Losing The Last Chapter, Ctd

A reader writes:

If you're going to use a title like that, you have to mention A Clockwork Orange, where the last chapter was quite literally lost in early American editions (and Stanley Kubrick's adaptation). In the original English novel, Alex finally tires of his violent hedonism and decides to settle down with a wife and family, but the American versions leave us to celebrate Alex's return to his darker self. Apparently the publishers thought American audiences would consider this more realistic.


I smiled when I saw that post. For the second time in as many years, I am reading the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey-Maturin series and just finished book 14, The Nutmeg of Consolation. At one point Maturin and his shipmate Martin are advising Martin's writer friend Paulton, who can't figure out how to end his opus:

"As for an end," said Martin, "are endings really so very important? Sterne did quite well without one; and often an unfinished picture is all the more interesting for the bare canvas. I remember Bourville's definition of a novel as a work in which life flows in abundance, swirling without a pause: or as you might say without an end, an organized end. And there is at least one Mozart quartet that stops without the slightest ceremony: most satisfying when you get used to it."

Stephen [Maturin] said, "there is another Frenchman whose name escapes me but who is even more to the point: La bétise c'est de vouloir conclure. The conventional ending, with virtue rewarded and loose ends tied up, is often sadly chilling; and its platitude and falsity tend to infect what has gone before, however excellent. Many books would be far better without their last chapter: or at least with no more than a brief, cool, unemotional statement of the outcome."

I think O'Brian was making a bit of a case for the home team; his own endings are gently abrupt, if that makes sense – rarely any great crescendo, just a steady pace and then, without any change in that pace, a final step. And it is most satisfying, when you get used to it: each book ends without giving the sense that anything has finished. The characters, you feel in your heart, are simply continuing their voyage without you for a while. When you pick up the next book it's like they never left; it's like you did. Magic.