What's wrong with publishing earlier versions of a novel? Photo: Abhi Sharma/Flickr
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Why publishers should embrace the film world's enthusiasm for releasing a director's cut

The film world is keen on releasing a director's cut, which differs from the final version of the movie; publishers should do the same with books.

When Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange was first published in the United States, in 1962, it was controversial for the obvious reasons, but also for another more obscure: its US edition was missing the book’s twenty-first and final chapter, in which the infamously nihilistic protagonist begins to recognise that life might actually have some meaning after all. According to Burgess, who grumbled openly and at length about the omission, his New York publisher found that original ending too “Kennedyan,” when what they really wanted was “a Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it.”

So for nearly twenty-five years, it was the bleaker ending that US readers got – and though finally the book was re-issued with the final chapter restored, by that point it was sort of too late, because Kubrick’s film adaptation had already been released without the “happy” ending. (Allegedly, Kubrick didn’t even know the book had a twenty-first chapter until long after the film was finished, and when he read it he disliked it.) Still, there’s some sense of victory about the book’s re-issue, which made Burgess’s pure creative vision once again available to all. To use the parlance of Hollywood, he finally got his director’s cut.

It’s oddly appropriate that all this happened during the Sixties and Seventies, because it was during exactly that period that today’s notion of a director’s cut, as an auteur’s definitive creative vision, was first appearing in Hollywood. Yet while the film industry eventually embraced the notion of a director’s cut and ran with it – ran, in fact, with the idea of releasing multiple versions of films, each definitive in its own, idiosyncratic way –publishing did not. Despite a few exceptions, there seems to be very little enthusiasm today for multiple editions of the same contemporary book. And that’s a real shame, because when I was asked – unusually – to significantly “re-cut” the US edition of my novel for its release in the UK, I actually found much to appreciate in the enterprise.

Since the birth of directors’ cuts, of course, they have inevitably been joined by other kinds of marketing-driven alternate releases, and as a result have lost some of their artistic standing; it’s hard to argue that Road Trip: UN R8D constitutes a culturally significant contribution to the canon. And while I expect it’s that reek of greed that’s prevented self-consciously literary publishers, anyway, from really pursuing alternate cuts with the same glee as Hollywood, that bias seems short-sighted – because there have been plenty of re-releases that have commanded critical acclaim alongside commercial success (Apocalypse Now Redux springs to mind).

Besides, what’s wrong with a little naked commercial ambition in the publishing industry, given everything we’re always hearing about the death of the book? There’s clearly a demand for this sort of thing. The New Yorker, for instance, has previously published “early drafts” of well-known stories by famous authors, and there’s already a market for new translations of foreign language work – not to mention the perennial re-issuing of Shakespeare and other classics according to slightly different original texts. If we’re already doing all that, why not different drafts of contemporary books as well?

I suppose part of the objection might be that, by definition, an author’s last draft is supposedly the best. So when we have the definitive final text – unlike with Shakespeare et al – there’s no reason to publish a “worse” earlier one. Yet this is a silly argument, because any writer will tell you that, by the final stages of revision, most changes are a matter of minor rearrangement rather than major improvement. There are certainly plenty of things in my early drafts that I cut and now wistfully re-read. (In the UK edition of my novel, I even reinstated several pages at the end of chapter four, with tweaks, that I’d cut before it was published in the US.)

Perhaps another objection is that changing a book solely for the purpose of creating a new “cut” is bound to reflect concerns beyond the author’s original artistic intent, and this is presumed to somehow sully the product. And since studio meddling – the same kind that spawned the director’s cut in the first place – is often blamed for ruining otherwise good films, I suppose there’s some fear that introducing the same kind of process to books might ruin them as well, just as they did with A Clockwork Orange. Except this is a silly argument too, because most novels are already a product of a creative team as large as any behind a film – from editors to marketers to sales execs – and that team’s motives are varied and not always focused on preserving the author’s original creative vision. That hasn’t destroyed literature yet, nor did it make A Clockwork Orange any less successful.

In any case, people already re-read favourite books all the time – and a few well-placed changes, even if minor, can make those people reconsider even the parts of a book they thought they knew back-to-front, showing previously unsympathetic characters in a new light, for instance, or revealing new motivations behind other characters’ choices. That was certainly my experience re-cutting on my own novel, and it’s the true promise of recutting films, too – and if that doesn’t make a good case for more regularly doing the same to books... Well, what does?

What Ends by Andrew Ladd will be published in August by Oneworld £12.99

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism