowe is one of literature’s most enduring figures. A tough, complicated and brooding detective, he was a gift for the cinema age – as portrayed memorably by Humphrey Bogart. Created by Raymond Chandler, Marlowe was stepping out for his eighth novel when Chandler died in 1959. However, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, contemporary crime writer Robert B Parker, with the blessing of the Chandler estate, completed the novel based upon the four chapters of hardboiled prose Chandler wrote.
5. The First Man – Albert CamusBuy now from Amazon
Student fave Albert Camus was working on perhaps his most realistic and certainly his most personal novel when he was killed in a car crash in 1960. The First Man is based upon his childhood in Algeria, and examines the vexed issues of colonialism, family relationships and politics, while touching upon the more authentic experiences of childhood. Camus’s daughter transcribed the unfinished manuscript and it was finally published in 1994.
6. The Love Of The Last Tycoon – F Scott FitzgeraldBuy now from Amazon
Towards the end of his enigmatic, innovative and controversial life, F Scott Fitzgerald worked on the fringes of Hollywood. It’s thought he found such work below him, but it obviously provided the inspiration for his last work, The Love of the Last Tycoon. A thinly veiled account of movie mogul Irving Thalberg, Fitzgerald completed 17 of his proposed 31 chapters before he died in 1940. Edited by his friend Edmund Wilson it was published the year after his death.
7. Weir Of Hermiston – Robert Louis StevensonBuy now from Amazon
Robert Louis Stevenson is best known for the archetypal boy’s own adventure Treasure Island, but at the time of his death he was working on what acolytes have since deemed his masterpiece. Weir of Hermiston is an epic novel set during the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th Century. Focussing on the travails of Archie Weir, it touches upon the tragic effects of conflict within the family, love and social commentary. Not pirates and buried treasure then.
8. The Mystery Of Edwin Drood – Charles DickensBuy now from Amazon
When he died, aged 58, in 1870, Charles Dickens was exactly halfway through his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. As well as mixing in the usual Dickensian tropes of social commentary and colourful characters, his death meant that Drood’s puzzling disappearance was never resolved. Many have attempted to piece together the clues the author left behind, but perhaps Dickens’s last great act was leaving behind a classic whodunit.
9. The Pale King – David Foster WallaceBuy now from Amazon
Before he committed suicide aged just 46 in 2008, David Foster Wallace was regarded as one of the brightest and most inventive voices in American fiction. His 1996 work, Infinite Jest, was acclaimed as a Great American Novel. The following year he began work on the book that he would still be writing at the time of his death. A complex, multi-layered book that focuses on the human condition and the minutiae of daily life, The Pale King runs to 500 pages and was, according to Wallace, only a third finished. Yet, after much editing it was published in 2011.
10. The Original Of Laura – Vladimir NabokovBuy now from Amazon
Like many authors, feted Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov left express intentions that any unfinished work should be destroyed upon his death. Following his passing in 1977, his final book, The Original of Laura, wasn’t destroyed but held in a bank vault as his son deliberated whether to publish it. In 2009, it finally saw the light of day. A fragmented novel concerned with ageing and the complexities of love, literary figures despaired that the man behind the classic Lolita should not have had his final wish honoured.
- The best final novels: great final books by the best authors