APRIL 17, 2019
THERE IS A riveting scene in the documentary Finding Pictures (Bilder finden, 2002) by German filmmaker Benjamin Geissler, when Agnieszka Kijowska, part of the team searching for remnants of a mural painted in 1942 by the Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz, scrubs layers of paint from the pantry wall of a house in a Ukrainian village, formerly part of Poland. As she scrubs, an image, slowly and miraculously, reveals itself. “Here’s a little face,” she says in disbelief. “Mr. Wojciech,” she repeats, referring to Wojciech Chmurzyński, an expert in Schulz’s visual art, “Here’s a little face.” Offscreen a man’s voice answers, “Wonderful! Oh my God! […] It’s reminiscent of his self-portraits. Oh my God! This is it! How true.”
It’s an uncanny moment, a flash discovery of something thought forever lost. The whimsical face exhumed from beneath the decades-old paint is an auto-portrait of Bruno Schulz, Jewish author of The Street of Crocodiles (Sklepy cynamonowe, 1933) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą, 1937), and creator of phantasmagoric drawings. Schulz’s artistic talents had for a time earned him refuge in the home of Felix Landau, a Nazi officer who had charged him with painting murals in his children’s bedroom. But on November 19, 1942, this reprieve came to an end when another Nazi officer, Karl Günther, shot Schulz on the streets of Drohobych, Ukraine, the village that had inspired so much of his creative work. And from that moment, two absences were established: a vanished body, as Schulz’s burial place isn’t definitively known, and an unpublished novel, The Messiah (Mesjasz), whose whereabouts still remain a mystery.
The Messiah is one of eight lost manuscripts conjured up in Giorgio van Straten’s In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes, translated from the Italian by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre. The director of the Italian Cultural Institute of New York and author of, among other volumes, My Name, A Living Memory — a book that traces and imagines his father’s Jewish roots from 19th-century Rotterdam, Netherlands, to 20th-century Italy — van Straten is undoubtedly drawn to memory. And in his latest work, the focus is not on people long gone or places now vanished, but on the books that disappeared. They include, in addition to Schulz’s The Messiah, a manuscript by the Italian writer Romano Bilenchi, which van Straten, a friend and mentee of the writer, had read but regretfully not saved; the burned memoirs of Lord Byron, deemed too scandalous by Byron’s family and a former male lover; an early Ernest Hemingway manuscript that disappeared when the suitcase containing it was stolen in Paris’s Gare de Lyon; a Sylvia Plath novel that vanished following her suicide; the manuscript of Walter Benjamin, believed to have been in the black suitcase he carried in 1940 as he tried, unsuccessfully, to flee Jewish persecution in France and ended up taking his own life in the village of Portbou on the Spanish border; and two manuscripts lost to fire: the second volume of Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 Dead Souls — purportedly burned by the author himself — and a 1,000-page masterpiece by Malcolm Lowry that was destroyed in a house fire.
Van Straten reconstructs each tale of loss with the perseverance of a sleuth, the passion of a bibliophile, and the conviviality of a raconteur, without abandoning the raw sense of wonder that leaves open the possibility — as happened with Schulz’s murals — of a rediscovery. As he writes in the introduction,
Every time I have chanced across the story of a lost book I have experienced something like the feeling that gripped me as a child when reading certain novels which spoke of secret gardens, of mysterious cable-cars, of abandoned castles. I have recognized the opportunity for a quest, felt the fascination of that which escapes us — and the hope of becoming the hero who will be able to solve the mystery.
He assembles each narrative with information gleaned from the eight authors’ diaries and letters, historical and contemporary sources, interviews with critics, and conversations with his own literary friends and colleagues, so that the book feels both scholarly and intimate. And while each loss he invokes is unique, an overarching question emerges from the litany of voices assembled for each chronicle: what is society’s responsibility (if any) to a creative work?
Tensions often surround a common debate: what to do when an artist wishes to have their unpublished work destroyed after death, while a survivor’s responsibility lies in delivering to posterity — and humanity — an invaluable work. (A famous example of the latter winning out is the case of Max Brod, who, after the death of his friend Franz Kafka, didn’t destroy Kafka’s manuscripts as he had been instructed.) But van Straten explores scenarios that distinctly eradicate the possibility for posthumous publication: namely, the destruction of a deceased writer’s work by family and friends despite the writer’s wish to have it endure (as with Lord Byron, and possibly Bilenchi and Plath), self-censorship (which was the case for Gogol and to a certain extent, the perfectionist Lowry), and annihilation during wartimes (as occurred with Walter Benjamin and Bruno Schulz).
This last form of vanishing — via war and persecution — is perhaps most heartbreaking, because the aggressor can’t be whittled down to a single person or simple bad luck. It is, rather, a form of collective assault, against not only an individual but also a creation that never had a chance to see the light of day. It is, in short, an act of societal violence against creation itself.
And Walter Benjamin’s case is equally tragic in this regard. A “consummately refined revolutionary,” as van Straten describes him, Benjamin left his native Germany in 1933 after the Nazi seizure of control and moved to Paris, where he wrote the texts that would turn him into one of the 20th century’s most influential thinkers. Among these was the unfinished The Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk), about 19th-century Parisian life, whose photocopy he would go on to entrust to his friend Georges Bataille prior to his eventual ill-fated escape from France. Another was “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, 1935), an essay on the ways in which mechanical reproduction of an artwork strips it of its aura. On June 13, 1940, just a day before the Germans occupied Paris, Benjamin decided to leave the city for Marseille, France, hoping to continue from there to Portugal and make his way to the United States. But while he had a permit to enter the United States, he lacked many of the exit and entry documents that would have allowed him to make his labyrinthine way out of Europe. Hence the last-ditch attempt to flee Marseille for Spain, the black suitcase containing the mysterious manuscript, and the eventual suicide that would put an end to the man, his suitcase, and his writings.
