BOOK REVIEW: In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes

by Giorgio van Straten (translated by Erica Segre & Simon Carnell)

“Lost books are those that once existed but are no longer here.”

Lost Books CoverI’m partial to a mystery, especially if it’s a plausible one, but my interest can lead to complete preoccupation if books are part of the mix: as happened with Giorgio van Straten’s perplexing collection, in which we discover that once existent manuscripts have, through deception, suppression and occasional stupidity, vanished – possibly forever.

In this short but enthralling volume of literary micro-histories, we follow eight unrelated narratives, set in various parts of the world during different time periods, each one concerning a writer thought to have all-but completed their magnum opus – or at the very least, had in their possession scores of scribbled notes – before expiring for reasons including, but not limited to, disease, despair, suicide and liquidation. After which, their precious masterworks were said to have disappeared without trace.

There is, of course, some doubt all these works ever truly existed, the inference being legends grew from mere wishful thinking, fed by rumour, perhaps initiated by writers suffering creative block. Nevertheless, in one instance, van Straten himself claims to have read in its entirety a now missing bundle of papers, stored for decades in a drawer. Sadly, due to promises given, no copies were ever made and an opportunity was missed to save a friend’s writings from probable destruction. He now regrets his decision.

Some of these stories were familiar to me, for example, the burning of Lord Byron’s diaries because his friends and ex-wife believed personal reputations were in jeopardy. Also, the loss of Sylvia Plath’s unfinished novel, Double Exposure, which, according to her estranged husband, Ted Hughes, “disappeared somewhere around 1970.” However, I knew nothing of others, such as the works of Polish Jew, Bruno Schulz going missing in the Holocaust. Yet I found this chilling account only too credible.

Giorgio van Straten asks valid questions about the ethics of disposing of unfinished manuscripts once an author is dead, even when determined by a spouse or near relative. Are they the ideal people to make this decision? Is censorship by friends and family any more acceptable than suppression by an authoritarian state? He also raises the question: should writers be trusted when they say their works have disappeared? The answer is probably no.

In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes is an enthralling literary whodunnit, but for me it was also very much a howcouldyou! The mere suggestion of deliberate libricide was almost more than I could endure. We may never know for sure if some of these manuscripts are still hidden away somewhere or if they were only ever fanciful fictions. It’s a closed book, you might say. Well, maybe.

Many thanks to Pushkin Press for providing an advance review copy of this title.

Categories: Translated Literature

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11 replies

  1. Quite interesting and great review! This reminded me of Terry Pratchett, he wanted all of his unfinished work to be destroyed at the time of his death. They did destroy his hard drive last year 😮

    • Many thanks indeed, Alicia. I didn’t know that. I wonder why? Although, it does change the complexion of things if an author makes this sort of request before death. At least it takes the decision away from those left behind. Shame, though! 😕

  2. It’s absolutely fascinating, isn’t it? There were authors new to me too, but even returning to stories I was familiar with was very moving – Schulz being a case in point. His fate always breaks my heart.

  3. Interesting review, Paula! Schulz’s prose is unique – not sure how it holds in translation, but in Polish it is a truly amazing reading experience. I keep wondering, though – what about people who wanted to have their unpublished work destroyed or never published? Franz Kafka being the first writer coming to mind – if not for Max Brod we’d never have the chance to know some of his best works… On the other hand, there are Tolkien’s unfinished works, never intended for publishing and extensively edited by his son – and yet, being only pale shadows of what they could have been.

    • It’s a thorny issue, OlaG. I could never bring myself to destroy a writer’s work after their death. However, if it was their dying wish and I was a close friend or family member… I’m not sure. On the other hand, why did they hang on to these manuscripts, sometimes for years? They must have been of some importance to the author. Franz Kafka is a really good example. I sometimes wonder if he always knew his own mind. Perhaps Brod suspected so too. Thank goodness he was the literary executor – so much might have been lost. But of course, this is merely one instance. I’m not sure there can ever be a definitive answer to such questions, there are so many what ifs. It makes a fascinating topic of debate, though!

  4. Sounds like an incredibly engrossing book and one I would like to indulge in as well… (I too share a particular love of books about books ; D).. thanks for sharing Paula and wonderful review!


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