Thursday, November 29, 2012

On Bad Endings

Posted by  - The New Yorker

Many of the world’s best novels have bad endings. I don’t mean that they end sadly, or on a back-to-work, all-is-forgiven note (e.g. “War and Peace,” “The Red and the Black,” “A Suitable Boy”), but that the ending is actually inartistic—a betrayal of what came before. 
This is true not just of good novels but also of books on which the reputation of Western fiction rests. The first half of “David Copperfield” leaves you gasping. You laugh, you cry, you think you’re going to faint. The scene where David, having been rescued by his Aunt Betsey and fed, given a bath, and put to bed, looks out the window at the moonlight on the Channel, imagining that he might see his dead mother there, with her baby in her arms (she died in childbirth): after I have forgotten most of the events of my life, I will remember that. But in the last chapters of the novel, the now-adult David marries a wise woman and succeeds in life, and from then on you die of boredom. Ditto “Wuthering Heights.” After the scalding passion of Catherine and Heathcliff, who cares about the amorous back-and-forths of their uninteresting children? Yet this occupies half of the book.

Willa Cather’s “Song of the Lark” is a similar case. The novel shows us how Thea, a girl from a dusty little town in Colorado, becomes a great a Wagnerian soprano at the Metropolitan Opera. Cather, like Dickens, felt that her young person’s apotheosis was a wonderful thing and needed describing. It didn’t. All the characters do in the final chapters is talk, talk, talk. Even when Thea accepts a proposal of marriage from a man who adores her, the transaction is clipped and dry. Cather eventually saw the problem, and when, more than twenty years after the book was published, she revised it, hacking off a lot of material, she included a preface explaining what she had done. “The chief fault of the book,” she writes, “is that it describes a descending curve; the life of a successful artist in the full tide of achievement is not so interesting as the life of a talented young girl ‘fighting her way,’ as we say. Success is never so interesting as struggle—not even to the successful.” She did not add that this was true of her life as well—that in the early period there was a great love and a great struggle, and in the later years, when she was famous, there was a correcting of galleys and punctual mealtimes. She repeatedly quoted the famous words of Jules Michelet: “Le but n’est rien. Le chemin, c’est tout.” (“Achieving a goal is nothing. The getting there is everything.”)

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