facebook search twitter close-envelope printer web-link close
read on
(Photo by Patrick Tomasso)

Missing: the library of lost epics

Review | 8 minute read
Precious books that have been lost over the centuries continue to haunt us, from Homer’s comic epic to Lord Byron's burnt memoir. But would we really want every fabled work to come to light?

Ancient Greek sources tell us that Sophocles wrote 123 plays. Of those, seven tragedies survive in their entirety, plus a few fragments. There’s no reason to believe that the missing 116 fell far short of Antigone or Oedipus the King.

That rate of attrition, above 90 per cent, holds good for other classical authors. Whole libraries of landmark works have vanished without trace. According to Aristotle, Homer’s lost comic epic, the Margites ‘stands in a similar relation to comedies as the Iliad and Odyssey do to tragedies’. For that matter, only about a third of Aristotle’s own works in philosophy and science have reached us unscathed. Indeed, the hunt for Aristotle’s lost treatise on comedy (partner to his study of tragedy in the Poetics) gave Umberto Eco the motor for his medieval mystery in The Name of the Rose. Look at the extant literature of the ancient world and you see not so much a tapestry punctured by a few stray holes as random scraps of cloth against a vast, blank wall.

At least since the Middle Ages, writers have regretted the loss of precious books and manuscripts with the same sort of autumnal wistfulness they otherwise save for fading beauty or falling leaves. Laments over the disappearance of masterworks, never to be read again, have become a sub-genre of the elegy that reminds us of the transience of mortal things. More recently, however, the optimistic belief in a redress for every injury and a fix for every problem has tilted the balance in favour of the literary quest that seeks to rediscover some lost volume. In The Name of the Rose, Eco wittily inserted this modern search for hidden library gold into the monastic mindset of his characters. More clumsily, the sleuthing for elusive manuscripts in Dan Brown’s mumbo-jumbo potboilers performs the same kind of role.

All fantasy aside, the accidents of war, the hostility of censors, the scruples of families and the self-doubt of authors themselves means that the catalogue of lost-but-sought-after books stretches into our own times. The latest report on the contemporary pursuit of buried literary treasure comes from Giorgio van Straten, director of the Italian Cultural Institute in New York. His In Search of Lost Books doesn’t pretend to break new ground as it rounds up the histories of eight fabled works, missing or destroyed, from Byron’s Memoirs via Hemingway’s first novel to Sylvia Plath’s unfinished second novel, Double Exposure. A decade ago, the writer and critic Stuart Kelly embarked on a wider-ranging tour of this terrain for his The Book of Lost Books. Compared to Kelly’s erudite, erratic ramble around the by-ways of literary oblivion, van Straten weaves a thinner thread of anecdotes into a cosy fireside chat. Charming but fairly lightweight, this slim volume would grace the well-appointed literary loo.

Burned by his friends in the grate of John Murray’s office in 1824, the manuscript of Lord Byron’s memoirs gives van Straten his best-known example. He believes that John Cam Hobhouse and his associates thrust these ‘scandalous and dangerous pages’ in the fire because Byron ‘ended up revealing his homosexuality’. Other Byronists would disagree. Whether erotic, marital or political, the secrets lost in the ashes at Albemarle Street have for almost two centuries tantalised later authors. Van Straten cites a tell-all novel by Franco Buffoni written in the voice of Byron’s servant. He seems unaware of Robert Nye’s thoroughly persuasive, wholly fictional reconstruction of the manuscript in his The Memoirs of Lord Byron (1989).

When he comes to the suitcase full of Hemingway’s early manuscripts stolen from his first wife, Hadley Richardson, on a train at the Gare de Lyon in Paris in 1922, van Straten oddly overlooks the theme of the draft novel lost along with almost all the writer’s early stories: his experiences in the First World War. Hemingway himself did not fret for long about these losses. He thought that this apprentice work still showed ‘the lyrical facility of boyhood’. That purloined draft probably had little in common with the mature novel of combat he eventually wrote, A Farewell to Arms.

In the case of Nikolai Gogol, who according to some recollections burned all or at least part of the manuscript of the second part of Dead Souls, van Straten moves onto the enigmatic terrain of ‘perfectionism and self-sabotage’. No censor, publisher or outraged relative forced into the flames Gogol’s continuation of his satirical, visionary journey through Tsarist Russia, from the ‘inferno’ of the first volume towards the ‘paradise’ of the missing sequel. Did the task of imagining spiritual redemption in his Russia leave the ferociously self-critical Gogol ‘lost for words’?

