In an age when deleted scenes from Adam Sandler movies are saved, it’s sobering to realize that some of the world’s greatest prose and poetry has gone missing. This witty, wry, and unique new book rectifies that wrong. Part detective story, part history lesson, part exposé, The Book of Lost Books is the first guide to literature’s what-ifs and never-weres.
In compulsively readable fashion, Stuart Kelly reveals details about tantalizing vanished works by the famous, the acclaimed, and the influential, from the time of cave drawings to the late twentieth century. Here are the true stories behind stories, poems, and plays that now exist only in imagination:
·Aristophanes’ Heracles, the Stage Manager was one of the playwright’s several spoofs that disappeared.
·Love’s Labours Won may have been a sequel to Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost–or was it just an alternative title for The Taming of the Shrew?
·Jane Austen’s incomplete novel Sanditon, was a critique of hypochondriacs and cures started when the author was fatally ill.
·Nikolai Gogol burned the second half of Dead Souls after a religious conversion convinced him that literature was paganism.
·Some of the thousand pages of William Burroughs’s original Naked Lunch were stolen and sold on the street by Algerian street boys.
·Sylvia Plath’s widower, Ted Hughes, claimed that the 130 pages of her second novel, perhaps based on their marriage, were lost after her death.
Whether destroyed (Socrates’ versions of Aesop’s Fables), misplaced (Malcolm Lowry’s Ultramarine was pinched from his publisher’s car), interrupted by the author’s death (Robert Louis Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston), or simply never begun (Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, America, a second volume of his memoirs), these missing links create a history of literature for a parallel world. Civilized and satirical, erudite yet accessible, The Book of Lost Books is itself a find.
Homer's first work, alluded to by Aristotle, was supposedly a comic epic poem. Byron's memoirs were posthumously destroyed, and Ben Jonson didn't live to complete his final play, a pastoral tragicomedy. Flaubert, who suffered seizures that were probably epileptic, kept the text of a scientifically accurate novel about insanity locked up inside his head. At 15, Scottish freelance critic Kelly began compiling a List of Lost Books when he was shocked to learn that there are no extant plays of Agathon, a celebrated fifth century B.C. tragedian and friend of Euripides. "From Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath, Homer to Hemingway, Dante to Ezra Pound, great writers had written works I could not possess," Kelly laments. "The entire history of literature was also the history of the loss of literature." At their best, Kelly's short essays whet the appetite for great works of literature, and serious readers will enjoy scanning these pages looking for curiosities and pondering lost volumes from the oeuvres of Austen, Chaucer and St. Paul. Inevitably, the thesis is more charming than the lengthy execution, and one suspects this would have been much more effective in condensed form as a whimsical article in Harper's or the Atlantic. Illus.