Review by Michael Mungiello
In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes
by Giorgio van Straten, Trans. Simon Carnell and Erica Serge
October 16, 2018
We write words dozens of times a day and hit send. We immediately forget what we wrote, but our texts are archived forever. Naturally we don’t think of all writing as precious. However, in Giorgio van Straten’s work of literary history and criticism In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes, we’re reminded of a past method of mourning, one founded on a romantic idea: that the object of readerly love is precious, irreplaceable. Straten’s is a less utilitarian, more humanistic approach to writing.
In Search of Lost Books tells eight stories, each about a manuscript by a Great Writer (Romano Bilenchi, Lord Byron, Ernest Hemingway, Bruno Schulz, Nikolai Gogol, Malcolm Lowry, Walter Benjamin, and Sylvia Plath), each thought beyond retrieval. The “lost” of the title is synonymous not with “misplaced” but with “dead.” Straten’s book is thin, pleasant, and just a bit snobbish; it’s caviar on a Ritz cracker. Straten wears his old-world eloquence, his sense of culture, on his tailored sleeve. One gets the sense he takes his “mission” “seriously.” In other words, In Search of Lost Books might have been written by Niles Crane.
Straten frames his searches as spells of unrequited love, explicitly invoking Proust not only in his title but in his introduction. And just like Proust, it is entirely possible that Straten wrote this book from his bed. You might think our author literally searches for these books, donning the cap and cape of a literary Sherlock, but no. Instead, Straten compiles what amount to book reports on the eight unpublished books: biographical summary, literary anecdote (“anecdote” meaning gossip), and paeans to Important Authors that verge on pontification.
Despite his Proustian pretensions, Straten is surprisingly shallow. There’s a lack of introspection or invigorating literary analysis. The author bandies about flashy signs of knowingness without revealing any underlying knowledge. Where we might look for an archaeologist willing to get into the dirt—how did the loss of Gogol’s redemptive sequel to Dead Souls shape Russian literature and its sense of pessimism? What did the destruction of Byron’s memoirs mean in the context of the Romantic argument for catharsis through self-disclosure?—we instead find a charming tour guide delivering a lecture from the top of a double-decker bus, gesturing vaguely at ruins we’re meant to respect.
“It is possible that from those lost pages, despite everything, the traces of a tremendous talent would have nevertheless emerged.”
“Instead of this text we have only a few surviving fragments…small pieces of paper with burnt edges, like maps of pirate treasure.”
“Is it too much to hope that sooner or later—by chance, scholarship or passion—someone will rediscover those pages and enable us to read them at last?”
“It is next to impossible to know what really happened.”
Despite vagueness and grandiosity, Straten is charming. He’s self-aware, and I have a sneaking suspicion he’s a sharp dresser with good teeth. In a sense, Straten himself is the sort of person disappearing from the world: the cultivated European aesthete, seemingly unsullied by extraliterary preoccupations, unashamed of his elitism, proud deployer of polysyllables.
Appropriately, Straten makes no effort to appeal to contemporary taste, no argument for the “relevance” or “urgency” of In Search of Lost Books. And why should he? Straten’s book is a languid love story, an indulgent rumination on the romance of what’s lost, including the phenomenon of lost manuscripts. This romance is rooted in a dream of wholeness: the lost book acquires a magical aura . The lost book is the one missing piece to the puzzle of an author’s oeuvre. Somehow, it’ll make everything cohere. Straten’s fondness for lost books mirrors my fondness for his manner. He has a holistic sense of literature as the missing piece to complete a cultivated life. His faith in culture, in literature, is uncommon.
Perhaps for good reason. Straten’s love of lost books seems indulgent, but it might be worse than that. Who’s to say Straten’s love is harmless? Isn’t his aestheticism apolitical, bourgeoisie, simplistic, weak-minded? Although a preservationist orientation could be mistaken for conservatism, the evidence points to the contrary. Straten preserves the work of the past to encourage the progress of writers and readers to come.
One of the binding threads of In Search of Lost Books is Straten’s PSA-like appeal to readers (and future literary trustees and heirs) that books, even books that their authors disdain, should never be destroyed. He suggests that authors and their descendants seal up embarrassing or dangerous manuscripts for a few centuries to protect the privacy of said authors’ loved (or hated) ones. But what’s written should never be destroyed, he argues. “The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature: the imperatives can converge and be compatible, if you only want them to.” The readers of the future take priority over a writer’s temporary contemporaries. And in this sense, Straten’s idea of culture isn’t just pining for the past, but belief in a canon that continues accumulating into the future forever. A faith in continuity, stretching forward as well as backward, vivifies the otherwise clichéd nostalgia of In Search of Lost Books. If we believe great writing is precious, and worth preserving, then even the automatic preservation of online texts seems meaningful. In Search of Lost Books is almost a cautionary tale: this is what it was like when manuscripts were on paper and could be completely lost. Don’t forget.
Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey.