Stieg Larsson is one of the hottest writers around right now. In 2008, various book-trade magazines, such as Publisher’s Weekly and the Bookseller, declared him the second-most-popular bookseller globally. His most recent work, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, became the best-selling book of 2010 (to date) in the United States just a couple of weeks after its release. Unfortunately, Larsson never had the chance to enjoy his success; he died in 2004, shortly before any of his completed manuscripts were published.
What to do with an author’s unfinished work after death is a controversial and messy issue within the literary world. Larsson’s case was a rarity: his manuscripts were finished and he wanted to share them. Many famous writers’ last words have been published posthumously, whether that was their desire or not. The outcome can be positive, but in other instances, some things are better left unfinished.
1. The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western, F. Scott Fitzgerald
A few months before his death at age forty-four, Fitzgerald started a novel about a movie producer trying to survive in Hollywood. Edmund Wilson, a literary critic and friend of the writer, put together his unfinished work and published it in 1941. Fitzgerald’s previous book, Tender Is the Night, was a disappointing follow-up to the classic The Great Gatsby, so it seems like even more of a shame that he was never able to properly introduce this novel to the world. The New York Times’s J. Donald Adams wrote in 1941 that it “would have been Fitzgerald’s best novel and a very fine one.”
2. Sleeping Murder, Agatha Christie
After writing the final installment of her Miss Marple detective series, Christie put it in a bank vault for thirty years. When her health deteriorated in the early 1970s, she gave her publishers permission to release it in 1976; she died in January of that year. Fans got to find out what happened to Miss Marple, and the book itself received decent reviews. Even after her death, only Shakespeare and the Bible outsell her impressive collection of published works.
3. The Trial, Franz Kafka
Before the end of his battle with tuberculosis in 1924, Kafka told his literary executor, Max Brod, to burn everything he’d ever written. Thank goodness Brod ignored his wishes, because though Kafka was largely unsuccessful in his time, he became one of the most famous and influential authors in all the literary world after his death. The Trial, a story about a man’s fight against the bureaucracy of law, is one of his most well-known works. Orson Welles developed it into a movie in 1963.
4. True at First Light, Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway’s memoirs describe a trip to East Africa in the 1950s. Patrick, his son, released it in 1999 after editing it down from two hundred thousand words to one hundred thousand. Not surprisingly, critics felt the story lacked many elements, particularly Hemingway’s magic with words. He abandoned it because he had trouble remembering the actual events, so Patrick added fictional details to fill in the blanks—a highly controversial move. Far more successful was A Moveable Feast, released a few years after Hemingway’s 1961 death; his chronicles of his life as a struggling writer in Paris are heartfelt and inspiring.
5. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
Publishers rejected this novel when Toole shopped it around. It wasn’t until eleven years after his death that the book became the hallmark of Southern literature, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. (His mom, Thelma, and fellow writer Walker Percy worked to get it published.) Now the famous story of Ignatius J. Reilly and his misadventures in New Orleans is printed in eighteen languages all over the world.
6. Pirate Latitudes, Michael Crichton
The story goes that Crichton’s assistant stumbled upon two manuscripts, one finished and the other partially finished, on Crichton’s computer after his 2008 death. Pirate Latitudes (the finished one), a fictional novel about piracy in seventeenth-century Jamaica, was released in 2009; Steven Spielberg has already agreed to produce a movie version, according to the Washington Post.
7. The Original of Laura, Vladmir Nabokov
Nabokov’s physical and mental health deteriorated a great deal near the end of his life. Displeased with his incomplete novel, he insisted that his wife, Vera, and son, Dmitri, get rid of its evidence once he passed. But neither of them could bear to destroy the famous writer’s last words, so they placed all 138 index cards (Nabokov often used such cards in his writing) in a Swiss bank vault. In 2009, Dmitri published the notes and called it “a novel in fragments.” The main character, Philip, is obsessed with death and what follows afterward. Critics maligned Dmitri’s decision, saying Nabakov was clearly too ill to write as brilliantly as he once had.
8. The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
Anne Frank’s diary, an account of her time spent hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, is one of the most famous posthumously published books in the world. It relays everything that happened to her during those two years, from the cramped conditions of the attic to the confusion and throes of adolescence. After she died at a concentration camp in 1945, the diary was found and given to the only surviving member of the Frank family, Anne’s father. He published it in 1947, to immediate popularity and praise.
It’s rare that a writer’s work is finished upon his or her death; more often, there are incomplete manuscripts and dilemmas about what to do with them. People presume to know authors’ intentions—or ignore them altogether—and manipulate their last words. Whether those practices are morally right will always be a point of contention. But literature would surely be remiss without some of these last novels. Even the more cringe-worthy ones serve a greater purpose: they remind us just how extraordinary these writers were in their time. As for the ones who achieved notoriety after their time, well, that’s even more extraordinary.