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An essay by Israel Zangwill

On Finishing A Book

Title:     On Finishing A Book
Author: Israel Zangwill [More Titles by Zangwill]

Between three and four of the morning the last words of the book were written, and, putting down my pen--without falling asleep, as I should have done had my task been to read the book, instead of to write it--I began to muse on the emotions I ought to have felt, and on the emotions other and greater authors had felt. There was a time, "in the days that were earlier," when the writing of a book was a rare and solemn task, to be approached--like the writing of "Paradise Lost"--after years of devout and arduous preparation, under the "great Taskmaster's eye." Now it is all a rush and a fever and a fret, and the mad breathlessness of the New York newspaper office has spread from journalism to literature, and novelists cheerfully contract to write books in the next century, quite unregardful of whether there will be any books in them by then. That was a very leisurely prescription in the Old Testament: "When a man taketh a new wife he shall not go out in the host, neither shall he be charged with any business; he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer his wife which he hath taken." Delightful honeymoon of those pastoral days! Now the honeymoon has dwindled to a week, or in the case of actors and actresses to a matinee (for they appear at night as usual), and few of us possess sufficient oxen and sheep and manservants and maidservants to strike work for a year. If only our authors would produce but one book a year, instead of yielding two or three harvests to make hay withal while the sun shines! Nor do they do these things much better in France. From the patient parturition of a Flaubert--the father of the Realists--we have come down to the mechanical annual crop of his degenerate descendant, Zola. Perhaps the age of great works--like the age of great folios--is over, so that none will ever have again those fine sensations that made Gibbon chronicle how he finished his monumental history between the hours of eleven and twelve at night in the summer-house at Lausanne, or that dictated the stately sentiment of Hallam's wind-up of his "Introduction to the Literature of Europe": "I hereby terminate a work which has furnished, the occupation of not very few years.... I cannot affect to doubt that I have contributed something to the general literature of my country, something to the honourable estimation of my own name and to the inheritance of those, if it is for me still to cherish that hope, to whom I have to bequeath it."

Thackeray must have felt something of this fine glow when he finished "Vanity Fair," despite his genial simulation of "Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out." Dickens, who had not humour enough for such self-mockery, took his endings very seriously indeed, and even in the middle of his books had all the emotions of parting when some favourite character had to quit the stage, some poor Dombey or Little Nell. You remember what he wrote in the preface to "David Copperfield" of "how sorrowfully the pen is laid down at the close of a two-years' imaginative task, or how an author feels as if he were dismissing some portion of himself into the shadowy world, when a crowd of the creatures of his brain are going from him for ever." And contrast his superfluously solemn asseveration, "No one can ever believe this narrative in the reading more than I believed it in the writing," with the whimsical melancholy of the "Vanity Fair" preface, the references to the Becky doll and the Amelia puppet. One feels that Thackeray was the greater Master, in that he took himself less seriously, and had the finer sense of proportion. But that he lived with his characters quite as much as his great contemporary may be seen from that charming Roundabout Paper "De Finibus," where he describes the loneliness of his study after all those people had gone who had been boarding and lodging with him for twenty months. They had plagued him and bored him at all sorts of uncomfortable hours, and yet now he would be almost glad if one of them would walk in and chat with him as of yore--"an odd, pleasant, humourous, melancholy feeling." In how much more solemn a mood Dickens finishes "Our Mutual Friend," congratulating himself on having been saved--with Mr. and Mrs. Boffin and the Lammles, with Bella Wilfer and Rogue Riderhood--from a destructive railway accident, so that he cannot help thinking of the time when the words with which he closes the book will be written against his life--"The End." Thackeray needed no railway accident to remind him of "The End," and two lines before the close of "Vanity Fair" we find him writing--in the prime of his life, "Ah, _vanitas vanitatum_! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire, or, having it, is satisfied?" That thought occurred to Gibbon, too, for he had not taken many turns under the silver moon in that coveted walk of acacias, enjoying the spectacle of the lake and the mountains, and the recovery of his freedom and the establishment of his fame, before a sober melancholy was spread over his mind by the idea that he "had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that whatsoever might be the future fate of his history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious." When George Eliot put the last stroke to "Romola," the book which "ploughed into her more than any of her books," which she "began as a young woman and finished as an old woman," she exclaimed in her diary--"_Ebenezer!_" O unpredictable ejaculation! _Ebenezer!_ 'T is true the erudite Miss Evans had Hebrew an knew that it meant "a stone of help." And in the evening she went to her "La Gazza Ladra." Let us hope that some false persuasion of the immortality of "Romola" counteracted that bodily malaise and suffering of which she complained to Sara Hennell. Such pleasant persuasion buoyed up Fielding, as he wrote the beginning of the end of "Tom Jones,"--that almost endless epic,--for with a last fling at the critics he cries: "All these works, however, I am well convinced, will be dead long before this page shall offer itself to thy perusal; for however short the period may be of my own performances, they will most probably outlive their own infirm author, and the weakly productions of his abusive cotemporaries."

But it is rather the tradition of Trollope that rules to-day--Trollope, that canny craftsman who wrote every day for a stated number of hours, and who, if he finished a novel twenty minutes before the end of his term, would take up a clean sheet of paper and commence another. Did I say the canny Trollope? Nay, this is rather uncanny, unearthly, unhuman. What! You have lived with your characters day and night for months and months, have thought their thoughts and been racked by their passions, and you can calmly wind up their affairs and turn instanter to a new circle of acquaintances? 'T is the very coquetry of composition, the heartless flirtation of fiction-mongering. Thackeray, indeed, confesses to liking to begin another piece of work after one piece is out of hand, were it only to write half a dozen lines; but "that is something towards Number the Next," not towards Book the Next, for these old giants wrote from hand to mouth. I have always figured to myself Trollope's novels as all written on a long endless scroll of paper rolled on an iron axis, nailed up in his study. The publishers approach to buy so many yards of fiction, and shopman Anthony, scissors in hand, unrolls the scroll and snips it off at the desired point. This counter-jumping conception of the Muses prevails with the customers to-day, with the editors who buy fiction at so much a thousand words. Carlyle--Heaven preserve me from finishing a book as he did his "French Revolution," to lose it and write it all over again!--had the truer idea when he suggested that authors should be paid by what they do _not_ write. But it was reserved for the libraries to reach the lowest conception of literature. Their clients enjoy the privilege of having so many books at a time, a book being a book just as an orange is an orange. If the book the reader wants is not there, why, there is another book for him to take; by which beautiful system the good writer reaps very little advantage over the mediocre, for indifferent books are forced upon the public as the conjuror forces cards on people who think they are choosing them. It is a wonder the libraries do not purvey their literature by the pound.

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Israel Zangwill's essay: On Finishing A Book