by Giorgio van Straten (translated by Erica Segre & Simon Carnell)
“Lost books are those that once existed but are no longer here.”
I’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.