Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Unfinished but not imperfect. Not by a long shot.

Go figure. For the life of me, I have not so far been able to understand why unfinished novels fascinate me. Could it be because they were works-in-progress that got interrupted by the author’s death, thus doomed to never get finished? Or, is it because, in Italo Calvino’s words, “A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.”? http://bit.ly/16NkyvQ
Here are the three unfinished works-in-progress that enthralled me, listed here in the order of their appearance in my life as a reader:  Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers; Kurt Vonnegut’s If God Were Alive Today; and, last though by no means the least, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. Curiously, all three were by writers who were besieged by alcoholism and/or substance abuse and all three are about celebrity and, in varying degrees, celebrity-bashing.
A distinguishing characteristic of Capote’s book (he called it his “posthumous novel” on the Dick Cavell show in May 1971, thirteen years prior to his death), peopled by Unspoiled (and Spoiled) Monsters, is a cavalcade of NHRN characters flitting across its terrain. NHRN ( = Not His/Her Real Name) because in Answered Prayers, Capote put into practice his belief expressed in his Playboy December 1976 interview, viz., “All literature is gossip.” He bravely – almost stoically – endured the wrath of − and ostracization by − his high-society friends for letting the skeletons tumble out of their celebrity closets by the advanced publication of excerpts from his work-in-progress. I was bemused by his trashing of celebrity and enjoyed the writing that no doubt is simply dishy. I have a feeling that being outrageous in all he did and said had by the end of his life become his chief oeuvre. This is what Capote said about himself: “I don’t know anybody who gets as much publicity as I do for doing nothing.” And, this is how he dismissed Jack Kerouac’s On The Road: “It is not writing. It is only typing.” Dorothy Parker agreed with his pronouncement. James Michener who by his own admission knew Capote “tangentially” wrote that he knew “four of the people T.C. lacerates” in Answered Prayers – which he thought was “[a] proctologist’s view of American society” but nonetheless capable of becoming “the roman à clef of my decade” – in the Proustian vein – if only Capote managed to complete it.

In If God Were Alive Today, Vonnegut too is engaged in a similar pursuit – celebrity mauling − although the characters don’t seem to be inspired by real people. The chief protagonist is a standup comic clearly off his rocker. He has been to the loony bin twice. Vonnegut’s take on politics and American values is often devastatingly cynical, occasionally hilarious and at times over-the-top bonkers especially because of Gil Berman’s overlong rants. Chances are, Vonnegut might have trimmed and polished the spiel had Death stayed its hand a little longer. In her interview in the Rumpus magazine http://bit.ly/1dKW3TV Vonnegut’s youngest daughter, Nanette, mentions her son’s opinion that Gil Berman would never have made it to the stage. It’s view worth keeping in mind as the said son is a practicing standup comic, no less. Well, well, well, summing up the world’s status in Vonnegut’s own words: “If God were alive today, he would have to be an atheist, because the excrement has hit the air-conditioning big time, big time.” http://bit.ly/15uXD9x

I read The Last Tycoon recently in its Penguin Modern Classic avatar. Fitzgerald’s close friend, Edmund Wilson, was the editor. He also wrote a brief introduction. In this incarnation, it includes the first six chapters followed by the author’s notes on the cast of characters and alternative plot development pathways. Publisher’s Weekly’s review of Matthew J Bruccoli’s critical edition of the novel  http://bit.ly/17swohl hints at it too being a roman à clef about Hollywood in the nineteen-thirties. The power struggle between MGM producer Irving Thalberg (Monroe Stahr, the chief protagonist) and MGM chief honcho Louis B Mayer (Pat Brady) presumably based on Fitzgerald’s personal observations of life in Hollywood during his sojourn there as a scriptwriter for MGM, Twentieth-Century Fox, United Artists and other studios from 1937 to 1940, was to form the core of the novel. The first six chapters in the Wilson-edited version in which the story seems to be about halfway developed barely suggests this, though. It is only when you go through the supplementary material that you begin to get a vague idea of what a rousingly powerful story it could have been had the author been able to complete it. Even in its truncated form, it is quite an absorbing read. Fitzgerald’s notes give the reader an opportunity to observe at close quarters how a master storyteller shapes his material and steers his narrative. In a review of The Last Tycoon (New York Times, 9 November 1941) http://nyti.ms/18y5lWl J Donald Adams, apparently a regular contributor, expressed his view that Fitzgerald was particularly suited to write about Hollywood “inside out” because he was a “romantic realist”. By this phrase, he implied that Fitzgerald possessed in abundance “a lively sense of the fantastic” combined with “intuitive perceptions”, in addition to an insider’s knowledge of how the system worked owing to a fairly long stay there. He also cites this observation of Peter Monro Jack, Professor and Chair of Rhetoric, University of Michigan (1927-1930): "Had his extraordinary gifts met with an early astringent criticism and a decisive set of values, he might very well have been the Proust of his generation instead of the desperate sort of Punch that he is." That, indeed, is high praise.