Sunday, May 9, 2021

the last book I ever read (Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion, excerpt seven)

from Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion:

The most chilling scene ever filmed must be, for a writer, that moment in The Shining when Shelley Duvall looks at the manuscript on which her husband has been working and sees, typed over and over again on each of the hundreds of pages, only the single line: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The manuscript for what became True at First Light was, as Hemingway left it, some 850 pages long. The manuscript as edited for publication is half that. This editing was done by Hemingway’s son Patrick, who has said that he limited his editing to condensing (which inevitably works to alter what the author may have intended, as anyone who has been condensed knows), changing only some of the place names, which may or may not have seemed a logical response to the work of the man who wrote, “There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.”

This question of what should be done with what a writer leaves unfinished goes back to, and is conventionally answered by, citing works we might have lost had the dying wishes of their authors been honored. Virgil’s Aeneid is mentioned. Franz Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle are mentioned. In 1951, clearly shadowed by mortality, Hemingway judged that certain parts of a long four-part novel on which he had been working for a number of years were sufficiently “finished” to be published after his death, and specified his terms, which did not include the intrusion of any editorial hand and specifically excluded the publication of the unfinished first section. “The last two parts needs no cutting at all,” he wrote to Charles Scribner in 1951. “The third part needs quite a lot but it is very careful scalpel work and would need no cutting if I were dead …. The reason that I wrote you that you could always publish the last three parts separately is because I know you can in case through accidental death or any sort of death I should not be able to get the first part in proper shape to publish.”

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