The Unfinished Novel

The novel, like all art, reaches for immortality, but the unfinished novel is bound up with mortality and the limits of time. In my view, that makes it even more beautiful than a finished novel. We're left to imagine the completion that is forever suspended. How was the writer ever going to tie up such a complicated plot? What was he or she going to do with all those characters and their noisy, difficult yearnings? And what was it all supposed to mean? As we circle these questions, the author becomes paradoxically more and more present to us in the work left behind. We feel his or her humanity because we see the traces of mortality everywhere on the page. These books are marked by the rush to finish coupled with the wish to never end.

The universe of unfinished novels is large and diverse, full of acknowledged masterpieces, hidden gems, and many different kinds of incompleteness. Herewith a small selection:

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Little is known about eleventh-century author Murasaki Shikibu, but some believe she left Genji unfinished at her death, and that the novel was completed by her daughter. Proof is hard to come by, but some highly unscientific evidence is provided by the book itself: two-thirds into the story, Prince Genji dies, and the plot turns to the second generation of Japanese aristocracy, which is haunted by the grandeur of the first. At this point, the prose becomes wistful, and then darkly elegiac and full of longing.

Billy Budd by Herman Melville

When Melville died, this last tale was still a rough draft, and what was left points in multiple directions. Is the story—which tells of able seaman Billy Budd’s court martial and execution for a crime he didn’t commit—a cry of despair? A Christian parable of self-sacrifice? An out-of-control story of homoerotic obsession? Or a deeply conservative warning about the need to preserve social order at any cost (coming from the man who, in more hopeful days, exploded the novelistic order with Moby Dick)? Billy Budd manages to remain all those things in a way that a finished book probably couldn’t.

Light and Darkness by Natsume Sôseki

188 sections of this extraordinary work on love and marriage appeared in serialized form in 1916, about two-thirds of the planned whole. Sôseki collapsed at his desk after sitting down to write section 189. And yet the last line of the novel feels like the perfect ending, almost as if it was planned: “Tsuda returned to his own room, while trying to explain to himself the meaning of her smile.”

The Castle by Franz Kafka

Kafka is intensely present in all his work, but especially so in this novel, which he began writing in 1922 and left unfinished, in midsentence, when his tuberculosis took a turn for the worse (it killed him two years later). The book’s formal incompleteness essentially mirrors its subject, which is the spiritual incompleteness of being human—of being barred from the mysterious castle that looms over our small, benighted village.

The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton

Wharton died in 1937, just three chapters away from finishing a draft of The Buccaneers, a sharp-eyed comedy of manners about a group of exuberant young American heiresses who move to England in search of titled husbands, only to end up becoming prisoners of the conventions of high society. Visible throughout are glimmers of Wharton at her best: disillusioned, tough-minded, freedom loving, and aware of both the price of worldly success and the cost of individual happiness.

The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in 1940 at the age of forty-four, a third of the way through a remarkably chiseled draft that was growing in depth and complexity beyond his original expectations. Tycoon is about dying too early, making Fitzgerald’s final book an act of both fortune telling and self-understanding. Even incomplete, the novel has passages that rival Gatsby in their evocation of beauty and sorrow.

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil

A novel that wants to be about everything can’t ever be finished. Musil devoted most of his writing life to The Man Without Qualities, toting file cabinets and boxes into exile in Switzerland after the rise of the Nazis, and then he refused to publish the final volumes. What we have now is more than a thousand pages, whittled down from over five thousand pages of rough draft, asymptotically approaching completion. And yet, page by page, the novel feels like the opposite of long: light, aphoristic, darting, full of laughter—beautifully alive.

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño’s weird, magisterial epic was published posthumously in Spanish in 2004, a year after his death from liver disease at the age of fifty. The English translation, published four years later, came equipped with an odd, cryptic afterward stating that the novel both was and wasn’t unfinished. It said that the author, aware of his failing health, raced to finish the work, and that the manuscript is almost certainly, probably, complete. Though it seems paradoxical to call a nine-hundred-page novel hasty, the Chilean’s race against death is tangible in the novel’s gorgeous torrent of words, and in its open, accretive structure, which allows stories to pile atop stories, always on the verge of formal collapse, yet somehow always cohering.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Reading David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel is like looking at the pieces of a complicated machine that has been taken apart and spread out on a table: There’s no way to speculate what the whole might have been like, and no way to imagine what it might have become. And yet even in its fragmentary state, the book is compelling. Wallace’s long, loose sentences feel incredibly alive, simultaneously urgent and grand, charged with the energy of raw story. The pleasure is in his eye and his voice; it hardly matters that the story itself remains almost invisible, hidden out of reach.

Robert Anthony Siegel is the author of two novels, All Will Be Revealed and All the Money in the World. He's currently a Fulbright Fellow in Taiwan.