In considering here how the work of writers and composers comes to change as their lives near an end, Edward Said has little to say about the abandoned fragment—the achievement cut off by death, as Mozart’s Requiem was. Yet that is precisely the condition of the present book, which, as the author’s widow, Mariam Said, explains in the foreword, was left far from complete when Said died, in 2003. While incorporating material written long before (as Said seems to have intended), this volume comes to us as a last work, drafted by one who knew his time was limited. It therefore exemplifies its own subject matter, manifesting some of the qualities Said discerns in "late style," including penetration and breadth of reference, and yet, inevitably, leaving much in outline or unstated.

Said’s reflection starts out from the notion of timeliness in human doings, and so of how certain things become possible, or available, in later years. One of time’s gifts is widely held to be wisdom, but Said is attracted much more by lateness "as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction." The wise elders—Shakespeare, Verdi, Rembrandt, Matisse, Bach, Wagner—are saluted, then dismissed. Kept for later and longer scrutiny are those who, like ancient trees, grew ever more gnarled.

It is at this point, on the fifth page, that Adorno enters the argument; he will be there to the end. For Said, Adorno is not only a great analyst of lateness but also an exemplar, whose writings took shape within a whole culture entering a late phase. Adorno is accordingly Said’s touchstone in discussing late Beethoven (in the first chapter) and Richard Strauss (in the second), and there is a strong Adornian presence in the chapter on Glenn Gould. Music, of course, is a concern Said shares with Adorno, and this book is full of it, other late masters invoked including Mozart and Britten.

Typically, Said comes up with powerful and provocative ideas in his musical commentary. "Beethoven seems to inhabit the late works as a lamenting personality," he writes, by which he means not that the music is expressive of lament but rather that it is formed by a mind aware of loss and departure, as suggested by how phrases are "abruptly dropped" in the openings of the opp. 132 and 135 quartets. Said contrasts this with how Beethoven, in the last movement of the Fifth Symphony, plants himself in the music, will not let go. The late compositions are "about ‘lost totality,’ and are therefore catastrophic."

Indeed, but the catastrophe is being consummately conveyed, and totality thereby rediscovered. In the Diabelli Variations—a work Said curiously omits from his list of Beethoven’s late works, while mentioning the much smaller bagatelles—the form’s customary bond of delectation, shared between composer and audience (which most definitely includes performers), is brutally shattered. Instead of taking his theme through a consecutive sequence of alterations, respecting timeliness within the dimensions of a few minutes, Beethoven leaps between highly contrasting transformations, and keeps on doing so for almost an hour. Worse than that, from a conventional point of view, his attitude can move in an instant from scorn to wonder.

It is here, though, in the articulation of attitude that the work regains totality. The elements are split and strange, but we are allowed to witness the mind that is handling them, and this mind is consistent throughout. Along with the object scorned and wondered at, we hear the scorning and the wondering. The catastrophe—of music plunging so far into distant harmonies, weird alterations, and sudden swerves as to lose continuity and wholeness—is balanced by, and needed by, the emergence of a new unity, which exists in the creating, not in what is created. And this brings us some way from Beethoven as "a lamenting personality" in his late music. If he laments some of the time, he also rages and exults, satirizes and sings.

Perhaps the real lamenting personality inhabiting these pages is Said’s. As Michael Wood suggests in a fine introduction, Said valued the disputatious, the unreconciled, as a true product of experience and the best possible harmony, by no means only in musical compositions. Beethoven in his later years knew too much, from too many sources (including, it may sometimes seem, the future), for a unified culmination to have been possible. In the same way, it would be idle and even dangerous to expect a settled concord among peoples and nations. The best hope is for flaring antagonisms that do not flare too much, because they are controlled, as in late Beethoven, by self-knowledge. That hope, though, did not appear to be coming any closer to fruition in the small part of the twenty-first century Said lived to see.

Even so, partly because Said himself does not advance any parallels between the lives of artists and the political world, any pessimism in this book is well disguised by the energy of the author’s appetite for ideas—an energy that, because it was extinguished when he was in his prime, must arouse regrets of another kind in the reader. One wishes Said had been able to investigate more artists (e.g., Schubert, Turner, Yeats) who came to "a vulnerable maturity" and found there "a platform for alternative and unregimented modes of subjectivity." He might also have wanted to consider how lateness may be a condition an artist’s work achieves posthumously, as with Mozart, who, until his final weeks, might have expected to live as long as his father (in which case he would have heard some of Beethoven’s last works, and perhaps responded to them). Given a little more time, too, Said would surely have pruned the text of repetitions and pulled together what here remain two strands of thinking: on late works, and on interpreters (Adorno and Gould) who arrive late on the scene.

What we have is a shorn project: some chapters that are perhaps finished, together with others emerging from their origins in reviews (notably of two Euripides productions) and lecture notes. The result is touching. Touching, too, is Said’s determination to find space for artists dear to him, even if their work is not quite relevant to his topic. Così fan tutte—completed almost two years before Mozart’s death and not normally counted as one of this fast-living composer’s late works—merits attention partly so that Said can express his admiration for Peter Sellars’s work in staging all three Mozart–Da Ponte comedies. Genet is here not only for the artistic qualities of his last book, Un Captif amoureux (Prisoner of Love [1986]), but also for the pro-Arab sympathies that went back, as Said notes, to his youth.

Other choices might appear more puzzling. Said justifies his chapter on Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), Lampedusa’s 1958 novel and the 1963 Visconti film of it, as an exploration of lateness in popular culture, but neither the book nor the movie can usefully be described as either late or popular. Lampedusa did, to be sure, write his elegiac story near the end of his life, but since he wrote nothing else, the book has no counterweight of earlier works against which its lateness may be measured. For Visconti, Il Gattopardo came in the middle of his career as a director, with eight films to follow over the next thirteen years. As for how well these works instance the "rigors and demands" of the entertainment market, Said himself describes the Lampedusa novel as a "high cultural item" and places it in the context of Proust, whose importance to Visconti he also notes. However, by referring the story also to Gramsci, Said can reveal the revolutionary vigor that coexists with aristocratic melancholia in both book and film, and can bring both author and director into his honored circle of artists who embraced discord and saw their work as political in its implications.

What, then, of Richard Strauss, who, writing swaths of luxurious harmony through the Hitler years, would seem a preeminent example of the blindly mellifluous and disengaged? Said is perhaps at his best here. For once, he rejects the Adorno line, which he interprets as invective feeding off itself—even if this is precisely how his own writing sounds when he addresses John Corigliano’s 1991 opera The Ghosts of Versailles in this same chapter: "a ghastly attempt to rewrite the history of the French Revolution" in a musical idiom that is "unchallenging and unresolved," "a tasteless pastiche," "an appalling hodgepodge, incoherent in style, vulgar in display, and repellent in ideology."

Outside this parenthetical diatribe, considering Strauss rather than his current avatar, Said is compassionate and calm. He has interesting things to say about Strauss’s fantasy eighteenth century by contrast with those of Weill and Stravinsky, and his conclusion strikes a tone of humane acceptance one can imagine might have rung through the whole book. Strauss’s late music has its sense, he points out, against the background of the more advanced music of the time, such as Berg’s. Needing that music, Strauss’s cannot be described as regressive. Its gesture is, on the contrary, positive: Said’s word is defiant. It presents an alternative and helps make mid-twentieth-century music as internally contradictory as the Diabelli Variations. It disrupts, and may help us learn to value, or at least tolerate, clashes in the world around us.

Paul Griffiths is the author of Modern Music: A Concise History (Thames & Hudson, 1994) and the forthcoming A Concise History of Western Music (Cambridge University Press).