It is intrinsic to the nature of literature that it is written: even work initially preserved in the oral tradition only truly becomes literature when it is written down. All literature thus exists in a medium, be it wax, stone, clay, papyrus, paper or even - as in the case of the Peruvian knot-language, khipu - rope. Since it has a material dimension, literature partakes of the vulnerability of its substance. Every element conspires against it: flame and flood, the desiccating air that corrupts, the loamy earth that decays. Paper is particularly defenceless: it can be shredded and ripped, stained and scrubbed away. Countless living things, from parasites and fungi to insects and rodents, can eat it: it even eats itself, burning in its own acids.
The much-vaunted Western canon, trumpeted for its wealth, happiness and strength, is not an Olympian torch or a thoroughbred horse; it exists by chance, not necessity, a lucky crag protruding from an ocean of loss. It is our conditional, might-have-been-otherwise, sheer-damn-lucky tradition. Those overwhelmed by Time's corrosion are not so fortunate.
Some writings are absent, presumed destroyed: Socrates, while in prison, wrote versifications of Aesop's Fables. None of these has survived, and we rely on Plato's remembered and invented dialogues to catch even an echo of what Socrates himself might have written. Other works are lost in the sense of being misplaced. A suitcase containing Malcolm Lowry's Ultramarine was stolen from his publisher's car, and the version we have had to be reconstructed from what was left in Lowry's bin.
Sometimes the author is to blame. The nineteenth-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins burned all of his early poetry, as he dedicated his life to the beauty of God. More often, the multiplicity of theological and political regimes under which a piece of writing might find itself contribute towards extinction. From Savonarola to the Ayatollah Khomeini, religions have expressed themselves through book-burning. No doubt they will continue to do so.
Is becoming lost the worst that can happen to a book? Not necessarily. The lost book, like the person you never dared ask to the dance, becomes infinitely more alluring simply because it can be perfect only in the imagination.
Adapted from 'The Book of Lost Books' by Stuart Kelly, Viking, £15.99. ( www.penguin.co.uk.) © Stuart Kelly
In the fourth chapter of his On the Art of Poetry, Aristotle said: "Homer was the supreme poet in the serious style... the first to indicate forms that comedy was to assume, for his Margites has the same relationship to our comedies as his Iliad and Odyssey bear to our tragedies."
The Margites, it is claimed, was Homer's first work. The name of the hero, Margites, derives from the Greek margos, meaning madman. All that is left of Homer's comic epic are a few lines, pickled in other works. The Scholiast, writing on Aeschines, gives a thumbnail sketch that fits with his etymologically unfortunate name: "Margites... a man, who, though fully grown, did not know if his mother or father had given birth to him, and who would not sleep with his wife, saying he was afraid she would give a bad account of him to his mother."
Plato and Aristotle each record a snippet of the poem. From Plato's fragmentary Alcibiades we learn that "he knew many things, but all badly". Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, offers a different hint: "the gods taught him neither to dig nor to plough, nor any other skill; he failed in every craft".
CONFUCIUS: 'BOOK OF MUSIC'
The philosopher K'ung Fu-tzu, known in the West as Confucius, distilled his vision in six written works: The Book of Poetry, The Book of Rituals, The Book of History, The Book of Changes, The Spring and Autumn Annals, and The Book of Music. This last is lost.
In the third century BC - 300 years after Confucius - the emperor Shih-huang-ti developed a desire to ensure that Chinese history would begin with himself. This culminated in the burning of books. Except for a single copy of each work, to be stored in the Emperor's personal library, it became a crime to harbour books, and town squares were soon choked with the smoke of massive pyres. People heard discussing books were publicly executed, along with their immediate family. Officials who did not implement the new rules were punished in the same manner as the offenders. Two hundred and sixty Confucian scholars were buried, alive, in a mass grave, in order to prevent them from reconstructing the classics from memory. Miraculously, copies of Confucius's other works survived, but The Book of Music was lost entirely.
In Confucius's teaching, the man "whose mind was already awakened by understanding The Book of Poetry would be established by li [a combination of politeness and propriety] and perfected by music". What this perfection would consist of, however, we cannot know.
ERNEST HEMINGWAY: FIRST WAR NOVEL
In 1922, Hadley Hemingway (the first of Ernest's four wives) was travelling to Switzerland with her husband's effects. At the time, Ernest had written much, but very little had been published. He had managed "six perfect sentences", and was already well advanced in a novel about his experiences in the First World War. Among the baggage Hadley was transporting was a case with everything Ernest had written to date. Somehow, it was stolen. In those days, Hemingway's macho, bullish facade was still under construction. The day after Hadley, distraught, arrived without the significant piece of luggage, Hemingway travelled to confirm that everything - every sheaf, notebook and carbon copy - was truly gone. It was.
