Giorgio van Straten and the mystery of the missing manuscripts

Italian writer Giorgio van Straten turns literary detective, hot on the trail of books tragically lost in the mists of time – whether through deliberate destruction or an accidental twist of fate.

RUSSIA - 1809:  Nicolas Gogol (1809-1852), Russian writer, by Moller.  (Photo by Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images)
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The term "lost books" usually conjures up long since forgotten tomes; novels that have fallen out of print, non-fiction that has fallen out of fashion.

Rarely is it used to refer to volumes that have actually vanished in the mists of time, never to be found again; but it's eight of these such cases – "those that once existed but are no longer here" – that are the subject of Giorgio van Straten's delightful and absorbing In Search of Lost Books: the forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes.

Van Straten begins with a personal tale; he’s one of only a handful of people to have read an incomplete, unpublished, and for the most part unknown novel written by the great Italian writer Romano Bilenchi.

Discovered after the author's death in 1989, unfinished and deeply personal – it fictionalised the romantic relationship between Bilenchi and his second wife, Maria, which they embarked on while Bilenchi was still married to his first – opinion is split about what to do with it. "If Romano did not finish it, and didn't publish it, then his intentions should be respected, and his reservations maintained," said Maria.

Van Straten felt differently though. “But it is equally true to say,” he argued, “that Romano did not discard the manuscript, did not destroy it, but chose to keep it instead. This seems to me just as significant.”

The latter argument initially won out, and the manuscript was preserved as part of Bilenchi’s archive. Two decades later, however, after Maria’s demise, van Straten was shocked to learn that one of the last things she did before her death was to destroy the manuscript, and its photocopy.

He can understand the widow’s position, he respects it even – “It might be the wrong decision, but the heirs are within their rights”, he reiterates when later discussing Sylvia Plath – but he can’t quite forgive the act: “there remains a bitterness about a novel that no longer exists”, he writes at the end of this chapter, “and which is fading irrevocably from our memories of it”.

Each of van Straten's eight case studies is given a chapter in this slim volume. Half are examples of works destroyed on purpose – action, it should be pointed out, usually taken by others, the exception here being the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol who, in February 1852, a mere 10 days before his death, is believed to have burnt the second volume of Dead Souls. An eyewitness recounted how the writer slowly fed the five 100-page manuscript sheets by single sheet into the fire before collapsing on his bed and weeping.

The other four subjects are works that were lost either by accident or what we might deem the vagaries of fate.

We can mourn Gogol’s decision, regard it as foolhardy and a waste, but whether he had the right to do what he did is not up for discussion. Less clear-cut is Maria’s destruction of Bilenchi’s work, or Ted Hughes’s of his wife Plath’s.

Following her suicide he destroyed what he claimed were diary entries so upsetting he didn't ever want their children to read them; re-ordered the works in the book of poetry that posthumously made her name, Ariel; and, most significantly for van Straten's endeavour, got rid of the manuscript of her second novel, a work in progress that apparently fictionalised Hughes' infidelity, tentatively titled Double Exposure.

Given how Hughes and Plath's marriage has fascinated readers since, it's maddening for many to think that Plath's own thoughts on the matter will never see the light of day. Or will they? There are some papers that Hughes deposited at Plath's archive at the University of Georgia with orders that weren't to be looked at until 2022. Might Double Exposure be among them, van Straten hopes? So too, any Byron scholar would give their right arm to read the infamous 19th-century poet's scandalous memoirs, but when, following his death, his publisher, family and friends made the collective decision in 1824 to burn them, there were reasons aplenty and reputations at stake.

In writing about these cases, van Straten is posing questions about ownership and the public’s right to access. When it comes to the cases of those books that were mislaid, however, his role is a different one.

Hemingway's lost papers, for example – left unattended in a train carriage at the Gare de Lyon by his first wife Hadley Richardson as she scurried off to buy a bottle of water, vanished on her return – and the loss of Malcolm Lowry's manuscript of his novel In Ballast to the White Sea, which he'd been working on for nine years – destroyed when the cabin in British Columbia, Canada, in which he was living and writing burnt to the ground. Both cases are both horrible, senseless accidents: the stuff of fiction, if you will.

Two of van Straten's cases that are the most haunting however, are both casualties of the Second World War: Bruno Schulz's The Messiah – which vanished after the author was murdered in Poland in 1942 – is a loss so poignant it has inspired other writers: Cynthia Ozick's novel The Messiah of Stockholm; and Ugo Riccarelli's A Man Called Schulz, perhaps – and the mysterious manuscript Walter Benjamin was carrying in a black suitcase when he died in Portbou on the border between France and Spain in 1940. Here, van Straten turns literary detective, chasing leads, trying to discover what might have happened to these works.

Elegantly translated from the original Italian by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, In Search of Lost Books is a little gem of a collection; recommended reading for any curious bibliophile.

Romano Bilenchi The Avenue
Lord Byron Memoirs
Ernest Hemingway Juvenilia
Bruno Schulz The Messiah
Nikolai Gogol Dead Souls (part II)
Malcolm Lowry In Ballast to the White Sea
Walter Benjamin What was in the Black Suitcase
Sylvia Plath Double Exposure


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