Great Books From Beyond the Grave

1871 illustration of a Russian grave-digger by Viktor Vasnetsov [1848-1926] from the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, via WikiCommons

1871 illustration of a Russian grave-digger by Viktor Vasnetsov [1848-1926] from the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, via WikiCommons

The publication of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King last Friday, covered by the Dailies, has prompted a diverting piece on posthumous novels in the Telegraph. The list begins with Jane Austen, some of whose most famous novels - notably Northanger Abbey and Persuasion - were published posthumously, although the Telegraph list only cites the less famous Sanditon.

Our favourite posthumous novel on the list is John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. The story behind this book - a classic comic novel set in New Orleans - is steeped in legend. After many fruitless endeavours to have it published, its troubled author eventually committed suicide in 1969. Several years later, his mother showed the manuscript to the novelist Walker Percy, who helped get it published in 1980. It won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. More recently, the three novels in the best-selling Meillennium series by Stieg Larsson were published in the three years following the author’s death in 2004. There’s talk of a fourth instalment by Larsson’s surviving partner based on his notes, pending approval from the author’s estate.

There are other classic posthumous novels that didn’t make it onto the list. The Wheeler Centre is a great fan (inasmuch as an institution can be a fan) of The Leopard - although Tony Wilson struggled with it at school. WG Sebald’s Austerlitz was published to acclaim after the author’s untimely demise, but we can’t help but feel it’s inferior to earlier novels like The Emigrants and especially The Rings of Saturn. Roberto Bolano’s 2666 was published after the Chilean author succumbed to liver disease. There’s good reason to believe the obsessively private and perfectionist Vladimir Nabokov wouldn’t have been thrilled to have his unfinished The Original of Laura in the public domain, but published it was in 2009.

Perhaps the greatest of posthumous novelists (if there can be such a thing) is Franz Kafka. Kafka, who died early because of tuberculosis, famously instructed his friend Max Brod to burn everything he wrote. Brod, less talented than Kafka but a better judge of talent, ignored his friend’s instructions and published the first of Kafka’s three great but unfinished novels in 1925, a year after his death. The Trial, The Castle and Metamorphosis went on to change the course of literary history and maybe even history itself - we’re not usually given to such grandiose statements here at the Dailies, but this is Kafka we’re talking about, after all.

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