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Resuscitating The Zombies

Great novels we almost never knew

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

‘Publishable, but worth it?’ Such was the thought that E.M. Forster wanly noted on the manuscript of Maurice long after he had first drafted the novel in 1913–14. Laws and public opinion had changed in the interim, and others had gone on to treat the sensitive issues of homosexuality more candidly than he had. Forster put his heart passionately into Maurice, but time caught up with it, deflating its urgency and importance. And was it much good anyway?

Almost every professional writer must identify with some aspect of this story — and of course, Maurice was published shortly after Forster died, to be greeted with faint disdain. We all have pieces of work that somehow haven’t made the grade or the gold standard, projects that have at some point been rejected or abandoned but which we can’t face killing off in the shredder or the fireplace. (Parental guilt, like Laius unable to kill his cursed son Oedipus outright?) Ageing slowly and biding their time in hibernation, these orphans wait for some sort of rejuvenating oxygen that could sustain them in the hard cold air of the big wide world. Meanwhile they are our living dead, our zombies.

I keep mine in a box file on the top shelf and a folder on my computer labelled with a naked question mark. Sometimes, in gloomy or reflective mood, I will pull something out or up and contemplate its imperfection. It seems to stare back at me mournfully, but makes no demands. I might scribble a minor alteration, I might even admire the odd turn of phrase. But then I let it rest.

Some of my corpses are short stories, just not up to much. Ideas I had for books on the Victorian theatre and the First World War fester in piles of aborted notes. There’s also a complete study of Great Expectations, written for a series of student guides but deemed by the publisher too fancypants for the intended market: even though I put it up online, I still feel it’s never seen the light of day. Most painful of all is my sole attempt at a novel, in which I lost confidence after 30,000 words: researching and writing it consumed a year of my writing life, but the encouraging responses to the first chapters just weren’t enough to keep my motivation at the necessary pitch. Anyway, there’s enough mediocre fiction knocking about, isn’t there?

Zombies can be simply work that has never been finished or put through the final sifting of quality control. Ernest Hemingway and J.R.R. Tolkien are examples of writers who left a mass of such stuff that has since been processed and published without adding much to their reputations. Harper Lee and the long-hidden sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird comes to mind, too. We now wait to see whether J.D. Salinger’s posthumously opened trove of novels and stories, confessedly written only for his ‘own pleasure’, can match up to the brilliance of The Catcher in the Rye.

Other zombies have been cast aside in despair or embarrassment. One can only be touched, for instance, by John Milton’s candid confession that he had bitten off more than he could chew, which he appended as a note to his youthful attempt at an ode on the crucifixion: ‘this subject the author finding to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished.’ (Arch-egoist that he was, he did, however, allow ‘The Passion’ to be published, so perhaps it does not strictly qualify for this category.)

More interesting are the texts that are held back and worried over. Samuel Taylor Coleridge started writing ‘Christabel’ in 1797 and stopped working on it three years later, paralysed by the multiplicity of possible endings. But he continued to gnaw at the problem like a dog with a bone until 1816, when he in effect gave up, attaching a perfunctory and peremptory conclusion and handing the torso over to John Murray.

At exactly the same time, Jane Austen was obliged to consign an attempt at a full-scale novel to the back drawer. Rejected ‘by return’ when her father approached a London publisher in 1797, First Impressions appears to have languished for eight years or so among the undead. At some point, however, Austen took a deep breath and began revising and recasting the text. It became Pride and Prejudice, which was finally published in 1813. How piquantly ironic it is that prose she herself deemed ‘light, and bright, and sparkling’ should have been the result of such a long plod.

First Impressions did not survive to colour our enjoyment of its final form, and perhaps that is no bad thing: the modern obsession with charting the minute archaeology of literary masterpieces through back-drawer evidence isn’t altogether healthy. Take the case of Elizabeth Bishop. Robert Lowell was fascinated by her meticulous craft, rhetorically asking her in his book History if:

you still hang your words in air, ten years
unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps
or empties for the unimaginable phrase—
unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?

So the operative expression here is not so much a back drawer as a back burner. The flame remained low as each flavour was added to the verbal casserole: she would have had an aversion to mark anything ‘good to go’ that was stained by a botched detail or a misplaced stress. So we may well wonder how she would feel about the way that her literary executors permitted all her sketches (sixteen distinct versions of her villanelle ‘One Art’ alone!) to be committed to print a quarter of a century after her death.

Although the resulting Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box is in many respects a marvellous collection, the sight of so many poems paraded in their foetal form is uncomfortable if not embarrassing. But then literary scholars recognize no code of privacy: pleading a divine right to unpeel the palimpsest of creation, they have long considered back drawers open to plunder. I can only say that many of my zombies are preserved for my own purposes alone; I don’t consider them fit for others’ eyes and would be mortified to think of anyone else removing their protective film and exposing them to public scrutiny. Authors instruct their executors to burn manuscripts only when death has removed all hope of their being amended.

All art forms have their equivalents of these syndromes. Michelangelo must have considered his ‘Prisoner’ sculptures, now romantically esteemed among his greatest achievements, to be zombies: he had unfinished business with their recalcitrant marble, and left them gathering dust in his studio for sixty years after Pope Julius II aborted plans for the tomb for which they were commissioned.

In opera, zombies were regularly used to patch gaps and provide extensions. Composers such as Handel and Rossini had regular recourse to their failures and obscurities when a new score required some extra material, shamelessly betraying their own original intentions by parachuting arias from comedies into tragedies or vice versa. In an age before recording, how many people even noticed, let alone objected?

But it is in the film industry that the zombies lie in vastest hecatombs. For every one screenplay that makes on to celluloid, a hundred gather dust. My friend William Nicholson, a distinguished screenwriter, tells me that he has fifteen completed scripts that have never been made into films. Six of those, he objectively reckons, are ‘among my best work’, but never made it to life because their commissioning producers at the studios moved on, thereby halting the impetus to gather a director, cast and budget en route to a green light. (The studio acquires the script outright, and in the spirit of a dog in a manger, makes any subsequent buyout prohibitively expensive, even if it has no interest in promoting it.)

‘Of course it hurts at the time, but you can’t afford to mope about what might have been,’ Nicholson explains. ‘It’s like falling in love: you give your all to each new work, but every time you run the very real risk of being dumped.’ All is not always lost: recently Nicholson happily managed to resuscitate a non-studio script he first wrote twenty-seven years ago and found it new sponsors — an encouraging reminder that zombies can sometimes turn out to be Sleeping Beauties.

Rupert Christiansen is the opera critic for the Daily Telegraph and the author of Romantic Affinities and Paris Babylon.

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