As well as the societal, cultural, and existential tensions tied to the moment of the vanishing, there is another that runs throughout van Straten’s book: the tension between the hope of discovery and the futility of the search, or what van Straten, quoting Marcel Proust, calls “the risk of an impossibility.” Proust invokes this risk as a prerequisite for love between humans, and van Straten extends the definition to love between a human being and a lost book, fueled by “that combination of impulse and melancholy, of curiosity and fascination, which develops with the thought of something that existed once but that we can no longer hold in our hands.” In other words, the tension of searching for the work is inextricable from the story of its recovery, even if the tangible recovery is impossible.
And his emphasis on the lost object’s former existence is important. For van Straten, lost books are not those “that were not even born: conceived, expected and dreamt of, but prevented for one reason or another from ever being written.” On the contrary, they are ones that did in fact exist but subsequently vanished. This distinction reveals the value he places on a writer’s self-actualization while reinforcing the intimacy of his book, which not only shares the narratives of eight vanished manuscripts dear to him, but also prompts readers to define for themselves what constitutes loss, and more specifically, the loss of a book. Because it is likely we all have different criteria for what makes a book “lost.” What of those books attributed to an author with a certain level of celebrity, but secretly penned by a relative or lover? Is proof of the manuscript’s former existence necessary, or can one simply take the author’s word that such a book once lived? And perhaps most importantly, must the book have been actually written to be lost, or does it qualify if it might have been written had circumstances permitted it?
Reflecting on lost books brought to my mind Imre Kertész’s novel Kaddish for an Unborn Child (Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért, 1990), an elegiac book about a Hungarian Holocaust survivor’s inability to bring a child into the world. In Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson’s 1997 English translation (titled Kaddish for a Child Not Born), the narrator describes his long “road of self-liquidation” and his lifelong conversation with his unborn child, who becomes for him a lingering shadow. Kertész’s narrator even goes so far as to frame his “existence in the context of [the nonextant child’s] potentiality.” Just as there are offspring left uncreated because of their potential parents’ failure to actualize them, are there books that never came into existence because their authors lacked agency in a world that for one reason or another stripped them of it? Might one, in other words, recite a kaddish for an unborn book?
That, I suppose, depends on the definition of loss. But however you define it, it is certainly not a bygone event. Books are undoubtedly being lost every day. Given the political volatility of our time and the continuous displacement of millions of people (68.5 million in 2017, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency), how many manuscripts — written and unwritten, by authors known and unknown — are vanishing daily? Perhaps in a generation or two, someone will sift through the wreckage and create a new bibliography of lost books.
But as van Straten emphasizes, the story doesn’t end with loss. In fact, the story doesn’t end at all, for absence itself can become a catalyst for creativity — as was the case, for example, with Schulz’s Messiah: Schulz appears as a fish in David Grossman’s 1986 novel See Under: Love, and, most famously, as the protagonist’s claimed father in Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm, published a year later. He is even the namesake of a Polish rock band. This echoes philosopher Abraham J. Heschel’s idea, explored in his book Who Is Man? (1963), that “[t]he dignity of human existence is in the power of reciprocity.” One of our primary experiences as humans, says Heschel, is to obtain and seize things we care for in childhood, and, upon entering maturity, to give and provide for those we care for. Maybe in this ideal of reciprocity, where “[k]nowledge is a debt, not a private property,” knowledge of an absence may be repaid through transformation: an inherited loss into a new creation.
Still, despite its inevitability and potential to bring about renewal, loss causes grief. And the act of writing, besides all else it does, often serves as an attempt to accept this grief. This attempt was famously captured by Elizabeth Bishop in her poem “One Art,” a villanelle whose narrator simultaneously laments and relinquishes losses, both small (“lost door keys” and “the hour badly spent”) and vast (the beloved’s “joking voice” and “two cities, lovely ones”), and tries in vain to “master” them through writing. It could be argued that societies and cultures that experience repeated loss may develop a stronger compulsion to reconstruct an absence, to reinvent it and thus to refuse its irrevocability — in other words, to write it. As van Straten explained in My Name, A Living Memory, translated by Martha King,
The most dreaded Jewish curse says: May your name and even your memory be forgotten. Therefore, to save a man you must repeat his name, as in a liturgy. But the memory? That […] dies with the people who preserve it. Unless someone decides to transform it — to write it down, for instance.
In order to regenerate the memory of his ancestors — and his surname — he worked with family myths and stories, birth and death certificates, wedding invitations, heirlooms passed down the generations, and, inevitably, his own imagination. In his latest book, too, through the act of writing, he straddles the line between elegy and reincarnation, aware, all the while, that “if on the one hand [lost books] continue to elude us, […] on the other they come back to life in us — and ultimately, as in Proustian time, we can lay claim to having found them.” What he offers, as he tells the reader, is “the memory of absent books,” with both sorrow and fresh wonder, reflecting Schulz’s wish as he expressed it in a 1936 letter to a friend: “My ideal goal is to ‘mature’ into childhood.”
Though grief may be inevitable, van Straten’s book makes clear that loss is not absolute so long as memory, and the chance for transformation, persists. The memory must be conjured up without fossilizing it, must be breathed — or written — into a new form. This is what van Straten has done, in this slim, beautiful homage to eight absences.