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Lost for words: The misery of a deleted manuscript

It’s every author’s worst nightmare: what would you do if the book you’d so carefully written was accidentally deleted? Anna Pavord had to face such a crisis. But as she discovered, she’s not the first writer to be cruelly separated from her work

Reading railway station in December 1919. Imagine the scene: Brief Encounter, but more so. Swirling clouds of steam. Vast engines and a slight smell of sulphur in the air. T E Lawrence, hero of the Arab Revolt, is changing trains. Back from the desert, he's been taken on as a research fellow at All Souls College in Oxford and already, aged only 31, has written a kind of autobiography, the famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom. A quarter of a million words are laid down on the pages of his manuscript. It describes his experiences in the desert, explains aspects of Arabian culture, illuminates his military strategy.

A whistle blows. Lawrence leaps up, runs for his train. And leaves the manuscript behind. A quarter of a million words. Even if he typed with single spacing, that's still a hefty load of paper – 500 quarto pages at least. Where did the words go? Not to the Lost Property office, for when he realised what he had done, that must have been the first place Lawrence tried. How long did he go on hoping it would be found, before he turned back to his desk and began the terrible task of writing the whole thing all over again?

The book came out finally in 1926, a handsome limited edition with a thank you to George Bernard Shaw "for all the present semi-colons". But was the ghost of the lost manuscript still hovering over Lawrence, even then, together with a feeling that the words, second time round, weren't singing in quite the way they had when he first engaged with the work? And is it worse to lose a manuscript yourself than to have it destroyed by someone else? Burning books has always been a popular option with dictators: Mongols burning the books of Baghdad's libraries in the 13th century, Henry VIII ordering the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th. John Bale, Bishop of Ossory, described the fate of the many rare Anglo-Saxon manuscripts kept in those monastery libraries. Some were used "to serve theyr jakes, some to scoure candelstyckes, and some to rubbe their bootes. Some they solde to the grosser and soapsellers."

Leon Trotsky is unusual among authors in writing of a lost manuscript that "it is not difficult for me to reconcile myself to its fate". Not difficult? Almost impossible I'd say, but those are his words, written in his autobiography, My Life. He's a wildly idealistic 17-year-old, finishing his schooling at Nikolayev when he decides with a friend, one of the Sokolovsky brothers, to write a play. The work, he said, "was no mean task. At times we wrote together, driving and correcting each other; at other times we divided the acts into sections, and each of us would devote his day to the preparation of a scene or monologue. We had, it must be said, no shortage of monologues... The daughter of the landlady would put up a samovar for us. Sokolovsky would pull out from his pockets some bread and sausage... We completed the first act, even providing the curtain effect. The remaining acts, four in number, were drafted." Then Trotsky and Sokolovsky were thrown into prison in Odessa. It occurred to them, as Trotsky writes, "that exile would be favourable for the completion of our dramatic opus. But the manuscript was no more, having vanished without trace. In all probability the people in whose home it had been left considered it prudent to throw it in the fire upon the arrest of its ill-fated authors."

The tale is coolly told. Trotsky's not pretending that his five-act play would have changed the world. He wrote My Life in 1930, 20 years after he was imprisoned in Odessa. He'd lived since that time in France, Spain and America. He'd created the Red Army, been expelled from the Communist Party, sent into exile in Kazakhstan. Given a life such as that, full of huge events, perhaps it was easy for him in hindsight to dismiss that early juvenilia as unimportant.

The arrival of computers has opened up a whole new raft of possibilities for losing words, as I recently discovered in the worst disaster that's ever occurred in my working life. If you earn your living by writing, it's almost impossible to function without a word processor, even if you've been brought up with pen and ink. It's not that you want this for yourself, but that everybody else wants it: newspapers, magazines, publishers – they all demand that stuff arrives over a wire, not through the post. So, instead of worrying about what you're going to write, you're worrying about delivery systems. It's nuts, of course, but there it is.

I got my first computer in the Eighties, when I was the only person I knew in west Dorset who had a modem. That must have been the only time in my life I was ahead of the technological game. Because the paper I worked for at the time used a system called WordPerfect, I set myself up at home with the same system. Bill Gates hadn't at that stage established his dangerous monopoly and anyway, WordPerfect is an excellent package for a writer. It doesn't constantly tell you things you don't want to know. It's reliable in every way that matters and for 20 years it never let me lose anything, never once let me down. I was comfortable with it. It felt as easy as a pen.

Just recently my computer died – not that first one but a replacement I'd had for seven years or so. "It's the mother board," said the guy who'd supplied it. Such a comforting image. Such an incomprehensible reality. He struggled to set up a new computer in the old way so that the screen looked the same (very important) and WordPerfect continued to be my friend and companion. But he couldn't find the right drivers. "Look," said my brother, who's a computer whizz. "Anything is possible. It just takes time." But he lives in France and time was what I hadn't got. Weekly columns still had to be delivered, and I was in the middle of a book, with delivery dates looming.

