Unresolvable cliffhangers: Writings not completed by their adored authors

Writer Andy Rooney once uttered a famous truth: “Writers don’t retire. Writers never stop writing.” With active imaginations and wells of creativity, most authors find themselves bound to their craft until their dying days. As such, many are in the process of completing works when they pass away. What happens to these unfinished works from great writers? Whether due to death, writer’s block, or other impairments, these handful of well-known novelists were never able to complete their creations—at least, not on their own. These are a few books that weren’t completed by their original authors. Do you think they would approve of how their narratives were handled?


‘The Trial’ (1925)//Franz Kafka

Often referred to as a father of postmodernism, Austro-Hungarian author Franz Kafka left a massive imprint on literary history. However, during his lifetime, Kafka didn’t write for an audience. If he knew how frequently his work has been reprinted, he would probably go a little nuts. He kept the majority of his stories hidden away, producing most of his creative material for his eyes alone. Despite his talent, he wasn’t interested in becoming the next big name in writing. Kafka didn’t have to write to any deadlines or editorial expectations, so many of his best projects became unfinished masterpieces and abandoned drafts. Those works hung in the balance following his death in 1924. 

Like many of the brooding, self-doubtful authors of the earlier literary eras, Kafka demanded that all of his work be posthumously destroyed by fire. Fortunately, his best pal, Max Brod, knew that destroying work as enthralling as Kafka’s would be a major mistake. Instead of burning Kafka’s creations, Brod did the best he could to pull together some of his stories and novels into publishable manuscripts. He was also tasked with rounding out some of Kafka’s unfinished novels, including The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and Amerika (1927). Fortunately, with some assistance, these novels were successfully worked into final drafts. They were polished and published under Kafka’s name, and, thanks to Brod, gained the late writer his notoriety.


‘The First Man’ (1994)//Albert Camus

Of the many intellectuals and artists to come out of France, Albert Camus’ impression on French literature came to be praised around the world. He was the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, as well as publishing well-over a dozen books and numerous other journalistic publications. He is known in the world of novel writing for his insightful and thought-provoking publications, from his murder-centric novel ‘The Stranger’ (1942) to his philosophical musings in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ (1942). However, one of the novels that he is less well-known for, ‘The First Man,’ (1994) has an intriguing story behind its conception and eventual publication...especially since it wasn’t completed at the time that Camus died.

On an evening in 1960, Camus was being driven through Le Grand Fossard, France by a friend, Michel Gallimard, along with Gallimard’s wife and 18-year-old daughter. Although the conditions of the road were near perfect, Gallimard lost control of his Facel Vega HK500, smashing the car straight into a nearby tree. While the rest of the passengers survived, Camus died upon impact. He brought his WIP along with him on the car ride, and it had also taken a substantial hit.

How did it ‘The First Man’ make it from the accident site to the printing press? Somehow, the novel had survived through the traumatic situation. Those responsible with cleaning up the scene found the book wedged into the mud and rescued it before it could be fully sullied. The manuscript was given to Camus’ daughter, Catherine, who was able to successfully transcribe the work for publication. Although the novel wasn’t quite completed, it was well-shaped enough for the bits and pieces that needed editing to be filled in and polished.


‘The Assassination Burea’ (1963)//Jack London

Unlike most of the authors on this list, Jack London didn’t die before he could feverishly complete his work. Rather, he gave up on his novel a long time before he passed away. Known for his famous wilderness novel ‘The Call of the Wild,’ (1903) London published an astounding number of novels, novellas, and think-pieces in the early twentieth century. He was also one of the first writers from America who became wealthy through writing, gained international acclaim, and helped to normalize fiction magazines and fiction novel-writing in the U.S. Still, of his many completed novels and works, there is one book that he never got around to finishing...and it wasn’t because he didn’t have the time.

With a name like ‘The Assassination Bureau,’ (1963) it seems like this is the sort of novel that would be filled with epic twists, turns, and cliffhangers. Unfortunately, London’s supreme book-naming abilities were not matched by a similar fervor for the plot. London managed to power through about 20,000 words of the novel before deciding that he didn’t want to keep working on the story. His reason for quitting was simple: He didn’t know how to wrap the narrative up. After all, what’s a book without an ending? He decided to quit and focus his attention on other creative pursuits.

After he died in 1916, writer Robert L. Fish decided to take the matter of ‘The Assassination Bureau’ into his own hands. He tidied up the portions of the book that London had completed and finished what remained in the story, coming up with an adequate ending for the narrative. It’s hard to know if London would approve of how he finished the novel, but fans of London’s work were certainly happy to have another one of his books floating around on the shelves.


‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ (//Stieg Larsson

The ‘Millenium’ series from European author Stieg Larsson is arguably one of the most popular book series of the early 2000s. Following its release, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ (2005) quickly became a bestseller in Europe. After becoming a hit across the globe, demand for the next book in the saga rose with each publication that Larsson put forward. His compelling main character, Lisabeth Salander, charmed audiences of readers worldwide. The popularity of the character led to a 2011 movie of the same name (and a 2018 film for the fourth book in the series). Sadly, while Larsson got to see a great deal of the critical acclaim surrounding his writing, he didn’t live to see the film adaptations, nor the continued swell of interest in the world he had created. He was only 50 when a heart attack took his life in 2004. He was barely kicking off the next book in his series, ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ (2015). Many fans in mourning feared that they would never learn what happened to Lisabeth and what became of her high-paced, hacking-centric life.

Fortunately, this series didn’t go permanently untouched. Another author, David Lagercrantz, took on the responsibility of finishing the next book and continuing to stoke the storyline that so entranced Larsson’s audiences. The Swedish writer did Larsson’s work proper justice, and ‘The Girl in the Spiderweb’ became an instant best-seller, earning praise as one of the best books of 2015. He continued on with Larrson’s series, also writing and publishing ‘The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye’ (2017) and ‘The Girl Who Lived Twice’ (2019), each of which sold millions of copies on their own. It seems as though the latter will be the final book in the series, unless another ambitious author hops on to take over the tale of this character’s life. However, it’s highly unlikely that anyone else will be able to do the story justice quite as much as Lagercrantz did for Larsson.

By Piper Gourley