In Search of Lost Books: The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes by Giorgio van Straten

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Reviewed by Terence Jagger

In Search of Lost Books:

This is an engaging book about other books, but it makes no judgements on them, and nor can we express, even internally, our own views on the books van Straten discusses – because none of them exist.  However, in spite of the title, they are none of them mythical, though there is an element of speculation in some cases – but they all did exist once, but have been destroyed, by accident, deliberately, in natural or political disasters; and some of them have even been read by a few people before they were condemned by man or fate.  They are not imaginary books, like The Snakes of Ireland, or hypothetical glories like a complete text of Sanditon, they are books which we once had, or almost had, but which were stillborn or died in their earliest days.

The history of these eight books is instructive and entertaining, giving us sometimes moving insights into the quotidian pressures and irresponsibility’s of authorship, and a range of motivations and causes – concerns for the reputation of the deceased author or someone else, worries about quality, bad luck, the failure of high risk strategies to protect work in time of war.  Not everyone concerned, including some of the authors, comes out of this well.

Of course, there must be thousands, even millions, of books which have been written and then never published and then lost completely, including bad novels and amateur local history, a few at least no doubt of great interest. And then there are the known losses from the classical world, which move Thomasina to tears in Stoppard’s Arcadia: “the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue. Oh, Septimus!  Can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – thousands of poems – Aristotle’s own library! … How can we sleep for grief?”  But these eight books, each treated affectionately and knowledgeably by van Straten, each different and each – he argues – a real book which once existed and is now tragically lost.  I wonder if anyone will know of all the books, I certainly didn’t, but here they are:

  • The Avenue, Romano Bilenchi
  • Memoirs, Lord Byron
  • Juvenilia (including a first novel), Ernest Hemingway
  • The Messiah, Bruno Schulz
  • Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol
  • In Ballast to the White Sea, Malcolm Lowry
  • The Contents of the Black Suitcase (literally, that’s not a book’s title), Walter Benjamin
  • Double Exposure, Sylvia Plath

You may think you have read one or two of these, especially Dead Souls, but you haven’t. The Avenue definitely existed, van Straten and others have read it, but the author’s wife destroyed it, and now “there remains a bitterness about a novel that no longer exists, and which is fading from our memories of it”.  Byron’s memoirs certainly existed and were sent to his publisher, who was persuaded against his better judgement to feed the pages into the fire to protect Byron’s friends and family from the publication of his homosexual passions.  Hemingway’s lover left a suitcase on a train, containing manuscripts and carbon copies, but Hemingway was such a blageur it is impossible to be sure exactly what was lost, but a letter to Ezra Pound suggests much was bitterly regretted. Schulz’s novel certainly existed, indeed you can read part of it published as two short stories – The Book and The Genial Age – but the rest was probably hidden when the Nazis invaded Ukraine, and has never been seen again, in spite of many claims.

The Dead Souls you can buy and read anywhere is only the first third, the Inferno, of a planned trilogy, a Divine Comedy of the steppes.  Some chapters of the second part survived, though Gogol had abandoned them through dissatisfaction, and this perfectionism led him, according to a story about a servant who allegedly saw him burn the rest, to destroy the other two volumes, some 500 pages of manuscript, a few days before his death.  Lowry’s In Ballast to the White Sea is part of another  Divine Comedy, this time the Paradiso to bookend the Inferno which is Lowry’s masterpiece, Under the Volcano. Allegedly 1,000 pages of manuscript, it burnt in a cabin fire in Canada, and having written it twice – the first, rejected version has in fact now been published – it is not surprising the alcoholic and chaotic Lowry could not do it a third time. Walter Benjamin, a German Jew, escaped from Paris when the Germans invaded in 1940, but crossed the Pyrenees into the hands of the Spanish police – who only that day had changed their policy of accepting refugees and started sending them back.  Overnight, he committed suicide, the heavy black suitcase he had carried over the mountain passes disappearing, probably forever. Van Straten is convinced it contained a novel or poems which have not seen the light of day – other manuscripts were given to friends for safeguarding – and although this is perhaps the most speculative of his eight books, van Straten permits himself the hope that “yellowing papers in a wardrobe or old chest” may yet survive and could one day be recovered. And he has this hope, too, for Sylvia Plath’s novel Double Exposure, the manuscript of which her separated husband Ted Hughes says ‘disappeared’, although he published many poems, diaries and other writings of hers that he found after her suicide. The hope here has some basis – there are Plath papers which Hughes deposited in the University of Georgia but which cannot be accessed until 60 years after her death, in 2022; maybe the novel is there?

Some of these books, or parts of them, may reappear.  But if they don’t, we are surely richer even for knowing of their existence, and we can, if we will, take comfort in Septimus’ response to Thomasina: 

By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! … We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.

Even if you can’t enjoy these eight books, I hope you enjoy this one, the meta-book!

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Giorgio van Straten, In Search of Lost Books: The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes  ISBN 978-1-78227-372-1  Pushkin Press, November 2017 122 pp, hardback £12.99

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