Abandoning a Good (Great) Book?

I dislike novels of the Dickensian type that insist on neat resolutions, tucking away every story line. Endings are troublesome; they suggest the possibility of a conclusiveness that simply does not exist. They are a problem of narrative of which I am always wary, and often they disappoint. On the other hand, a deft writer knows of the importance of a release, of the sort felt when you get the point of a joke.

In one of the lighter essays (not that Parks indulges in extreme literary criticism) in Where I’m Reading From, Parks writes about disappointing endings:

[…] even in these novels where plot is the central pleasure on offer the end rarely gratifies, and if we like the book and recommend it to others, it is rarely for the end. What matters is the conundrum of the plot, the forces put into play and the tensions between them. The Italians have a nice word here. They call plot trama, a word whose primary meaning is weft, woof or weave. It is the pattern of the weave that we most savour in a plot …

Earlier Parks mentions Kafka’s novels. I’m perfectly satisfied that The Castle, for instance, is unfinished, rather than the less satisfactory attempt to wrap up the ending of The Trial. I wish more writers would just trail off, stop fifty pages earlier.

Parks goes on to say:

To put a novel down before the end, then, is simply to acknowledge that for me its shape, its aesthetic quality, is in the weave of the plot and, with the best novels, in the meshing of the writing style with that weave. Style and plot, overall vision and local detail, fascinate together, in a perfect tangle. Once the structure has been set up and the narrative ball is rolling, the need for an end is just an unfortunate burden, an embarrassment, a deplorable closure of so much possibility.

Now this argument is a step further. To abandon a bad book in the first twenty pages is easy, a release, but to be able to put aside an aesthetically pleasing novel, one that has enchanted thus far? Although most endings disappoint, putting a good novel down before its send seems to forestall the possibility, dim though it might be, of a thrilling surprise. You might miss Nabokov’s outrageous ending to Bend Sinister when his narrator intervenes personally to save his protagonist from the “logical fate” that Nabokov has set up. Is this a provocation too far? Ever abandoned a novel just to avoid a disappointing ending?

6 thoughts on “Abandoning a Good (Great) Book?

  1. It seems a rather extreme reaction. I’ve certainly lingered in my reading, delaying the inevitable end of a particularly enjoyable novel, but I can’t say I’ve abandoned one to avoid the ending. And I agree that Kafka had the right idea. I think he was merely being honest to himself in his writing by not bringing his three unfinished novels to a close. It makes me wonder how many other truly great unfinished novels will never see the light of day.

    • I ration sentences, paragraphs and pages with novels I am particularly enjoying, but cannot imagine abandoning something good without a nagging sense of missing something, even if I expect endings to disappoint. Musil’s ‘The Man Without Qualities’ is no less brilliant for being unfinished, and I suspect Sebald’s ‘Austerlitz’ would have benefited by being abandoned with fifty pages to go.

  2. I’m always amazed how good you are to find an interesting subject (such as an ending of a novel like this post!) and I cannot help joining the discussion by adding a comment. Indeed, it’s often a matter of great concern to me how a novel begins and how it ends. As you suggest, Dickens’ way of finishing a novel is sometimes mediocre and fairly boring ( Dickens loved happy endings as many readers in those days wished, like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Bleak House etc.) However, as for Great Expectations, Dickens rewrote an original ending (perhaps you know this anecdote, don’t you?) as Edward Bulwer-Lytton recommended and made the second ending more ambiguous as to whether a heroine (Estella) and a hero (Pip) would marry. I think Dickens created a void by making it less clear and our imagination has been excited whether Dickens intended it or not. Thanks for an inspiring post! Your post always renews my (almost forgotten) interest in literature.

    • Thank you, Kazuko, for giving me that anecdote, which I haven’t heard before. Perhaps this is why Great Expectations continues to be my favourite Dickens. Thank you also for the kind words.

  3. it is so true that at times end is not the most gratifying thing in a novel u read and i found this out while reading Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. It was a fabulous novel to read but still the one I never cared reading to the end. On the other hand Francoise Sagan’s A Certain Smile is my favorite not only for the beauty of its narrative but also for its beautiful ending.

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