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The Missing

Why lost texts fascinate us

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

There are so many we nearly lost.

The stories are tangled and difficult to trace, but we do know that in 1924 a sickly insurance salesman wrote to his friend asking him to burn all his papers on the event of his imminent demise. Luckily, his friend ignored these dying wishes, and Max Brod ensured that we have Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and The Castle, and a number of the shorter works.

In 1886, having published only a few poems in her lifetime, a New England recluse made her sister promise to burn all her papers on her death. The sister was wily enough to interpret the request carefully, and therefore destroyed any number of letters and diaries, but ensured that nearly two thousand poems were preserved. Four years later (and not without wrangles), Lavinia Dickinson had played her part in the first publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems.

Further back, Suetonius tells us of a poet, who had gained some small reputation for two books of rural verses, now lying fevered and dying in the port of Brindisi. The poet regarded the book he had been working on as unfinished, or perhaps dangerous in some way, and demanded that it be destroyed on his demise. The Emperor Augustus had taken an interest, however, and his wishes over-rode those of Publius Vergilius Maro, ensuring that we have Virgil’s Aeneid today.

The list of books narrowly saved for posterity is a significant one, but there is a second category here: works which we know existed yet have now been lost. Many of these have fallen to the vagaries and ravages of history, as though time itself had eaten them. In his Poetics, Aristotle says he will go on to write about comedy, but the papyrus roll on which the second book was copied has never been found. There are any number of lost gospels, many only apocryphal but others now untraceable referred to by early writers and scholars. There is Love’s Labours Won, Shakespeare’s sequel to Love’s Labours Lost, mentioned by several contemporaries. There was a second (and possibly third) part of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls which, in its current form, ends mid-sentence after Gogol hurled the rest of the book on the fire having become convinced that the devil had told him to (he later regretted his actions).

More recently, the terrors of the twentieth century took their toll. Isaac Babel’s early works were acclaimed enough to lend him support in early post-Revolutionary Russia, but as the climate changed and totalitarian paranoia grew, his renown was not enough to protect him. In 1939 he was bundled into the back of a car heading for the Lubyanka, then shipped off to a gulag where he was probably murdered some six months later. Several works, including a novel about an Odessa Jewish gangster navigating the early Soviet world, were confiscated by the NKVD and never seen again. His last known words were let me finish my work.

Artistic talent and the small literary fame accrued by The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass may have helped Bruno Schulz avoid incarceration in the camps, but his time was limited. In 1942, while shopping for bread, he was shot dead by one Nazi officer jealous of another believed to be protecting the writer and artist. Schulz had entrusted the manuscript of a novel called The Messiah to a friend who has never been identified, and the work has never been found.

Schulz’s Messiah then, leads us to a further category, one yet even more tantalising: books that exist only as rumours, as possibilities.

There is a letter from Emily Brontë’s publisher Thomas Cautley Newby, dated February 15, 1848 (now in the Brontë Parsonage Museum). ‘I am much obliged by your kind note’, it begins, ‘and shall have great pleasure in making arrangements for your second novel.’ The ‘kind note’ to which Newby was responding no longer exists but Newby goes on to give a hint of what it may have contained. ‘I would not hurry its completion’, he writes, ‘for I think you are quite right not to let it go before the world until well satisfied with it.’ What is that ‘it’? Newby, it seems, had been informed that something had been written.

In her biography of the Brontës, Juliet Barker suggests that Charlotte burned the existing manuscript on her sister’s death. Whether this was because she was scandalised, jealous or merely anxious to protect her sibling’s reputation has to remain speculation — but if this is all speculative, we will be forgiven for speculating yet further, and imagining a second copy of the ms., still quietly sitting in a locked trunk in the dusty archive of a remote Yorkshire library, perhaps, or hoping that the novel was not fed into the Parsonage fireplace but sent somewhere for safekeeping, still to be found.

Another manuscript that may have ended up as ash on a northern hillside is that of Sylvia Plath’s second novel. In the introduction to the book of collected short prose Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, her former husband wrote that Plath had ‘typed some 130 pages of another novel, provisionally titled Double Exposure. That manuscript disappeared somewhere around 1970.’ It might be wrong to speculate, but speculating is what writers do, so I can’t help but wonder if that husband’s hand may not have eased the book’s disappearance, especially as it is said to have told the story of a philandering poet. Or perhaps it still exists, among her sealed papers?

James Joyce took nearly twenty years to write his final published work Finnegans Wake but there is a rumour among Joyce scholars that he had also written something very different as a kind of coda to that massive, infinitely complex book. The critic Joseph Campbell suggested that after the dream-inspired Wake which ends with a river dissipating into the ocean, Joyce had written a book about the sea and reawakenings. Nothing has ever been found, but seeing as the last six months of Joyce’s life were a chaotic scramble to find a place of safety, there is always the possibility of this book showing up in a cache of letters rediscovered by a scholar or archivist in Paris or Zurich.

Why should we be so interested? There are so many books out there, it’s not as if we need more. As readers, we all know writers we feel are undervalued — why not simply give more space to them instead of this potentially futile chase for that which may not even exist? If we want more Brontë, why don’t we spend time with Emily’s poems, for example, or look more carefully at the work of sister Anne, still somewhat neglected? As for Joyce, surely both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are enough to keep us going?

Moreover, we have to acknowledge that we may have been spared a disappointment. The murky circumstances surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman or Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, and their muted receptions, should surely warn us of the dangers of poking around in the land of the almost-lost.

And yet.

On a purely practical level one thing these incorporeal works offer us is an amazing writing prompt. Asking what if…? is one of the central things writers do. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose looks at what might have happened had Aristotle’s work on comedy survived; there are all sorts of Gospels According To… (Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary being perhaps the best of an admittedly mixed crop); Love’s Labour’s Won forms the basis of an episode of Dr Who; the story of Schulz’s Messiah inspires David Grossman’s See Under: Love and Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm. To use another of Eco’s ideas, these lost, unfinished or half-existent books are the ultimate ‘open work.’ Nothing is ever lost; there are only starting points for other writers.

More than that, I think, these unformed books offer – ironically – hope. Everything is still possible, they say, as they reach out into a future where they will be discovered, redeemed, made whole. They must also remind us of the brute fact that for every work which was saved, or even the works lost by writers who are remembered, there are hundreds which have been lost, and writers who were never remembered in the first place. The task, these chimerical books tell us, is ours. We have to remake that which has been lost, and forge a memory of the never-recognised. This, I believe, is one of the unique things that fiction can do.

C. D. Rose is the author of the parafictional trilogy The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else and most recently The Blind Accordionist.

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