THR Web Features   /   November 29, 2023

Unfinished Business

Unfinished works bring their makers’ unfulfilled plans to the fore.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Fleeing Paris in 1940; © LAPI/Roger Viollet.)

The Castle is not obviously so near its finished state as The Trial, although (just as in The Trial) internally determined all through, in spite of its lack of external completeness, by the complex feeling which the author was resolved to traverse. This is one of the mysteries of Kafka’s art, that for the chosen reader of those great unfinished novels the conclusion loses in importance from the point at which the main assumptions are more or less completely given. Nevertheless, at the stage at which it was left, The Trial could more easily dispense with concluding chapters than the present book can. When a drawing is approaching its completion it no longer needs guiding lines. Then one uses guiding lines at one’s discretion, and other data to hand, notes, etc., so as to carry the drawing to its conjectured end.
Max Brod, “Additional Note to The Trial” (1926; trans. Edwin and Willa Muir)


2 June 1942. Starting to worry about the shape this novel will have when finished! Consider that I haven’t yet finished the second part, and I see the third? But that the fourth and fifth are in limbo, and what a limbo! It’s really in the lap of the gods since it depends on what happens. And the gods could find it amusing to wait a hundred or even a thousand years, as the saying goes: and I’ll be far away. But the gods wouldn’t do that to me. I’m also counting a lot on the prophecy of Nostradamus.

1944—Oh God!

While waiting to see the shape… or rather I should say the rhythm: the rhythm in the cinematic sense… how the parts relate to each other. Storm, Dolce, gentleness and tragedy. Captivity? Something muffled, stifled, as vicious as possible. After that I don’t know.
Irène Némirovsky, Notes for Suite Française (1942; trans. Sandra Smith)


Unfinished fictions are messy. Literary foster-children, they almost always fall into executors’ hands under unhappy circumstances—whether that be the author’s sudden death, prolonged illness, or deliberate abandonment of unworkable material. Rarely has the author tidied up before the lights went out. That’s exactly what Max Brod, Franz Kafka’s fellow novelist and devoted friend, found when he took up the manuscript of The Castle after the author’s death in 1924. There were, as expected, orthographic idiosyncrasies and missing words. Punctuation was scarce. After beginning in the first-person, Kafka had switched to third-person narration and then systematically revised earlier chapters. Brod made, in turn, numerous minor amendments before publishing The Castle in 1926. Nonetheless, in an afterword to that first edition, he assured the reader that “Nothing, of course, has been altered. Only obvious slips have been corrected.”

Yet Brod had made alterations, significant ones, to the story. He admits as much, in fact, in the opening sentence of the afterword. In this version, the official narrative ceases as the protagonist, K., departs from his former love interest and former assistant, who, in the text’s last words, withdraw into their quarters: “a few whispers were audible, probably loving cajolements to get Jeremiah to bed, then the door was closed.” Here the afterword begins: “At this point, which indicates an important, probably a decisive defeat for the hero, Franz Kafka’s posthumous novel does not end, but goes on for a good stretch further.” That “stretch” includes several notable incidents that the editor then relates, reducing in the process the reader’s confidence that—as Brod hints in the first extract—we really possess sufficient guidelines to see where Kafka was going with this novel. Because the withheld chapters “are unfinished,” Brod continues, “I am reserving them for a supplementary volume”—the same practice he used with the unfinished chapters of The Trial.

Would—did—the author want others to read the manuscript in its current state?

In the event, Brod didn’t publish that volume but instead tinkered with the text in ensuing editions. The second (1935) added the sketchier chapters omitted from the first, along with an appendix consisting of passages that Kafka had crossed out. In the third edition (1946), Brod admitted that he had been guided by “feeling” in ordering the chapters, and in the fourth edition (1950), he conceded that the fifth chapter in his The Castle may have been the second in Kafka’s. Subsequent editors have sought to clean up Brod’s attempt to clean up Kafka’s manuscript.

In so many ways, The Castle is a case study in the messy ethical questions that unfinished fictions pose. Would—did—the author want others to read the manuscript in its current state? Kafka, for one, was quite clear in this regard, leaving among his papers two letters to Brod in which he charged his friend to destroy all unpublished manuscripts. But Brod couldn’t do it, valuing Kafka’s oeuvre too highly to commit his friend’s papers to the fire. More questions follow: What is “finished” enough to be published as the author’s intended text? How much freedom does the editor enjoy to correct perceived mistakes? How much progress does the author need to have made to warrant publication?

Brod tampered with Kafka’s literary remains, but other executors and editors have gone further with unfinished materials, including hiring another writer to complete the story based on the author’s notes—as Marion Mainwaring did in the 1994 edition of Edith Wharton’s The Buccanneers (1937). The Jane Austen Adaptation Industry has been busily at work, in multiple media, ending and re-ending Sanditon, the novel that Jane Austen was working on when she died in 1817. Earlier this year, the critic Nathan Dunne expressed his hope that AI could “tell me how the story ends.” Dunne’s impetus is Uncertain Times, a novel that Richard Yates left unfinished at his death in 1992 (the manuscript was discovered in Yates’s fridge), but he names Kafka’s unfinished Amerika among AI’s most desirable targets. KafkaGPT would furnish us with complete Castles on demand.

