The Sensational Allure of Lost Books in Fiction and Nonfiction

“Loves of the Gods” (I Modi), 1972,U.1306-1314/CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

In November, 1966, disaster befell the city of Florence. The Arno – the river that runs through it and that is traversed by the city’s historic bridges – flooded its banks. Some of the worst areas of flooding were in Florence’s historic center, damaging national treasures such as the Piazza Santa Croce. While the threat to monuments was severe, some of the worst losses are hard to calculate.

The history of Italy is contained in various archives spread over the country. During the flooding, many documents that recorded the city’s history going back nearly a thousand years were immersed in water that not only contained the mud of the river’s banks, but also oil and other pollutants. In 1966, people observing the damage and knowing the threat to the history of the city, and, therefore, Western Civilization, descended on the city. These “Mud Angels” were thousands of young people who were motivated to try to help.

In the 1990s, when I lived in Florence, I attempted to access those documents to improve my Italian language skills. One of the worst words to encounter on a record in the archives was “alluvionato,” which meant that the document had been destroyed by the flood. Knowing that there had once been a document that may have provided evidence for the work I was trying to do felt like a personal loss. What might that document have revealed? Could it provide the connections I was looking for? And if I had been looking for a manuscript, what was lost by not being able to read words recorded about experiences? Did knowing that a document once existed, and now no longer did, make it worse than it never having existed at all?

Perhaps my limited experience with wanting to read something that no longer existed explains why I’ve always loved reading novels about a “lost book” that motivates the characters. So discovering Giorgio van Straten’s In Search of Lost Books was to read someone who also mourns the loss of possibility represented by lost books. Van Straten describes the feeling provoked by the awareness of lost possibilities:

Every time I have chanced across the story of a lost book …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.

Perhaps that desire to be the hero of a quest is what motivates novelists to write the “lost book” novels. One book that posits the existence of a most unusual manuscript is Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures, which is set in Florence in the months after the 1966 flood. Margot Harrington works as a book preservationist in New York, but feels an overwhelming compulsion to travel to Florence to help. When she is sent to a convent to help the nuns with their water-damaged library, she feels that she has been shut away from the more exciting work.

But while working with a book of prayer, she discovers that someone had bound a copy of I Modi, containing erotic drawings executed by Marcantonio Raimondi in 1524. Accompanying the drawings are a series of ribald sonnets written by Pietro Aretino, a Renaissance poet who was known – and often punished – for his writings about sex. Someone has hidden the manuscript for five centuries, hidden because authorities are offended by its content and have destroyed all copies known to exist.

But Hellenga’s book is more than just a novel about a book: it’s also about the impact that the drawings have on those who come in contact with them. Not only are feelings aroused by the depiction of bodies engaged in love-making, but there’s also the sensation that the viewer feels by looking at images that authorities went to all lengths to destroy. The book offended the sensibilities of the Church, which focused much of its energies to disciplining and eradicating the chaos that could be provoked by the body’s passions. The desire for sex was seen as a threat to the spiritual discipline that would bring men and women closer to God.

And while it may be easy to look back the actions of the Cinquecento Church, it bears remembering that in America, the most challenged books are not challenged because of their depictions of violence or poverty or the ills of the world, but because they depict sexuality and sexual activity in ways that make adults uncomfortable.

Van Straten went looking for eight books and manuscripts that have been lost to history. He is clear that he is not talking about “forgotten” books, which still exist and are regularly re-found, but rather, books that were known to have existed and then were either lost or destroyed, and have never been seen again. Among these missing manuscripts are the first of Ernest Hemingway’s works – they disappeared when the suitcase that contained them was stolen from a train. The suitcase was never recovered, and I was left wondering what the thief must have thought when they opened the suitcase expecting to find something valuable and instead found hundreds of pages of writing? Did that person destroy the writing in a fit of rage? Or is it possible that the suitcase still exists, waiting to once again be found by someone who will recognize its true worth?

While the loss of Hemingway’s first manuscripts was awful, he was still alive to re-write and refine. It wasn’t a pleasant way to have to revise a draft, but at least he could do it. The same could not be said for Walter Benjamin the philosopher and cultural critic. Benjamin had already been imprisoned in a concentration camp and been released when he attempted to cross the border into Spain in 1940 to escape the Nazis. When he was denied entry to Spain, he committed suicide. While some of Benjamin’s writings had already been published, van Straten wonders what became of the “heavy black suitcase” that Benjamin had hand-carried up through the Pyrenees Mountains – to the point where the weight of the suitcase had slowed down his progress – so loath was he to give it up? Did one of the greatest works of European intellectual history disappear on that September night? There is no evidence that Benjamin burned it, so is it possible that the suitcase is hidden somewhere, awaiting discovery?

The other stories in the book are fascinating. At the heart of the book, however, is a return to the question of “what” gets lost when we lose works? It’s not the same as a book that never gets written because someone had an idea they never followed up on. This is acknowledging the loss of something that once existed but now is gone. Van Straten returns to these questions and more as he details the losses, asking readers to think about the “could have beens.” Ultimately, one of the biggest questions is about how we create our own versions of those books to fill the emptiness, imagining that within the lost book was a world that we will now never know, which reminds me of a line from a Yehuda Amichai poem: “Straight from the fear of loss, I plunged into the fear of being lost.” The lost book reveals to us the ways that we, ourselves, are lost.