What you want to know, you’ll never know

I’ve been thinking again, lately, about the human completeness complex (a phrase which I’m stealing from Tom Stoppard, in his comment about the posthumous publication of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura…but let’s not get into all that again, shall we?). Why do we crave narrative order? Why do we need to know the end of everything?

On a second look, this comic actually takes a pretty grim view of translation – one of perpetual diminishment. But although I do believe that writing loses something essential in any rethinking, it also (if the translation’s done well) gains something new and ineffable. Although I cannot be sure from personal experience, I suspect this is also true of cloning.

One reason I’ve been thinking about endings is that I’ve been reading (indeed, have just finished) A.S. Byatt’s brilliant novel Possession, in which Byatt toys not only with her characters but also with her readers about their deep human desire for understanding – even beyond death, beyond all reason. Normally when author’s allow this metafictional prodding into their work, they end up by denying readers what they most crave – conclusion. But Byatt’s done something different, something (to me) more exciting. The tale ends with great intrigue and lucky discovery, coming – for the characters – to a beautiful and passionate close. The past is past and the future’s unknown.

But to the reader’s surprise, there are a few pages more. A final scene, ambiguous, small. Byatt reminds us, in the novel’s last moment, that no one part of a story (no matter how satisfying its shape) is ever the whole. There are always secrets kept, memories abandoned, ideas imperfectly shared. This scene expands our understanding of the history, giving us, in a sense, more conclusion.
But by revealing a private and forgotten encounter, it also reminds us how much we still don’t know. And in so doing, the scene expands the story infinitely.

As an aside – thanks to Buttercup Festival for the hello! Readers: if you aren’t regularly checking out Buttercup Festival, you should be.