Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Masterpieces with Crap Endings

If it's to be considered a classic, you might have thought that a book would need to have a quality ending. But it's not true. As long as you've still got the reader hooked two thirds of the way through, it doesn't matter if you haven't actually worked out how to tie the whole thing together.

Here are a few unquestioned masterpieces where the muse scarpered just as the author was starting to wrap things up.

William Shakespeare - Hamlet

I've never understood why there aren't fits of laughter during Act 5 Scene 2 of Hamlet. Shakespeare warms us up with what is surely drugs humour:

'Swounds, show me what thou'lt do.
Woot weep, woot fight, woot fast, woot tear thyself,
Woot drink up eisel, eat a crocodile?


Anyway, having brooded intensely for months, Hamlet is about to kick it off with evil King Claudius and his posse. The result is the expiration of most of the cast in a comedy Deathathon. Not only is there a poison dagger but also a poisoned cup being passed around between unwitting drinkers; a device rather cruelly lampooned by Danny Kaye as

The vessel with the pestle is the brew that is true
But the flagon with the dragon is the mug with the drug


Or something like that.

Inexplicably, King Claudius allows the wife that he loves to drink the poison.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: He's fat and scan of breath. Here, Hamlet, take my napkin. Rub thy brows. The Queen carouses to thy fortune.
HAMLET: Good madam.
KING CLAUDIUS: Gertrude, do not drink.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: I will, my lord, I pray you pardon me
KING CLAUDIUS (aside): It is the poisoned cup; it is too late.

Now this sequence is obviously unlikely, so I propose a rewrite:

KING CLAUDIUS: Gertrude, do not drink.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: I will, my lord, I pray you...
KING CLAUDIUS: For fuck's sake, don't drink it. It's fucking poisoned.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Oh, all right then.

Homer - The Odyssey

After having wandered around the Mediterranean for ten years and inspiring every road movie ever made, Odysseus finds his palace overrun by suitors. They are then contemptuously dispatched by Odysseus and his son, Telemachus. You might have thought that was enough, and Homer could top it all off with a Tom Cruise style father-and-son bonding moment.

But no, the suitors had girlfriends who worked in the palace. Given Odysseus had been gone twenty years, most of these women would have been too young to even remember their old king, and so could be forgiven for consorting with his enemies. Perhaps a little lenience is in order?

Hell, no, let's massacre them. First, they are made to clear away their lovers' corpses - "groaning bitterly, weeping plentously". Then Telemachus suspends
a rope high enough so that no woman's feet could touch the ground. "So with their heads in a single line the women's necks were all caught and noosed, to make them die the most piteous death. For a little while their feet kept writhing, but not for long." Bloody charming, as my Dad used to say.

So it's "never let it be said that sluts like these had a clean death from me", is it, Homer? Shit-head.

TS Eliot - The Waste Land

Now regular readers will know that I adore this poem, but there's not much doubt that Stearnsy has run out of ideas by the time he gets to the end of the fifth section, when he starts breaking out into multiple languages, doubtlessly inspired by his pal Ezra Pound, the asking-for-a-smack proto-Fascist given to littering his poems with classical quotations rather as my dog Shep used to pepper Hethersett Recreation Ground.

By the final lines, Eliot is sounding like a gone-to-seed, Merlot-addled Cultural Studies lecturer recalling her days in Kathmandu with the Maharishi.

Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih


If we're honest, this is just gibberish.

Thucydides - History of the Peloponnesian War

It may be a little cruel to blame Thucydides for the end of this book, as he appears to have keeled over while writing it.

Thucydides, an Athenian general, was blamed for letting Amphipolis fall to the Spartans, and spent the rest of his days in a villa in Thrace writing the first proper history book, and one which is still one of the greatest. His forensic account of the disastrous Sicilian campaign should be required reading for any democratic politician thinking of embarking on a morally-dubious foreign adventure.

By the time we get to the end of the History, a combination of Spartan arms, Persian gold and suicidal Athenian politics are bringing the war to its climax, but Thucydides is sadly not going to take us there. The final line is

He went first to Ephesus where he made a sacrifice to Artemis...

It seems that Thucydides died with pen in hand .

The good news is that there was a historian to follow Thucydides. The bad news is that it was Xenophon, a jumped-up Boys' Own Adventure writer who should have been slipped an injunction for writing the ridiculously biased and sloppy A History of my Times.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Crime and Punishment

I'm not quite sure who to blame for the ending to this traumatic book. The poverty-stricken Raskolnikov wallops an asking-for-it pawnbroker and then spends hundreds of pages regretting it in the most unnerving fashion. It's enough to put you off over-running a parking meter, let alone murdering someone.

And right at the end, having been sent off to Siberian chokey, Raskolnikov gets unexpectedly redeemed by the love of a good woman. Aaaaaaaaarrrgggghh.

I wonder if maybe Dostoyevsky had to put in a happy ending in order to get such a blatantly unhappy book through the censor. If I'd have been the censor, though, I would have given him a slap and told him to come back with something suitably miserable.

16 Comments:

Anonymous antwerp said...

First time I read "Crime and Punishment" I remember being furious at the ending. Great book, horrible resolution.

You know what has a great ending? The first Godfather movie. And Romero's "Night of the Living Dead." One of the all time greatest endings ever. I think with books, for some odd reason, a bad ending is less of a liability than in a movie. If a movie has a bad ending, it really ruins the whole thing. A book is more of a journey, I suppose, whereas movies are more of a direct flight. If you don't like where you end up, you think, "Well, that was a complete waste of time."

Other great movie endings:
"Five Easy Pieces"
Romero's "Martin"
Albert Brooks' "Real Life"

"It's burning! Their house is REALLY burning!!!"

Great stuff.

12:52 pm  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

I've been thinking all day, and I can't think of a single movie with a bad ending which I like. Perhaps it's also because, given there are no visual images, books get your imagination working more, so you have more part in creating the experience, and so are more lenient when the ending turns out to be dodgy.

For some reason I forget movies really quickly, so I've forgotten the ending to the Godfather, although I do remember enjoying it. I guess that'll be a plus next time I watch it...

8:14 pm  
Blogger Ivan the Terrible said...

Better a bad ending than bad through and through - and God knows there are plenty of them around.

As for great endings, try "At Swim-Two-Birds" by Flann O'Brien, or "The White Guard" by Mikhail Bulgakov.

9:45 pm  
Blogger Psychbloke said...

Lolita....

Great book which kinda fizzles at the end.....

I love Humbert's overwrought poetics in the very last paragraph, but climax wise it kinda loses it I think.....

10:51 am  
Blogger Psychbloke said...

PS - I have to say 'kinda' when discussing anything remotely literary.
It's an ego-defence thing in case anyone thinks I'm a ponce.....

sorry....

10:52 am  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

Too late. You can't use the phrase "Humbert's overwrought poetics" without being, deep down inside, to at least a certain degree, a ponce.

Just don't say "poetics" too loud in the pub, though. You could end up taking a kicking.

11:23 am  
Blogger JP said...

Hmmm.


I always thought the massacre of the women in the end of the Odyssey was probably reflective of the way people did things in those times?

I mean, he'd just returned from being lost all over the world after fighting a war about some guy's wife who ran away with someone else.

I'm trying to think of books where I dislike the ending but like the rest of the book. Nothing comes to mind just yet. Interesting topic, though.

11:14 am  
Blogger Greg said...

"Shantih" means "the peace which passes understanding" and is a chant from the end of an Upanishad. The rest may make no sense (the line "Why then Ile fit you" is apparently ripped off from Kyd's A Spanish Tragedy, but that doesn't mean it makes sense), but the last line kind of fits.

3:13 am  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

jp -

This touches into the debate about how far we are willing to accept the standards of other societies when they conflict with our own. They may well have acted like that in those days, though we must be careful to distinguish which days we are talking about - Homer lived several centuries after the time of the Trojan War, and the Mycenaeans were a different culture to Homer's.

I can accept all sorts of behaviour in the Greek classics which we wouldn't tolerate now, but it seems to me this particular scene passes beyond any acceptable boundaries. The sadistic way Homer describes the massacre and the clever-clever method Telemachus invents to kill the woman are unpleasant and gratuitous. IMHO, obviously.

greg -

I'll concede that a description of peace makes sense here, but a poem which flicks through three (maybe four - what language is "Quando fiam ceu chelidon" anyway?) foreign languages in its last seven lines has pushed into pretentiousness. Apart from Eliot and his classically educated mates, who is going to be able to make sense of this without a multilingual interpreter? I love this poem, but I haven't got the slightest clue what he's talking about in the last bit. A poem is supposed to be about communication, but the use of foreign language is more about obfuscation.

Still, as Mayakovsky would say,

Кто стихами льет из лейки,
кто крепит,
набравши в рот

12:05 pm  
Blogger Scipio said...

"what language is "Quando fiam ceu chelidon" anyway?"

Um, Latin.

Not a particularly obscure language.

3:51 pm  
Blogger Tim O'Neil said...

I didn't see anythign wrong with the ending of "Crime & Punishment", myself. It was suitably grim considering that, love or no, he was still living in prison exile.

And the best book with a limp endign has to be F. Scott Fitzerald's "Tender is the Night". Just breaks my heart that he could pull the last 50 or so pages together better. If he had been able to do so we might just be reading it in high school English instead of Gatsby.

4:06 pm  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

Latin's not an obscure language, no, but how many people have a working knowledge of it? All languages are obscure if you don't understand them.

I would have guessed it was either Latin or accented Italian, but, without looking it up, my guess was that the line said something like

How much does...

assuming "quando" to be the same as Italian "quanto" and "fiam" like French "faire". "Ceu celidon" didn't ring any bells until I looked it up on the internet. Celidon being, apparently, one of Arthur's legendary battles.

But this is supposed is a poem, not a language primer.

4:15 pm  
Blogger Chance said...

Hilarious. I especially liked the Wasteland one, being a bit of an Eliot nut myself.

5:33 am  
Blogger Michael said...

Eliot's jumbled ending is telling of the "broken images" that plague the ever-changing speaker(s) throughout the piece. In essence, I think it's a man going insane and recounting his own memories and mistaking them for pieces of literature he has read throughout his life (and the other way around, too). I think the ending is supposed to be one of those "finding peace in madness" kinda deals (ruins - shantih etc). I can see how some people think he phoned it in. Also someone said they needed an interpreter for the ending but even if you did understand what he was saying, you'd also have to go back and see what he was referencing. He probably planned this and didn't believe anyone could breeze through the ending.

12:55 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ladies and/or gentlemen, please check out the verse of one who has been guarding Eliot's mantle in the cloakroom for over thirty years. No tipping allowed. www.nailchiodo.com

9:45 pm  
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