As in several of van Straten’s cases, the mists of rumour, gossip and hearsay swirl around the vanished sections of Dead Souls. That murk thickens into pea-souper fog with The Messiah: the full-length novel that Bruno Schulz, the great Polish Jewish short-fiction writer, worked on intermittently during the 1930s. Schulz, by then kept as a sort of slave, was murdered at the whim of a Nazi officer in 1942. Did The Messiah ever exist, as a whole or in fragments? Decades of post-war speculation helped inspire two outstanding works by other novelists – David Grossman’s See Under: LOVE and Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm. Van Straten traces the obsessive hunt for the elusive manuscript by Schulz’s devotees, above all the super-sleuth Jerzy Ficowski. But when he has a Swedish diplomat expiring in a car crash on his way back from Ukraine, perhaps bringing The Messiah itself, you wonder whether the hand of Dan Brown has intervened. More prosaic accounts have Jean-Christophe Öberg, the diplomat concerned but whom van Straten never names, dying of cancer in 1992.

As for the black suitcase that disappeared when the great critic, Walter Benjamin, took his own life while trying to flee from occupied France in 1940, neither van Straten nor anybody else knows if it held some lost masterpiece or not. That mystery may never be resolved. With Sylvia Plath’s Double Exposure, a faint light may glimmer at the end of the tunnel of hypotheses. Conceivably, its manuscript rests among the eighty-six boxes of papers that her husband,Ted Hughes, deposited at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia – not, as van Straten says, ‘The University of Georgia’. Some of that collection will remain closed until 2022. Again, van Straten’s casually anecdotal approach means that his tales of literary gaps themselves have holes. He ignores Plath’s other uncompleted novel, Falcon Yard, fragments of which do survive in the Plath archives.


Photo by Stefan Steinbauer

The most revealing of his chapters introduces an author whom he personally knew, and a work that he had actually read. Shortly after the death of the Italian novelist and editor, Romano Bilenchi, in 1989, his widow Maria Ferrara let van Straten read the manuscript of an unpublished early novel, The Avenue. Van Straten was moved to discover this lost work by ‘a friend and mentor whom I greatly missed’. Bilenchi seems to have set The Avenue aside in the mid-1950s because its subtle interrogation of time and memory conflicted with the ‘hardline neo-realist aesthetic’ of the Italian Communist Party, which he then supported. When Ferrara died in 2010, van Straten discovered to his consternation that she had burned not only the couple’s letters, but The Avenue as well. He interprets that parting immolation as ‘an extreme gesture of love, probably prompted by the unfinished state of the novel’. Though the loss saddens him, he respects the gesture that robbed us of the novel.

In any case, do we really want every fabled work to come to light? The publication in 2015 of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, her long-rumoured first draft and/or sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, polarised readers. It has done little to shift the unique status of the novel that will remain her principal legacy. Shakespearean scholars have long hankered after a glimpse of Cardenio, the play based on an episode in Cervantes’ Don Quixote that Shakespeare and John Fletcher collaboratively wrote in 1613. It was performed, but no text has ever surfaced – although Lewis Theobald’s eighteenth-century drama, Double Falsehood, supposedly incorporates elements of a Cardenio script. But we do have Fletcher and Shakespeare’s co-authored The Two Noble Kinsmen: more Fletcher than Shakespeare, for sure, and hardly a play that anyone would swap for Twelfth Night or Macbeth. A recovered Cardenio might give us a few stand-out Bardic scenes. Its voice and tone would arguably feel much the same as the Kinsmen.

The thrill of the chase may satisfy the hunter more than the glory of the kill. ‘Heard melodies are sweet,’ as John Keats mused as he pondered on his Grecian Urn, ‘but those unheard/ Are sweeter’. At the end of the rainbow of lost books, those literary detectives who reach journey’s end tend to find not a crock of purest gold but a messy heap of first drafts, cancelled pages and aborted experiments. So, like van Straten, we carry on pursuing legendary literary quarries around the Grecian urn of time. Few among these elusive objects of desire will ever be tracked down. It seems perfectly apt that the benchmark modern quest for a vanished manuscript should concern Bruno Schulz’s The Messiah. Messiahs do have a habit of never turning up.

Giorgio van Straten’s In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes is published by Pushkin Press (translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre)