Books that will never be read
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- Published 8.12.06
A book lover’s worst frustration is the knowledge that there are some books he will never be able to read. This is not for reasons of language but because there are books which are known to have existed at one time but are no longer available. They were either destroyed, wilfully or accidentally, or have been lost. There are many such books and not all of them go back to ancient and medieval times.
But how do we know that such books existed one time? This knowledge comes through references in other texts or books. Stuart Kelly in this delightful book makes an annotated bibliography of some of these books. He writes with only a hint of exaggeration that “The entire history of literature was also the history of the loss of literature.”
It would be simplistic to assume that the destruction of books is always carried out by tyrants and bigots. Sometimes writers destroy their own work. The 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins burned all his early poetry. James Joyce had consigned to the fire the first draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. His wife had the good sense to rescue bits of it. More famously Franz Kafka wanted his entire oeuvre to be burnt. But Max Brod, his secretary decided otherwise. Virgil too left instructions for The Aeneid to be destroyed since he didn’t want posterity to read a text which he thought was imperfect.
There are other equally dramatic cases. Socrates, waiting for his execution, versified Aesop’s Fables. Of these only what Plato could remember has come down to readers. The first book of Aristotle’s Poetics has been reconstructed from his students’ notes, as was Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics.
There is another category of books to which there is no access. These consist of books that an author thought about but never executed the idea. R.B. Sheridan thought of a sequel to The School for Scandal which was to be called Affectation. But he never did write the book. Nabokov thought of a follow-up to Speak, Memory, his memoirs, with a volume called Speak, America. He never got down to writing this.
Sometimes, texts that are remembered only in memory can be misleading. Kelly gives an interesting example of this. He says that Allen Ginsberg recollected hearing fellow Beat poet, Gregory Corso, reading poetry in a lesbian bar in the Village in New York. The line that stuck in Ginsberg’s memory was: “The stone world came to me, and said Flesh gives you an hour’s life.” But after having searched all of Corso’s published works, Kelly could not find the line. He asks very pertinently: how did Ginsberg know that “Flesh” was capitalized?
Kelly picks out texts that have been lost from the obscure past to the 20th-century. How much richer world literature would have been if they had survived. There is perhaps one exception. Kelly records that T.S. Eliot sometimes wrote anonymous articles on foreign currency movements in Lloyds Bank Economic Review. These, thank God, haven’t found their way into the complete works of the poet.