Light up a Dostoevsky as you ponder the world's literary labours lost

The Book of Lost Books
August 26, 2005

In King Cheng's time, c. 221BC, both you as the reader of this piece and I as the writer would have been done for; publicly executed with our immediate families and dumped in a mass grave. As for Stuart Kelly, recorder of lost books, his fate is best left unimagined. The "burning of the books" was the Chinese ruler's way of dealing with "men of letters who study the past in order to criticise the present". Kelly's book studies both men of letters and their lost works, though not so as to criticise anyone.

He takes us through the history of "lost" books, starting with the anonymous artists of a 77,000-year-old ochre slab found in the Blombos Caves in South Africa and bringing us up to the 20th century, with writers such as Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway and the works they lost. In more than 80 entries, Kelly engages with, among others, Aeschylus, whose complete works were acquired by Ptolemy III for the library at Alexandria, which was burnt on the orders of the Caliph of Baghdad in 641; Sophocles, of whose 120 plays only seven survive; the Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa, whose surviving plays are known to have influenced Goethe's Faust ; Thomas Carlyle, whose History of the French Revolution was used as scrap paper by his friend John Stuart Mill's lady-friend's maid; and Kafka, who burnt his works to keep warm while writing through the night, and then immediately destroyed the results.

The back jacket of Kelly's book bears a complete list of entries with a four-colour code denoting four categories of loss: unfinished, lost, unstarted and illegible. This is elaborated and extended in the introduction and in the body of the text. Some works have been lost through destruction: Gerard Manley Hopkins burnt all his early poetry when he dedicated his life to God, while Mikhail Bakhtin used his work on Dostoevsky as cigarette papers after having smoked a copy of the Bible.

Others have gone missing: Socrates, awaiting execution, wrote versifications of Aesop's Fables , none of which has survived. Works have been misplaced: Malcolm Lowry's Ultramarine was stolen from his publisher's car, and the version we have was reconstructed out of what was left in his bin. Then there are those works that were arrested by untimely death: Sir Philip Sidney's expansion of his Arcadia was terminated by a bullet on the battlefield. Perfectionism, too, has been a cause for destruction: Virgil left instructions for the Aeneid to be torched, as he had not had time to perfect it. And, of course, some books have vanished through censorship.

It is an impressive range, but I do have a few quibbles. Lynne Truss, quoted twice on the jacket, calls the book "clever"; and it occasionally remains a clever idea, no more. Several chapters are merely general introductions to writers and, though interesting, have a less-than-tenuous link with the whole. Kelly also has a tendency to be demotic that, taken too far, becomes pub-matey banter. Homer's lost comedy Margites is discussed in the light of Forrest Gump and Homer Simpson in a manner that feels forced. Again, instead of telling us there exists no extant play by Agathon, Kelly drags us through the cant of a web search on "Agathon", from rock bands to Marvel Comics to make his point. The glib prose undermines the seriousness of his research. So we have: "but Homer, himself, herself, whatever, is irredeemably slippery", "Sappho was the laureate of the torn, the fissured and the cavity", not to mention the occasional "ahem" inside brackets.

But, the most obvious omission, in a book about lost books, is the absence of the Diamond Sutra . This is the world's earliest dated complete book, commissioned by Wang Jie in AD868 and lost for centuries as it remained sealed in Buddhist caves in Dunhuang, along the Silk Road, until discovered by the Hungarian-born explorer Aurel Stein on his second Chinese expedition.

. Nevertheless, Kelly's narrative moves with the ease of an after-dinner conversation between bibliophiles, and his love of books is patent. His chapter on Confucius is one of the book's finest pieces of writing, carrying itself with an elegance worthy of its subject.

For anyone looking for a quick general introduction to literary figures down the ages, this book is an interesting option, nicely produced and well illustrated by Andrzej Krauze.

Dipli Saikia holds a PhD in literature from Bristol University, and now works in book publishing.

The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You Will Never Read

Author - Stuart Kelly
Publisher - Viking
Pages - 390
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 0 670 91499 1

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments