26 June 2012

The Book of Lost Books (Stuart Kelly)

During last summer's literally epic GRRMarathon, the following mystical convergence occurred: 1. I read a scene wherein a character* is reading The Book of Lost Books, and thought to myself, "Man, I wish this was a real book." 2. Mere days later, I came across Stuart Kelly's `1The Book of Lost Books while shelving at Housing Works! Tragically, I didn't have the spare cash to snap it up on the spot, but I didn't forget, and my lovely sister gave it to me for Christmas. This being June, I finally got around to reading it. (Also I finished my fiancé's Christmas present! It's a sweater! Just in time for 90-degree weather!)

And it's everything I'd hoped, a commonplace book of works we'll never read, a bibliophile's catalog of tantalizing impossibility. Kelly's cheery, digressive prose shares the sad fates of reams of writing gone astray or destroyed over the millenia; sure, everybody's heard of Aristotle's lost work on comedy (for certain narrow definitions of "everybody"), but didja know Homer's first epic was a comedy, the Margites? Whole Greek and Roman authors' oeuvres have disappeared, such as the works of Agathon, an Athenian playwright who wrote the only known tragedy with an original plot (Antheus), or those of Gallus, a Roman poet praised by Ovid and Virgil. Kelly even rattles off a list of Greek writers we only know about because Aristophanes makes fun of them, a depressing legacy to say the least. Then there's the case of Menander, a comic dramatist whose wildly popular plays were lost during the Middle Ages--until fragments were discovered in the early 1900s . . . and, uh, nobody liked them very much.

Kelly doesn't limit himself to the ancients, of course, and he expands the definition of "lost" to include unfinished works--The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, which cuts off in the middle of a sentence--and those planned but never written, like Goethe's answer to Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, a scientific epic to be called "The Romance of the Universe," or Milton's Arthuriad. Cervantes had to put aside part II of his pastoral drama Galatea to counter a spurious Don Quixote sequel with his own, which leaves the mad knight safely dead at the end (luckily, no one thought to bring him back as a zombie).

Even relative modernity is no assurance for an author. All of Hemingway's work up until 1922 was in a case stolen from his first wife's luggage. Polish writer Bruno Schulz's novel Messiah supposedly languishes in the KGB archives to this day. Dylan Thomas managed to misplace and re-find his play Under Milk Wood three times.

And mercy, I do so hope that Mr. Martin doesn't add to Kelly's list.

*Research indicates said scene appears in A Feast for Crows--the reader is Lord Rodrik Harlaw, oddball bibliophile among the ironborn and uncle to Asha and Theon Greyjoy.

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