Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Proms Extra, unfinished work, the vital placenta...

From left:Tim McInnerny, your correspondent, Shahidha Bari

A theme of this year’s BBC Proms has been 'Unfinished Work', which makes rich pickings for anyone interested in the discerning matter of artistic decision-making, branching histories and all the things that might have been had we but world enough and time. 

I had the great, great pleasure of participating in a BBC Radio 3 Proms Extra discussion last Friday at Imperial College Union, hosted by Shahidha Bari with consummate readings by Tim McInnerny. The whole was expertly boxed by producer Simon Richardson into a 20-minute extract broadcast at half-time in that evening’s Prom concert. You can listen here, between 24:14 and 44:26, if you're subscribed to BBC playback services, and if not then the procedure takes a mere moment.

What is the principal allure of the unfinished? In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder wrote feelingly of how ‘the last works of artists and their unfinished pictures’ can be ‘more admired than those which they finished, because in them are seen the preliminary drawings left visible and the artists’ actual thoughts, and in the midst of approval’s beguilement we feel regret that the artist’s hand while engaged in the work was removed by death.’

Writers may die too soon even today but, generally, later than they used to. There are other intriguing reasons (excuses?) for not finishing. Writers can be very tough judges of their own output, never truly satisfied. They may come to find in their hearts that they should never have started the work in the first place, because they didn’t really know how to finish it – didn’t know, in other words, what the book was really about. But in the cases of writers of distinction the incomplete manuscript offers a privileged look inside the workshop and the writer’s struggles to fashion the raw material: our imaginations are piqued by the great unknowable of where we might finally have been transported.

One or two things I might have added to the broadcast, world enough and time etc:

- Another aspect of Ralph Ellison’s labours over what we now call Three Days Before the Shooting... is that some part of his inspiration was the hugely charged ‘moment’ in American race relations circa 1955, Brown vs. Board of Education etc; but that 'moment' just kept moving on, and Ellison couldn’t be uninterested in the real-world real-time transformation of his nation. It did, though, prevent him perhaps from getting fully astride of his material. If you want to write about the times you’re living through, it can be a helpful idea to pick a fixed moment from the recent past – five to ten years ago, say? – and to stay there.

- A chat about Kafka and The Castle had to be sacrificed for time, and I doubt I said anything new, other than maybe that, on the subject of perfectionism, all writers could do with being as hard on themselves as Kafka was. (Of The Metamorphosis, one of the few works he proposed to spare incineration, the most Kafka would say was that he was ‘not unhappy with it.’)

- Of Scott Fitzgerald’s struggles in writing film scripts, which gave us no cinema of note but a half-dozen chapters, at least, of The Last Tycoon – I still get a smile from Joan Crawford’s famous attempt to encourage him during those fruitless months at MGM: ‘Write hard, Mr Fitzgerald, write hard!’ This is kindly, hopeless advice. Either the stuff wants to come out or it doesn’t – willed exertion levels have little or no purchase in the matter.

- Any discussion of Jane Austen’s Sanditon leads one to the thorny business of other writers, or scholars or editors or friends, trying to finish an uncompleted work by unauthorised proxy. This to me is so inherently flawed an enterprise as to seem fatal. The most gifted mind you might summon to such a task is only going to make educated guesses at forbiddingly hard-to-know intentions. Notes and diagrams of the sort that Fitzgerald left behind don’t begin to say how the job ought to be done. Only a literary talent as large as the one who left the scene could conjure the sorts of sparks that come from self-editing and rewriting. 

Marguerite Yourcenar, in her magisterial monograph on Yukio Mishima, puts it best in addressing the question of whether Mishima truly completed his Sea of Fertility on the morning of his suicide (per legend) or actually on his summer holidays a few months previous:

‘ ... to finish the last page of a novel does not necessarily mean that this book is done: a book can be considered finished only the day it is put in an envelope and sent to the publisher... it is finished the moment it definitively separates from the vital placenta where books are conceived...’

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