Word came earlier this week that a member of my writers’ group passed last Sunday night. Following a serious illness Allen was in an assisted-living place in the Boston area, so he’d missed several weeks’ worth of group meetings (which, coincidentally, take place on Sunday evening), but we assumed he would be back, sooner better than later, but later would do.
In the Sunday night group we’re all working on book-length works, history, memoir, or fiction. Each of us brings a chunk of the work-in-progress to each meeting, passes out copies, and reads it aloud (or has another member read it). Then we discuss it, mark up our hardcopies, and pass them back to the writer. Each week we hear a new installment of eight different works, history or memoir or novel.
Allen’s novel is set in and around Berlin in the early 1960s, a time of heightened Cold War tensions — the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. Its protagonist, Faust, is a young, idealistic army lieutenant newly arrived in Berlin and assigned as a press officer. His father is a small-town newspaper editor in the U.S. Midwest, but high-stakes Cold War journalism looks little like journalism back home. Gradually Faust learns the ropes, dealing with, among others, his superiors, a taciturn noncom who knows much more than he does, a CIA operative, and the international press corps. He falls in love with the civilian employee assigned to tutor him in German — she turns out to be a high-level spy for the USSR.
To say that we were caught up in the story is an understatement. Faust’s growth from naïve idealism into sober experience and the beginning of wisdom is well handled, and the setting, the evocation of the times — well, we kept wondering out loud how Allen knew so much, but Allen would smile enigmatically and a little self-deprecatingly and we would move on. As writers we all know better than to press too hard. (Faust’s war-correspondent friends would have pressed harder.)
And now — we know from the history books how the political crisis was resolved, but what became of Faust? How did he assimilate all he was learning and reconcile its myriad contradictions? Did he remain in the military, become a war correspondent himself, or perhaps return home to become a newspaper publisher like, and in some ways very unlike, his father? We’ll never know.
So I’m thinking of all the novels out there left unfinished, or finished and unpublished, by the death of their authors.
A writer friend of mine died suddenly last December. Don and I never met in person, but we’d been corresponding online for 17 or 18 years. When I was close to done with The Mud of the Place, we swapped manuscripts. His Summer Blues was based on his experiences as a gay man in the military stationed in Germany in the late 1960s, a politically turbulent time in both Europe and the U.S. It was quite wonderful. He submitted it to a couple of independent presses specializing in gay lit, got no takers, and set it aside.
My first thought after learning of Don’s death was for Summer Blues. The publishing world has changed considerably since the early years of the last decade. Would he have wanted it published? I suspected that yes, he would have, or at least he’d have been OK with the idea, but pretty soon reality reasserted itself. Transforming a manuscript into a book is hard enough, and costly in both time and money, but publishing also involves getting the book into the hands of readers. That means distribution and marketing.
I have been thinking the same thing about Allen’s novel. It’s not quite finished, but it’s publishable, and perhaps Allen had either reworked the problematic ending or left notes about what he was thinking?
But with Allen’s novel, as with Don’s, I looked myself in the eye and realized that I have the time and money and commitment for my own work (I hope), but not for anyone else’s.
Long time ago, 20 or 25 years ago, I worked with Virginia, a local writer, on her novel, which was based on her own life, growing up in Mississippi in the 1920s, living in New York in the 1940s, eventually moving to Martha’s Vineyard, losing a daughter to suicide. It’s beautifully written, moving, honest. This writer too made a couple of attempts to find an agent then gave up.
Not long after she died, I was telling another writer about this wonderful novel I had on my hard drive that no one but close friends and family members even knew about. My friend shook her head sagely. “We all have one of those,” she said.
It seemed callous at first, even dismissive, but then I got it. Counting only the completed or nearly completed publishable manuscripts I’ve read, I’ve now got several, in head or heart or hard drive. For each one, we, the lucky few who’ve read them, form a sort of secret society: we’re privy to something special that no one else knows about.
For a few moments I’m overwhelmed with sadness at the loss.
Then Mother Jones’s famous words surface in my head: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”