To Be Continued: Four Stories and Their Survival

To Be Continued: Four Stories and Their Survival

To Be Continued: Four Stories and Their Survival

To Be Continued: Four Stories and Their Survival

Synopsis

Books end, but the stories they tell continue; if they are retold often enough, they acquire the status of myth. This accessible and entertaining book by a leading novelist and critic traces the multiple incarnations of four pervasive stories: those of Chaucer's pilgrims, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and King Lear, and the story of Prometheus. Looking at cultural renewals as varied as Romantic music, the films of Michael Powell and Pasolini, an Elvis Presley song, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the writing of T.S. Eliot and William Burroughs, Conrad's engaging book shows how, by retelling its stories, our culture recreates and reckons with its past.

Excerpt

Like life, literature is a matter of continuation. Each existence is a sequel to the existences of others, who remain vestigially alive within us; each life has its own sequel or consequence. Narratives, modelled on life, are supposed to need a beginning, a middle, and an end. But our personal beginnings are lost to us because they precede our consciousness, and our end, when it comes, will also be beyond the reach of consciousness. With the beginning erased and the end--for the time being--endlessly deferred, our experience consists of a continuous middle.

Beginnings and ends are the most artificial devices of literature, because they correspond to nothing in life. Even death is an interruption, not a conclusion. There is always unfinished business, and the truest literary endings are those which demur about their finality. Henry James admitted that relations stop nowhere, although the artist must pretend that they do. The pretence entails a prohibition, as when in Washington Square the door of the house is closed on the possibility of a future for Catherine Sloper. But the novelist, however satisfied he may be about the vow of celibacy and aesthetic solitude he has imposed on his heroine, cannot prevent life from heedlessly, happily continuing in the streets outside the Sloper house. Jane Austen was mischievously sceptical about the last judgements and prescriptions of happiness ever after mandated by fictional form. She confessed in the last chapter of Northanger Abbey that she was only marrying off the characters because, as the reader must have noticed, the pages in the book were running out, and the end--more a bibliographical convenience than an aesthetic imperative--was approaching. The end is fatal, and the writer keeps writing in order to postpone it, not in the hope of arriving at it. Scheherazade symbolizes this life-saving genius of continuation: it is her own life she extrapolates with her continuous story-telling, and her own end she daily evades by her teasing overnight suspensions.

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