by Stuart Kelly
A chronological survey of lost books and books that never were, from ideas for novels that never materialized on paper to valuable manuscripts burnt or censored or mislaid, from the anonymous ancients who assembled Gilgamesh and possible attributions to Homer to Sylvia Plath’s never-completed novel of adultery and the hecatomb of her manuscripts by Ted Hughes. Each chapter is a page or two, five at most, of musings on what this or that author might have accomplished, or how his or her reputation would have changed, if the work in question had survived or been born in the first place. At times there is so little of a “work” to have been “lost” that Kelly merely gives a précis of the author’s most-known work and its importance, as in the Dante or Pound chapters (the Cantos were never lost so much as never unified into Pound’s ambitious, later crazed, vision).
As with any book with so wide a scope, especially one that stops so briefly at each way station through history, this book is heavy on anecdotes, but fails to take the time to convey any deep understanding to the reader. That’s not to say that Kelly doesn’t know the material; he appears to have read everything, indeed he comes off as a bit too clever and writes with a sometimes off-putting erudition: he uses even obscurer forms of already archaic words (exegete, euclionism, daundering, fallalery, etiolated, versifex), sometimes to rather poor effect (“he scurried like an inverted smolt” – what?!); he doesn’t translate French titles (although he translated the other languages); at one point he abruptly writes a paragraph as a logogram without the letter e, and without explanation either. There’s a good bit of intriguing information, of course, such as Kelly’s suggestion that the lack of a trial in The Trial might be “due to textual fragmentation” rather than a philosophical point; but the choppy format and frenetic pace ensured that little stuck with me, I’m afraid.