Saturday, August 13, 2005


Land of the Lost

An intriguing look today in the Times of London at Stuart Kelly's The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Books You Will Never Read, which is already available in Britain -- the US edition by Random House won't be out until April of next year:

Some things were, perhaps, better lost. T. E. Lawrence mislaid the first draft of Seven Pillars of Wisdom on Reading railway station; the second draft, on his own admission, was “shorter, snappier and more truthful” than the first (he had been having such trouble with it that he may well have lost it on purpose). Hemingway’s anguish at the loss of all his unpublished typescripts, stolen in a suitcase en route to Switzerland in 1922, may have had its compensations in catapulting him headlong from juvenilia to the mature style of “Papa” Hemingway. Even Byron’s autobiography, the loss of which caused near hysteria at the time of its destruction, may have proved to be a damp squib, refusing to name names: Don Juan was Byron’s true, unfinished, autobiography, still ongoing at the time of his death.

Some things refused to be lost: Dylan Thomas lost the manuscript of Under Milk Wood not once but three times: first in London, then in America, and then again in London (where it turned up in a pub). Other things were never started: Milton, Dryden and Pope all planned epic versions of the Arthurian legend, long before Tennyson finally gave us Idylls of the King.... But perhaps the most famously unfinished work is Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, which ends with the incomplete sentence: “So that when I stretch’d out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre’s . . .” This seems less like genius inconveniently interrupted by mortality (Sterne died in the year the book came out) than a joke from the grave.

My own little nomination would go to Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which produced all sorts of would-be endings by other writers... including one that swooped in just months after Dickens died, the anonymous 1871 book John Jasper's Secret. Hmm... I don't know, somehow that just doesn't have the same ring to it as the original.

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