The wheels of publishing grind slowly by 21st century standards. Once a manuscript is completed—no rapid thing itself—it can take months or even years for it to be accepted, edited, scheduled, printed, and distributed. This is frustrating when you’re waiting for a new book from a favorite author (or you’re a bookseller explaining to an HBO subscriber that George R. R. Martin hasn’t yet dotted all his “i”s or crossed all his “t”s).
There is an upside to the glacial pace of publishing, however. When the sad news comes that a writer has died, his presence may live on a bit longer in literary form. I’m talking about something a little different than simple posthumous publication, as with the recent appearance of Nabokov’s last (and first) major work, the verse play The Tragedy of Mister Morn. That’s when desks are cleared, trunks are emptied, and pockets are turned inside out in an effort to discover an old piece that can be dusted off and presented as new. There’s nothing wrong with doing this, and it’s a valuable service performed for book lovers—who would want to live in a world without Kafka? But it’s a different feeling with the last story someone tells. The letter is signed, the envelope is stamped and sent, but the writer is gone before it can be received. Intentionally or not, the book becomes a final statement.
Sometimes the idea of finality inspires and imbues that statement, as is the case with Maurice Sendak’s My Brother’s Book. It’s a poetic distillation of his entire career and a meditation on mortality and mourning, with his explicit muse being the beloved brother who predeceased him. The implicit subject is Sendak’s fifty-year relationship, which ended in 2007 with the death of his companion, Dr. Eugene Glynn. My Brother’s Book is a wondrous thing, evoking the likes of Blake, Milton, and Shakespeare. As you can imagine, it’s not a book for children except in the sense that its ideal audience is those children who long ago sailed to unknown shores with Max and grew up In The Night Kitchen.
And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Russell Hoban, creator of the equally unforgettable Frances and Riddley Walker, left Rosie’s Magic Horse as his ultimate legacy. It doesn’t aspire to any cosmic significance—it’s just a charming picture book (illustrated by Quentin Blake) about some popsicle sticks with a dream and a girl who needs a little help. It’s linguistically inventive and full of imagination and feelings of possibility, but more than anything else, it’s fun. It may be that lack of pretension that makes it such a touching read for me. It doesn’t feel like a farewell, just part of a life’s work in language that didn’t have to end when it did.
Speaking of which… I was pondering on the proper, elegiac way to wrap this up when the news came that Scottish author Iain Banks, age 59, is (in his words) “officially very poorly.” He has terminal cancer and expects to measure out his remaining time in months. The publication schedule for what he acknowledges will be his last novel, The Quarry, has been accelerated in the hope that it will come out before he leaves the stage. In the meanwhile, he’s canceled all his public engagements and is honeymooning with his partner, having asked her to “do me the honor of becoming my widow.” Sometimes your ending chooses you.