Sun, May 07, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Of books lost or missing

By Michiko Kakutani  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Lost: burned, misplaced, abandoned, suppressed, never finished, never started.

The books in Stuart Kelly's clever and highly entertaining new book are works of literature that have somehow been lost to posterity: Homer's Margites, a humorous epic about a fool, who, in Plato's words, "knew many things, but all badly"; the Arthurian epics contemplated by both Dryden and Milton but never written; Laurence Sterne's never completed Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, which concludes with one of the most famous unfinished sentences in literary history ("So that when I stretch'd out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre's -- "); Lord Byron's supposedly explosive Memoirs, which his publisher, executor and biographer had burned because, as one critic put it, they were "fit only for the brothel and would have damned" the poet "to everlasting infamy"; the novel, provisionally titled Double Expo-sure or Double Take, that Sylvia Plath was reportedly working on before her suicide in 1963.

As Kelly notes, "Loss is not an anomaly, or a deviation, or an exception," it's "the norm," and his inventory of missing books is a many-splendored thing, filled with classics gone missing and wildly ambitious projects never realized. We are reminded, for instance, of how little from antiquity has survived: We have only seven of the more than 80 plays Aeschylus wrote, only seven of Sophocles' 120 and only 18 of more than 90 by Euripides.

Aeschylus, whose supposed cause of death must surely rank as one of the strangest on record -- an eagle, Kelly informs us, dropped a tortoise on his head, apparently mistaking his bald pate for a rock -- would garner great fame in the ancient world, and the sole copy of his complete works came to occupy a privileged place in the celebrated library of Alexandria in Egypt; that copy was destroyed, along with thousands of other precious volumes, when that library went up in flames.

In the case of the comic playwright Menander, the loss of his writing was probably a good career move. Although the last known manuscripts of his work disappeared in Constantinople centuries ago, he had been hailed for his realism and his literary elegance by the likes of Aristophanes and Plutarch, and over the years, Kelly observes, his "fame grew and grew." That is, until fragments of his work turned up in an Egyptian excavation in 1905, and decades later one of his plays was pieced

together, translated and staged. The reaction was less than enthu-siastic, with Erich Segal, the classicist (better known as the author of Love Story), declaring that Menander had been revealed to be "a suburban Euripides."

As Kelly sees it, Menander's plays aren't the only works best lost to history's dustbin. Had Edward Gibbon pursued his original plan to write The History of the Liberty of the Swiss, he might never have gone on to write the work that made him famous, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

More debatable is Kelly's suggestion that the loss of a suitcase containing the young Ernest Hemingway's apprentice writings -- his first wife, Hadley, was transporting his possessions to Switzerland in 1922, when the valise was apparently stolen -- was actually a fortuitous event that forced him to develop his famous style and write the books he was capable of writing.

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