October 30, 2006

The Book of Lost Books

It's not all snarking here at Language Log Plaza.  Sometimes we want to tell you about admirable things, or just explore data.  Today I'm here to appreciate Stuart Kelly's The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read (Random House, 2005), a wry account of books destroyed, misplaced, never finished, or never even begun.  From far ancient times to Sylvia Plath and Georges Perec, books have been wiped out by their authors (or their families), through accident or forgetfulness, and (far too often) in the purifying fire of ideology.

With considerable learning, Kelly covers high culture in the literate world, from Greece and Rome through China, India, the Arabic lands, Japan, later Europe (including Russia), and the U.S.  (Nothing from Canada, Latin America, Africa, or Australia.)  It's mostly a tale of monstrously ambitious men; of the 79 named authors, only four are women (and though you can be expected to have heard of Sappho, Jane Austen, and Sylvia Plath, you've probably never come across Faltonia Betitia Proba, from whom only one poem survives, and that's a cento, a pastiche of lines from other writers), and the women are not notably over-reaching, while most of the men had over-sized egos and aims, which of course gives something of an edge to the narratives.

Here are seven bits that caught my eye.

1.  Ovid and linguistic field work:

In the Epistulae ex Ponto,... Ovid tells us of one remarkable feat he accomplished in exile.  He learned the Getic language of the savages, and even composed poems in it.  His subject was a eulogy for Augustus, and the tribe were impressed enough to call him a bard.  But, they insisted, since he sang the praises of the emperor, surely he would be restored to civilization?  He never was, and the lines in which he celebrated the divine Caesars in the rough tongue of his despised compatriots were left unpreserved.  As, for that matter, was the entire Getic language.  (p. 68)

2.  Milton misplaced;

Four different drafts appear in the manuscript for a drama founded on the opening of the Book of Genesis, sketches for a tragedy called Adam Unparadiz'd.  Milton's daughter, Mrs. Susannah Clarke, told Voltaire in 1727 that her father had actually written nearly two acts of the work; but it was set aside and somehow lost. (p. 160)

Our forgetful authors.

3.  Gibbon and the great work of his life:

Finally, [Edward Gibbon] hit upon a subject equal to his aspirations and intelligence: The History of the Liberty of the Swiss.  Having immersed himself in Schilling, Tschudi, Lauffer, and Leu, he read the first chapters, written in French, to a literary society in London.  Whatever caveats and criticisms they made, they were taken to heart.  Gibbon "delivered [his] imperfect sheets to the flames, and for ever renounced a design in which some expense, much labour, and more time had been so vainly consumed." (p. 209)

Earlier, visiting Rome, he had entertained the idea of writing about the decline and fall of the city.  After the Swiss debacle, he returned to the Roman project, now expanded to the whole empire.  Bingo.

I can't read this without a shiver.  Not to mention some anxiety about whatever happened to various manuscripts of mine that never found a publishing source.

4.  Scott I, the unpersuadable:

Even though [Sir Walter Scott] was supposed to rest [after a series of strokes], and the final volumes of the Magnum were at the printers, Scott nonetheless embarked on a series of new works.  As if addicted to the act of writing, and having to rely on his own unsteady penmanship, he began another novel.  "No persuasion could arrest him," says [his son-in-law John Gibson] Lockhart, as he commenced a work based on a "history of the Neapolitan banditti, and covered many quires with charter after chapter of a romance connected with the Knights of St. John." (p. 227)

"No persuasion could arrest him" is delicious, not the least for being entirely comprehensible while also being well off the idiom of modern English.

There were two works, both still (sort of) extant in manuscript, though John Buchan in his life of Scott prays that "it may be hoped that no literary resurrectionist will ever be guilty of the crime of giving them to the world."

5.  Scott II, the punctuation-free:

The manuscript is not completely extant, as various pages have been excised by souvenir hunters.  Neither is it utterly illegible [as Lockhart claimed], although Scott's celerity means that many pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions are omitted; and his infirm handwriting renders the transcription of certain passages speculative at best.  As usual with his drafts, there is hardly any punctuation, which Scott relied on the printers to supply. (p. 228)

Omit needless words!

Relying on printers to supply punctuation is a remarkable touch.  [Update: As Andrew Gray tells me, not so remarkable at all, but fairly common 18th-century practice.  Authors could have a chance at fixing spelling, punctuation, and capitalization once the compositors were done with their work, but probably many did not bother.]

6.  Austen begs off a task:

Jane Austen is invited by James Stanier Clarke, the prince regent's librarian, to write (following a plot outline he proposed) The Magnificent Adventures and Intriguing Romances of the House of Saxe Coburg.  She demurs:

You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of Composition which might recommend me at present, & I am fully sensible than an Historical Romance, founded on the House of Saxe Coburg might be much more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity, than such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as I deal in--but I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem.--I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter.--No--I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way. (p. 239)

"Gloriously arch, and daringly candid", Kelly says.

7.  Flaubert and taboo avoidance:

... after five years of writing and revising, Madame Bovary: The Story of a Provincial Education (1857) appeared in La Revue de Paris, initially advertised as the work on one Monsieur G. Flaubert.  The editor, his erstwhile friend Maxime Du Camp, had required further cuts.  Even so, the printed version was sprinkled with demure dashes to protect easily offended eyes from gutter words.  These absences were material evidence in the eventual trial, where the wily defending lawyer, Sénard, insisted that the considerate blanks had merely inflamed the suspicions of the dirty-minded prosecution, who obviously knew far worse words than the blanks suppressed.

The scandale ensured healthy sales. (p. 271)

Well, of course.

[Update: Languagehat supplies a pointer to a remarkable lost book story, not in Kelly's book: Bakhtin smoking his own manuscript -- using (up) its pages as cigarette papers!]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 30, 2006 07:49 PM