So with enormous regret, I became a Microsoft slave and after one lesson at home, learning Word's illogical ways, disappeared to a wooden hut a long way from home to catch up with the book. This pattern was established long ago. Both The Tulip and The Naming of Names were written in this same hut, far from the washing machine, the dishwasher, the telephone calls of home. After a concentrated two-week stint, I'd done 17,000 words. Though loathing Word, I'd learnt enough at least to get words into the right documents. And I've always been a compulsive saver. So every few minutes or so, my fingers were on the Control and S buttons. If you've loved WordPerfect, keystrokes will always be more natural to you than icons. It's quicker too. You don't have to take your hands away from the keyboard.

Though maddened by it, I even got used to the kind of garbage that Word throws at you if you mistype. But at half past nine on a Thursday morning, the day before I was due to go back home with my fat 17,000 words saved in the laptop, the screen did something it hadn't done before and suddenly threw a new blank page at me with a single letter "y" on it. I froze. But at the bottom of the screen the W icon still displayed the same file name, the one I'd been working on for the past two weeks. And that stupid paperclip in the top right-hand corner was asking me whether I wanted to save the document. Well, yes, you idiot, I thought, of course I want to save it: 17,000 words are hard to win. Heaven knows what you'll do with them if I don't say yes. So I said yes. In a split second the screen belched again. And the bottom dropped out of my stomach, for in the bottom left-hand corner where the page number is displayed, suddenly instead of 70, there was 1. Unknowingly, I'd overwritten the old document with a new one with nothing on it.

Now all you old Word hands would immediately have hit the Undo button at the top of the screen. But we didn't get on to that in my lesson.

I searched through all the files. I even got Microsoft's wretched puppy on the task, checking keywords. Zilch. Nowhere to be found. I felt sick. I felt dizzy. I couldn't believe it wasn't somewhere. I took the computer into the guy who'd supplied it. "I'm so sorry," he said after an hour chasing around the innards of the machine. I felt dizzy all over again.

With a heavyish heart, I began to rewrite...

Losing it: A brief history of missing manuscripts
By Rob Sharp

Double jeopardy

The Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin believed having two manuscripts of his The Bildungsroman (or Novel of Education, 1936-38) would protect him from life's vicissitudes. Not so. At the beginning of the Second World War one of the copies, the final draft, was with his publisher, and he kept an earlier draft. During the siege of Moscow, the publisher's offices were destroyed. By this point, however, Bakhtin had used his copy for cigarette paper, which was in short supply. His hard graft literally went up in smoke.

Lost in France

Some years after Gustave Flaubert (above) crafted Madame Bovary – the 1857 tome that garnered him worldwide glory – he lost his magic touch in a quite spectacular way. Due to the anxiety provoked by the German army invading France in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War, the writer frantically interred a box of papers beneath the garden of his house at Croisset, Rouen. Forgetting to recover them, he snuffed it in 1880, and his home was unkindly razed to the Normandy turf to make way for concrete docks. General local consensus is that the author's words still lie buried there, destined to be unread for eternity.

Burning issue

In the early 19th century Scots essayist Thomas Carlyle (above) dispatched the first draft of his history of the French revolution – the imaginatively titled French Revolution, Vol 1 – to John Stuart Mill. The latter accidentally let his housemaid use the papers to kindle a fire. Paradoxically, Carlyle found himself consoling his friend, and later wrote: "Mill ... remained injudiciously enough till almost midnight, and my poor Dame and I had to sit talking of indifferent matters; and could not till then get our lament freely uttered." Carlyle had to reproduce the book from scratch, but it was eventually published in 1837.

Carbon copy

The year was 1932. Malcolm Lowry's editor at Chatto & Windus, Ian Parsons, parked his convertible sports car outside his London office in order to make a phone call inside. On his return, the publisher found to his horror that a briefcase containing Lowry's novel Ultramarine had been pilfered. He thought, wrongly, that Lowry would have another copy. Thankfully, the book was saved for posterity by a pal, Martin Case, who had typed up the manuscript. He retrieved a carbon copy that Lowry had thrown in the bin – and Ultramarine was published by Cape (not Chatto) in 1933.

A strange case

In 1922, Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley, was travelling by train to Switzerland, grappling with a suitcase containing all that the great man had written up to that point. According to Murphy's Law – if something can go wrong, it will – the case was stolen. Legend has it that when Hemingway found out, he was rather irate. But when he started writing again, the words came crisper, faster and – some say – better. It's just possible the Swiss crook behind this minor heist made the author into the literary behemoth we now cherish.