In Search of Lost Books : The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes by Giorgio van Straten
Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

There are some books you just *know* are going to be for you. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who’s passed by the Ramblings that I am obsessive about books – to quote Morrissey, “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more” – and so books about books are going to be a particular favourite. This little volume, however, has a different slant from many of them in that it deals with the missing – books lost, books destroyed, books that may never have existed…

Giorgio van Straten has an impressive pedigree, taking in such disciplines as novelist, librettist, playwright, editor, translator, critic and manager of arts organisations. His works have won numerous awards, though it seems that few of them have been translated into English; which is a great shame, based on the quality of this slim but important book.

Van Straten focuses his range quite tightly and the authors/books/works lost covered are:

“The Avenue” – Romano Bilenchi
“Memoirs” – Lord Byron
Various early works – Ernest Hemingway
“The Messiah” – Bruno Schulz
“Dead Souls” (later volumes) – Nikolai Gogol
“In Ballast to the White Sea” – Malcolm Lowry
A black suitcase full of who knows what – Walter Benjamin
“Double Exposure” – Sylvia Plath

…which is a pretty heavyweight list! Intriguingly, he opens the book with the one author new to me (Romano Bilenchi), with whom he has a personal connection; because Bilenchi’s missing book was one that van Straten had actually read before it was destroyed by the author’s widow. He goes on to guide us through stories which may be familiar – Gogol burning the second part of “Dead Souls”; Hemingway and Benjamin losing suitcases containing manuscripts; Sylvia Plath’s second novel which mysteriously and unaccountably disappeared – and yet brings a freshness and a new angle to the narrative. There are a variety of reasons for the works being lost; authorial decision, posthumous publisher/spouse decision to protect the still living, pure accident; but the loss of all of these works is a real tragedy.

Georgio van Straten writes elegantly and it’s quite clear he has a strong belief in the innate power of books and the written word. He acknowledges that part of the appeal of his investigation into the missing books is the thrill of the chase, the hope of discovering that one of these fragile works has survived. There is a recurring thread of fire running through the narrative, and van Straten is painfully aware of the vulnerability of books:

… those vessels freighted with words, which we launch onto the waters, in the hope that someone will notice them and receive them into their own harbour, can disappear into infinite space like spacecraft at the edge of the universe, receding from us at increasing velocity.

For a slim book, this one digs deep and is not afraid to tackle more serious moral issues; for example, the discussion of Byron’s scandalous memoirs is measured, weighing the need to publish and be damned against the need to protect those still living (and also Byron’s own reputation, as to admit to homosexuality in those days was unheard of). The book was burned but van Straten argues that it simply could have been locked away for posterity.

The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature: the imperatives can converge and be compatible, if you only want them to.

Again with Sylvia Plath, much of the chapter considers the destruction of her last journals and the mysterious disappearance of her second novel. The discussion of the ethics of picking over the detail of her life is particularly pithy:

It frequently happens that when someone commits suicide, their death becomes the point of departure for reading their entire life. But this entails the risk of superimposing over the fact of an actual person – the one who has lived, thought, written – a mask that squeezes the richness of their humanity and artistry into the form of an icon, into something two-dimensional.

Plath has, of course, attained such mythical stature that it’s almost impossible to see the real woman any more. This aspect resonated strongly with me, particularly as I was reading about the current plans to auction off Plath’s effects, which I can’t help thinking would be better off preserved in an archive somewhere.

I confess that I get a bit emotional about book burning and lost books, and at times found the stories of what happened to these works excruciating (especially when, as in some of the cases, the loss was avoidable and the simple expedient of a photocopy or a carbon copy could have saved things). But the stories of the authors themselves was also particularly moving; reading about Bruno Schulz and his life and fate is always an emotional experience; and likewise Walter Benjamin; both authors ultimately met their fate because of the Nazis.

Van Straten uses a quote from Proust to illustrate the tantalising effect the thought of these lost works have on us:

One can feel an attraction towards a particular person. But to release that fount of sorry, that sense of the irreparable, those agonies which prepare the way for love, there must be – and this is, perhaps, more than a person, the actual object which our passion seeks so anxious to embrace – the risk of an impossibility.

That reaching for the impossible is something which attracts us human; we are questing beings, never satisfied with accepting the status quo. With these missing books, there is always the hope that one or more of them may still be within our grasp, may turn up somewhere. Certainly, there have been cases of supposedly lost works turning up – Georges Perec’s first novel, recently published and translated as “Portrait of a Man”, is a good case in point, and it’s finds like these which keep us hoping. Van Straten’s wonderful book is a fascinating tale of human creativity, the agonies of the artistic temperament and the battle between literature and reputation – as well as a lovely little elegy for some titles that may or may not be lost forever.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

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