Accept only truly canonical works

Peter Costello considers ‘continuation novels’

The publication of a new Philip Marlowe novel, The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black, otherwise known as John Banville (pictured; Mantle, €20.50 / £16.99), has been an event of the season. Black’s continuation of the Raymond Chandler series as the full authorisation of the writer’s estate, and many Chandler fans are delighted. But others are less certain about writers finishing off a work, or continuing the work, of a dead author.

When Robert Louis Stevenson died, for instance, Arthur Conan Doyle was asked would he complete his unfinished final novel St Ives, about a Napoleonic prisoner of war in England. Doyle turned down the offer. The book was completed by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch; but the result is not one of the most read works of RLS today. Quiller-Couch, or ‘Q’, left his own novel Castle Dor unfinished. Thirty years after his death this was completed by Daphne Du Maurier. Steeped as she was in Cornish lore she was an ideal choice to complete his modern resetting of the Tristan and Isolde story. But the novel has few readers compared with Rebecca or The King’s General.

Conan Doyle’s own creations, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson have lived on not just in books and stories by other hands, but also in comic books, films, and television. Their admirers were reluctant to let the great detective and his associate pass from the scene, though they really know in their heart of hearts that they are not reading 'the real thing', however well produced.  Such books lead a mayfly existence, brilliant for a day, dead the next.

This phenomenon of continuing a favourite character after the original author’s death is no new thing. Continuations of Jane Austen, the Brontes, James Bond, even Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara, have all been done. And I have to admit, that having written a book about Leopold Bloom, I am guilty myself of the same sin.

But this is a very ancient need, for it is one that the early Christians also gave vent to. Today we are all familiar in one way or the other, with the Gospels, the acts and the epistles – and the apocalypse.  These (especially the last) were also familiar to the early Christians, but they soon felt the need for more of the same.

Hence there came into existence various other ‘Gospels’ of Peter, Thomas, James, even as was recently revealed, the treacherous Judas. These literary works were deleted from the canon of accepted scriptures by councils in the early centuries of the Church. They became known as the apocrypha – though the Catholic Bible accepts books which were not acceptable to the editors of the Kings James version.

Other ‘gospels’

In recent centuries from caches in Egypt and elsewhere came other ‘gospels’. For many years the standard edition of these was that by M. R. James, better known to readers for his celebrated ghost stories. It is likely, as the Gospel of Judas showed, that yet more early gospels will be found in due course, the creations of early Christian sectarians.  Modern writers, such as Norman Mailer, Nikos Kazantzakis, Colm Tóibín, have added to our stock of extra versions.

We may happily accept these modern books as ‘interpretations’, but that was not the view of past centuries. Tales from the apocrypha were widely circulated in the middle ages, and they left a permanent mark on what one might call Christian folklore. These days we hear little of such stories as the infant Jesus making living birds from clay and so on. Indeed people know so little even about the canonical works that it would be unlikely they would know of the uncanonical.

Yet it is true that in reading the uncanonical scriptures one is stuck at once at their poor literary quality. Whatever one may believe about them, the accepted Gospels are written with a sense of power and a sense of urgency that is truly inspired and inspiring. Readers can test this for themselves, if they compare say the Sermon on the Mount with the Gospel of Judas.

Which goes to show, I suspect, that with all literature, whether the modern moralities of Raymond Chandler, or the ancient Scriptures, one should only accept the truly canonical works.