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Book Digest: June 11, 2007

Posthumous paper trails: Truman Capote's Summer Crossing; J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Húrin; Ernest Hemingway's Under Kilimanjaro; Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise

Southern lit-fictionist Larry Brown’s The Miracle of Catfish: A Novel in Progress, which came out a few weeks ago, is only the latest of a recent spate of unfinished manuscripts making it into print after the author’s death. Every writer leaves a paper trail at death; many name literary executors in their wills to take care of it; others, expecting the Eternal Footman at the door at any moment, merely apply fire. There is always the fear that bringing out lesser works could dilute a writer’s reputation for genius, perhaps by revealing too much of the man behind the curtain. On the other hand, these works could be cherished by fans, who lovingly collect every iota of prose emitted from a beloved author’s pen. Then there’s also the proven point that death sells as well as sex, so these unpolished nuggets must sure be tempting for publishers. So it was with perhaps morbid curiosity that I sat down with four recent releases from well-known authors who have been dead for years. As I found out, they proved to be, by turns, leaden lumps, occasionally gold, and something in between.

Summer Crossing by Truman Capote
This novella is thin on both page count and substance—call it a literary snack—but it is a perfectly presentable sort of divertissement you would expect from early Capote: the wealthy girl and the poor boy, summer heat, lust, impulse, a fabulous gay friend, absent parents, and a simultaneously revered and reviled class system that both brings them together and brings them down. The tale is snarky and sordid, something young Truman might have overheard at a cocktail party and felt compelled to embellish for his own amusement. The handwritten manuscript was found after Capote’s 1984 death in the basement of a house in Brooklyn that he’d moved out of in 1950. A version of it was published as a magazine serial during Capote’s lifetime, but this is the first time the entire novel has seen daylight. It’s a nice beach read for an English major.

» Read an excerpt from Summer Crossing

The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien
Modern pop culture has several alternate realities with frequent, adoring visitors: Hogwart’s, Narnia, the Starship Enterprise, the forest moon of Endor, Middle-Earth. I’m familiar enough with fantasy lit to know my Orcs from my Ents, but I’m not a citizen of the Tolkien nation. The Children of Húrin, which came out earlier this year, recounts a legend that is ancient history by the time it is referred to in the other books, and parts of it appeared in the well-loved Simarillion, a companion/background guide to Middle-Earth published in the ‘80s, composed of various scraps Tolkien left behind after his death. Mostly, I found it rather like reading the Creation myth of a foreign culture: There are too many weird names to remember, and a lot of preciously heroic diction (“And suddenly a black wrath shook him; for his eyes were opened, and the spell of Glaurung loosed its last threads, and he knew the lies with which he had been cheated.”); you also need a map to keep the geography straight (conveniently supplied). The story—despite a winding plot loaded with death, curses, battles, friendship, mistaken identity, and incest—seems flat and contrived, and the characters—a cursed father, a noble mother, a loyal sister and friends, and an irritable young protagonist prone to changing his name after every major event in his life—are unappealing. I imagine hardcore fans will appreciate the way it fills in the context of other beloved stories, but if the movies had bombed, I don’t think this would ever have been released.

Under Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway wrote this reminiscence of a 1953 safari to answer the question of whether a day-to-day account of real life could be as compelling as a novel. This one, at least, is not. It’s not terrible, but you could tear out the first 130 pages without losing anything (fear not, that would still leave you with 315 more). Once it gets going, it’s mildly interesting—going hunting with Papa in Africa is never going to be a total snore—but for the most part it fails the first test of Memoir 101: Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it remarkable. Also, some of it seems made up, so perhaps he answered his own question. Hemingway once complained that he never received enough credit for his humor, but his idea of a joke isn’t all that funny: he spends entirely too much time constructing a fake religion based on dime-store Indian mythology and trying repeatedly to convince credulous Kenyan tribesmen that he is a prophet—which struck me as amusing the first time, tiresome the second, and mean the third, fourth, and fifth. He finished the book five years before his death, but never attempted to publish or even edit it, instead leaving the manuscript in a safe for his family to sell after his death; it was released with almost no fanfare in 2005. I think he knew that it would be worth more after he died, that there was far more value in the name on the book jacket than there in the pages it contained. He was right.

» Read an excerpt from Under Kilimanjaro

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
This masterful, beautiful scrap of a book, which came out with no small praise last year, is by far the best (and least finished) of this group. Set during the beginning of World War II, it follows several groups of characters—some comic, some heroic, some tragic—through the evacuation of Paris and the beginning of the German occupation, including the first stirrings of the collaborators and the resistance. Nemirovsky must have been writing the novel almost simultaneously with these events: She was murdered in Auschwitz in August of 1942. It’s difficult to believe that this was a handwritten first draft, especially given the complexity of the intertwining stories. If I had to nitpick, I suspect two of the characters in the first section would have eventually been merged in the final draft, and at one point a character briefly appears in a scene when he’s supposed to be somewhere else. But honestly, it’s so good I didn’t care. I was surprised and most impressed by how sympathetically she treated her Nazi characters, imbuing them with the depth and humanity they quite fatally denied to her. Suite Francaise was intended to be a cycle of five interconnected novellas with recurring characters traveling through each; Nemirovsky was only able to complete two. Had she been able to finish, it may have been the best book of the war in France, but even unfinished, it is very much worth reading.

» Read an excerpt from Suite Francaise


TMN Editor Liz Entman has lived in St. Louis, New York, and Nashville. She sweats the small stuff, like hyphens and commas, and has a day job, but won’t bore you with the details. More by Liz Entman

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