"I remember what I did in the night after I let myself into the flat and found it was true," he wrote. He never revealed whether rage, or booze, or even tears were his response, but he claimed later that he would have opted for surgery if it might remove the memory of the loss.
Hemingway had been developing a theory that even if something was edited out of a work of art, its trace would linger. Now he had to face the full ramifications, the reductio ad absurdum, of this idea. The fact that both Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein had told him to ditch everything he had written and start again must have been of little comfort. Every author produces juvenilia. Most destroy it. The theft of Hemingway's manuscripts short-circuited the whole process. Had he spent the next 10 years trying to perfect his immature jottings, we might never have seen the novels of which he was capable.
SHAKESPEARE: LOVE'S LABOUR'S WON
In 1598, Francis Meres wrote in his Palladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury, the first panegyric on Shakespeare: "As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for comedy and tragedy among the Latins, so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage. For comedy witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love's Labour's Lost, his Love's Labour's Won, his Midsummer Night's Dream, and his Merchant of Venice; for tragedy, his Richard the 2., Richard the 3., Henry the 4., King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet." The only plays written before 1597 which Meres omits are the trilogy on Henry VI and The Taming of the Shrew. This led to the supposition that the mysterious Love's Labour's Won was an alternative title for The Taming of the Shrew; and, one could argue, Petruchio wins his love in that play. The chance discovery, in 1953, of a scrap from a bookseller's list mentions both work, and precludes them being the same text. The suggestion has nevertheless persisted that Love's Labour's Won was an alternative title for another play by Shakespeare. But the other possibility is that Love's Labour's Won isLove's Labour's Won. Since it appears to have been printed, more than 1,000 copies may have existed. The quarto of Titus Andronicus was only discovered in the 1910s, so the chance of Love's Labour's Won yet being found is not impossible.
LORD BYRON: MEMOIRS
The fact that Lord Byron's Memoirs were burned by his publisher, executor and biographer has not deprived them of an afterlife. According to the critic William Gifford, they were "fit only for the brothel and would have damned Lord Byron to everlasting infamy". Before the Memoirs were in the hands of potential publishers, Lady Byron scandalised London by hinting at secret proclivities between her ex-husband, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Then in 1869, she shocked the world by announcing that the secret of the Memoirs was Byron's confession to incest with his half-sister Augusta Leigh (a rumour aired duringByron's life).
But it is far from certain that the Memoirs contained such revelations. Byron had written to Murray, his publisher, clarifying its contents: "The Life is Memoranda not Confessions. I have left out all my loves (except in a general way) and many other important things (because I must not compromise others) so that it is like the play of Hamlet - 'the part of Hamlet omitted by particular desire'. But you will find many opinions, with a detailed account of my marriage and its consequences, as true as a party concerned can make such accounts, for I suppose we are all prejudiced."
However, there are critics who persist in the wish that "Byron's autobiography might now have its place on the shelves alongside Rousseau's Confessions", and it is undeniably objectionable that John Murray, Thomas Moore and John Cam Hobhouse should have collaborated in the destruction of Byron's Memoirs. None of the men could bring himself to do the deed, and two friends of Lady Byron did the actual kindling.
In 1871, with the Prussian Army sweeping across France, a wary Gustave Flaubert buried a box full of letters - and, perhaps, other papers - in the garden of his house at Croisset, Normandy. In 1880, he died. The year after, the house was demolished. The box, as far as anyone knows, remained, and remains, beneath the soil.
Flaubert was notorious for hoarding his manuscripts, unable to discard the slightest inked scrap. What might he have buried in the box? Did it contain more on his proposed satire on socialism, or the working drafts of Harel Bey, his novel on the contemporary Orient?
More tantalisingly, might it have contained some of the copious notes he took for a novel on French society under the Second Empire? The work was schemed out after the political upheavals of 1870-71, and extant remarks suggest that the planned work would have been a counterpart to his equally dyspeptic L'Education Sentimentale, a tale that would expose "the great lie that we lived by".
Another possibility is that the box might have hidden clues to the remainder of Bouvard et Pécuchet, the bittersweet, encyclopedic, ultimately unfinished novel that occupied most of the remainder of Flaubert's life. Or - who knows? - there might be notes or drafts relating to La Spirale - the large, fantastical, metaphysical, loudmouth novel about madness that he first contemplated in the 1850s but, as far as we know, never wrote.
