Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The end of a novel

Nigel Beale picks up on the question "Why do most endings of novels disappoint?" apparently asked by James Wood in How Fiction Works, his "first full-length book of criticism" (and also his first with an undistinguished title - it's not very long since John Mullan published How Novels Work). It's a good question. I never reach the final page of a novel without already having finished it. The final page is always superfluous.

I mitigate disappointment with selective forgetting. The endings of my favoured novels have barely any presence in memory compared to their beginnings. But I only read for beginnings anyway. How can there be an end to what only ever begins?

4 comments:

  1. Death, marriage, or inconclusiveness. Pretty miserable trio. No wonder you chose to forget :)

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  2. In your previous entry on Science Fiction you said: "The writers of fiction I champion tend to follow the logic of their inspiration, the implications it has for the work's form and content." This seems to answer the question of why many great novels have no endings. Ie; in certain fictions the subject is dealt with so thoroughly, both in content and form, that the ending is transparent by the time it arrives. The reader of such a book is hardly "disappointed", to see the book end; he feels accomplished! And wants to read it again. A good example would be Bernhard's EXTINCTION.(Though the suspense is enormous, and the narrative polished on the very last page, from my reading.) Or the ending is literally impossible, because the book is an endless interior spiral, or journey, like with THE CASTLE or THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES. This question apparently addressed by James Wood, and fretted over by Nigel Beale, seems, in this light, sophomoric.

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  3. Absolutely right, Lloyd. Or, alternately: Shame on you Lloyd; the great works, from Sophocles, through Shakespeare, through Tolstoy fade and crumble in the bright light that shines from the pen of Nigel. Maybe that's why he keeps it in his mouth, so it can illuminate the inside of his head and not blind us who gaze upon him in wonder.

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  4. I think there's a much wider question here, viz. why should we hope *not* to be disappointed by the end of a novel? What does this say about our own preconceptions about what the novel (and why only the novel?) should supply, and thereby what literature is? For example, I'd suggest that an omniscient narrator tends to incur greater obligations to close a narrative in a satisfying way, because clearly this is within his power, and not to do so would undermine his own authority - a strange experience for the reader. Conversely, first person narratives - particularly narratives of a more existential character - sometimes seem more convincing if they *fail* to close in a satisfying fashion, since this way they validate the partial knowledge and partial authority of their speakers. Ultimately, the end of a novel assumes the same obligations as every other conclusion - to justify why further narrative is impossible or unnecessary. To do this, it must uphold the fictional world and narrative voice that bring it into being. Because of this, I'd suggest that endings - more than any other part of the novel - have the fewest choices open to them, since the obligation to wrap things up constrains them to the credibility of an already familiar fictional voice. Of course, not all books follow such conventions in practice, but the endings tend to jarr when they don't.

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