Getting The Last Word

Roger Grenier contemplates how writers approach death:

With certain authors, including some of the very greatest, we cannot speak of a last work. With them an entire640px-Marcel_Proust_(Père_Lachaise) life’s work is constantly put back on the loom, and so is condemned to remain unfinished. Friedrich Nietzsche, Marcel Proust, Robert Musil are in this category. Nietzsche wavers between the desire to construct and a totally free form. Only death stopped Proust from pasting strips of paper onto his manuscripts and his page proofs. With Musil, we never stop digging away at the mass of unpublished pages that supplement The Man Without Qualities. Critics attribute his inability to finish to masochism. But is having more and more to say, trying to reach perfection, really masochistic?

Saint Bonaventure, the Franciscan philosopher nicknamed the Seraphic Doctor, supposedly had the unique privilege of continuing his memoirs after his death. François-René de Chateaubriand, the first great French Romantic, was jealous: “I don’t hope for such a privilege, but I would like to resuscitate at the ghostly hour—at least to correct my page proofs.”

This chimerical wish was provoked by Chateaubriand’s worries about his Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb. More than once, this monument, which he intended to be posthumous, was in danger of becoming antehumous, due to the financial problems that always plagued the viscount. He gave some readings from the Memoirs in February and March 1834, and accounts of those readings were published. One can find fragments of the memoirs in his 1836 “Essay on English Literature.” Yet he complained, “I prefer to speak from the bottom of my grave.” In 1836, he sold the Memoirs to a company that promised to publish nothing until after his death. The affair took a worrisome turn in October 1844. The company sold rights to Emile de Girardin to publish excerpts from the Memoirs in his newspaper, La Presse. An unhappy Chateaubriand later wrote about seeing his Memoirs reduced “to bits and pieces”: “No one can form an idea of what I have suffered in being compelled to mortgage my grave.”

(The grave of Marcel Proust, via Wikimedia Commons)