Yet all such attempts to cheat death obscure the vital truths that unfinished fictions convey. An unfinished fiction is a memento mori. An earlier age might hold up The Castle as a reminder of the fragility of life or the fruitlessness of human strivings. The novelist Robert Siegel has offered a different twist on these dynamics, arguing that while “the novel, like all art, reaches for immortality, but the unfinished novel is bound up with mortality and the limits of time.” Thus, unfinished novels force readers to “imagine the completion that is forever suspended,” and this situation changes our relation to the author. In the process of circling over the issues that an incomplete story raises, “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.” On this telling, unfinished fictions may expand the sphere of empathy to include both the characters in the story and their mortal maker without. Unfinished works bring their makers’ unfulfilled plans to the fore.

An unfinished fiction is a memento mori.

In recent history, perhaps no such plans have caused such a stir as Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, published in 2004, more than six decades after its frustrated composition. A novel of epic ambitions, Suite Française sought to chronicle World War II France—from the inside—beginning with the anticipated invasion of Paris in 1940 to the peace, whenever it came. As Némirovsky muses in the second extract, a notebook entry from 1942, she was truly “in the lap of the gods” because the novel’s trajectory depended on developments outside of her control—above all, the war’s outcome. She was attempting to write historical fiction as history was playing out. She would do Tolstoy (one of her favorite authors) one better: Her War and Peace was set in the present.

Yet Némirovsky did not live to see France’s liberation, completing only two of the novel’s projected five parts before her arrest by French police as a “stateless person of Jewish descent” in July of 1942 and death at Auschwitz a month later (the same fate her husband would suffer a few months after). Born in Kyiv—then under Russian rule—to a prosperous Jewish family, Némirovsky arrived in France in 1919 as a refugee of the Russian Revolution. Despite achieving national notoriety as an author, her application for French nationality had been denied in 1938. She and her husband converted to Roman Catholicism the next year, a move whose sincerity has long been debated but which, in the end, provided no political protection. Her notebook for the novel makes plain that she harbored no illusions about her precarious position. “My God!” the notebook begins, “what is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider the matter coldly, let us watch as it loses its honor and its life.”

To read Suite Française, then, is to read someone live-streaming World War II from occupied territory, albeit in prose that belies the necessary haste of its construction. Consider this sample from the novel’s first section, “Storm in June,” which recounts the mass flight from Paris in a few days in early June 1940 in anticipation of the German army’s arrival:

An air raid. All the lights were out, but beneath the clear, golden June sky, every house, every street was visible. As for the Seine, the river seemed to absorb even the faintest glimmers of light and reflect them back a hundred times brighter, like some multifaceted mirror. Badly blacked-out windows, glistening rooftops, the metal hinges of doors all shone in the water. There were a few red lights that stayed on longer than the others, no one knew why, and the Seine drew them in, capturing them and bouncing them playfully on the waves. From above, it could be seen flowing along, as white as a river of milk. It guided the enemy planes, some people thought. Others said that couldn’t be so. In truth, no one really knew anything.

The delicately elaborated series of images on view here—especially the play of light on the Seine—would dazzle under any circumstances. But once we acknowledge the actual conditions of this passage’s genesis, composed in anxious retreat in Issy l’Evêque, a small village in eastern France where an ancestor had lived, not only the passage but also the author’s gifts appear almost too marvelous to believe. These sentences weren’t workshopped; they weren’t discussed with an editor. This is what she wrote by hand, using a miniscule script designed to preserve precious paper. The passage, moreover, displays a way of looking at war unique to an author whose métier was not “war writing” but the novel of manners. That training makes her at once aware of the playful indifference of the Seine and the City of Light’s metamorphosis in the eyes of its inhabitants. For those on the ground, the city’s radiance now appears a liability.

Unfinished novels bring into view elements of the art of fiction—including a manuscript’s composition, revision, and physical transmission—that finished products normally put out of sight. They expose us to riddles to which an editor like Brod may never find a satisfactory answer. They tempt us to fill in gaps, to contrive endings, and now to build Dead Author bots. They give the manuscript story’s a significance nearly rivaling that of the interrupted story found in the text. And in this last regard, few survival stories can rival that of Suite Française. Scooped up by Némirovsky’s daughter Denise as a keepsake when she and her sister fled Issy l’Evêque after their parents’ deaths, the notebook traveled, unread, from hiding place to hiding place until the war’s end. The notebook languished: The sisters’ adult selves could not bear the pain of reading what they assumed to be their mother’s wartime diary. Only a decision to donate the manuscript to a war archive led Denise—magnifying glass in hand—to inspect the notebook’s contents, wherein she discovered not the agonized scribblings of a woman falling apart but an unfinished masterpiece and its maker’s altogether human dialogue with herself as the project took shape.