The term Borgesian is overused. I cannot help, however, applying it to this brief, enigmatic volume. Scratch out the celebrated authors’ names – among them Plath, Lowry and Benjamin; Hemingway, Byron and Gogol – and the resulting palimpsest, a literary object in which the modernist master delighted, could itself be a lost volume from Borges’ oeuvre.
Most obviously Borgesian is the book’s subject matter: lost and mythical texts. These are not, however, simply rumoured great works of which no conclusive evidence remains. They are books that feel only just out of the reader’s reach; texts that would, should the stars perfectly align, should some obsessive, Borges-like palaeographer search the right library on the right day, finally be available to their dead authors’ enthusiasts.
These books include the second part of Gogol’s Dead Souls, which the author, unsatisfied with his work, apparently burned in 1845. There is also the manuscript, assumed by many to be the original of Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project, that disappeared when its author committed suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940. There is the suppression and censorship from cultural history of Byron’s Memoirs,some parts of which even today might be considered ‘scandalous’. There is the loss on a train in France of the manuscript of Hemingway’s first novel, A Movable Feast – an incident van Straten describes as ‘of all the stories I cover in this book … certainly the one I am inclined to take most lightly, since the lost pages do not represent the irreparable destruction of something that could never be rewritten’.
There is even ‘The Book that I Actually Read (but did not photocopy)’ – namely The Avenue by van Straten’s friend, Romano Bilenchi, which van Straten, and several of Bilenchi’s other friends, managed to read after the author’s death, but before his wife destroyed it shortly in advance of hers.
Contributing to In Search of Lost Books’ Borgesian tone are the puzzles surrounding these mislaid, destroyed and elusive texts. Solving these problems seems, superficially at least, to be van Straten’s main purpose in this book. He states in his introduction that ‘everyone seeking [these eight lost books] is convinced that they exist, and that they will be the one to find them’. In this regard, the story of Walter Benjamin’s final days represents the perfect solvable mystery. Having dragged both his weak body and a black suitcase ‘he refused to abandon’ across the French border into Spain, he promptly took his own life. The suitcase, along with the manuscript inside it, apparently evanesced along with him, offering the tempting hope that ‘there might be some forgotten, yellowing papers in a wardrobe or an old chest in the attic of a house in Portbou’.
What in my opinion makes this oddly touching book most redolent of Borges, though, is its lace-like nature – the combination of delicate threads of fact and enticingly elaborate lacunae. Ultimately each of van Straten’s eight slight but carefully researched histories can only describe a vacancy. Each chapter ends without the carefully outlined gap being filled – any potential conclusion slipping through the author’s, and the reader’s, fingers. The result is literary fretwork – paths fork, but take us back on ourselves. Van Straten – on the strength of this book an undeniable Borgesian – has created a set of beautiful labyrinths, the centres of which are out of reach … for now, at least.
He ends the book with a completely fitting temptation. The final chapter is the story of the Sylvia’s Plath’s unpublished novel, Double Exposure. After her suicide, Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, exerted complete (and controversial) control over the publication of the sizeable body of work she left behind, which includes, it is thought, the Double Exposure manuscript. Before his own death, Hughes deposited at the University of Georgia a quantity of Plath’s papers ‘that may not be consulted until 2022’ – sixty years after her demise. Might Double Exposure be among these?
‘I smile too’, says van Straten; ‘I am prepared to wait and see.’
As would Borges be, and as would anyone be who delights in the literature of literature.
By West Camel
In Search of Lost Books: The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes
Translated from the Italian by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre
Published by Pushkin Press, 2017