But the box remains buried - and is unlikely to resurface. As one biographer speculates, a treasure-trove of Flaubertiana might lie beneath the concrete dockland development of Rouen.
AESCHYLUS: THE LOST PLAYS
Aeschylus wrote more than 80 plays. Only seven have survived, although copious fragments persist on papyrus or in commentaries. Much of the blame attaches to Ptolemy III (247-222 BC), who ordered the systematic cataloguing of all 200,000 scrolls in the Library of Alexandria. When this labour began in earnest, an anomaly of unthinkable proportions was discovered. The library lacked a complete text of Aeschylus. Given the reverence in which the Athenian dramatist was (and is) held, this seemed an unforgivable oversight.
There was, however, only one such text in existence. It belonged to the Athenians. After, one assumes, protracted negotiations, it was agreed that these precious scrolls might be transported to Alexandria, for scholars to make an accurate copy, and then returned to Athens. To ensure that this agreement was honoured, Ptolemy III would deposit 15 silver talents with the Athenians, repayable when the text was brought back intact. This was a phenomenal amount of money: the entire annual Jewish tribute payment amounted to only 20 silver talents, and that had driven them close to rebellion. Following the agreement, the manuscript arrived in Alexandria.
This was the sole complete copy of Aeschylus, and was worth losing 15 silver talents for. The scripts stayed in Alexandria, with a strict injunction that no copy should be made. Then Ptolemy III died. Later, Ptolemy XIII died. Their empire died. Their religion died. But the manuscript remained. Since its transcription was forbidden, scholars flocked from around the known world to read such works as The Priestesses, Phineus, Sisyphus Rolling the Stone and Sisyphus the Runaway.
But on 22 December 640, a reader with a very different agenda was in control of Alexandria. Where literary works were concerned, he was strict: "Those which disagree with the Word of God are blasphemous, those which agree, superfluous." Amrou Ibn el-Ass, on orders from his caliph, decreed that the library be burned. The scrolls opened a final time, unfurled by the flames, and the complete works of Aeschylus became lost for ever.
There is a blank at the heart of the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. How did the homosexual, blasphemous, drunken, demonically gifted poet transform himself into a reputedly temperate merchant? Are his published poems some kind of ciphered message that can explain, or enact, the metamorphosis? Or is the answer lost in a misplaced notebook? There is evidence that some of Rimbaud's work is lost. Verlaine, for example, quoted as an epigraph to his poem "Ariettes oubliées" a line by Rimbaud - "It rained softly on the city" - which does not appear in any of Rimbaud's published works. Rimbaud's school-friend Ernest Delahaye also claimed to have remembered by heart two rather coprophilic little sonnets, which were published in 1923.
Another school-friend, Paul Labarrière, confessed in 1933 that he had lost a notebook of 50 or 60 of Rimbaud's poems. All he could remember, however, was a poem about "geese and ducks splashing around in a pond".
GOGOL: 'DEAD SOULS PART II'
In 1842, Nikolai Gogol's masterpiece, Dead Souls, was published, to thunderous applause. But it was, he revealed, "no more than the portico of a palace rising within me". The sequel, he suggested, would describe the moral redemption of the work's hero, Chichikov, and, in so doing, save his nation. Part three "would precipitate a total religious transformation of Russia".
In 1845, in the grip of religious fanaticism, Gogol burned the manuscript of part two for the first time. "It was hard to burn the work of five years, achieved at the price of such morbid tension, every line of which cost me a nervous disorder," he wrote. Yet "the moment the flames had consumed the last sheet of my book, its contents were reborn, luminous and purified, as the phoenix from the ashes..."
After visiting Jerusalem to pray for inspiration, Gogol returned to Russia with a new manuscript. A new second part took shape, as did at least some of part three. Meanwhile, Gogol became deeply embroiled with the equally unstable Father Matyev Konstantinovsky, who believed that everything except the Russian Orthodox church was inspired by Satan. Konstantinovsky encouraged Gogol to enter a monastery and to forgo the paganism of literature: God's wish was clear.
At about 3am on 24 February, 1852, Gogol summoned a servant and ordered him to kindle a fire. He started to feed manuscript pages into it. When the boy begged him not to, Gogol growled: "This is none of your business - better pray." He clogged the fire with paper, and had to remove the charred bundle, containing parts two and three, and feed them in again one by one. When it was done, he crossed himself, kissed the boy, and collapsed in tears.
He then stopped eating. When he was asked by the attending priest, "What prayer do you want me to read?" he answered, "They're all good," and then, after nine days of self-enforced starvation, died.
SYLVIA PLATH: DOUBLE TAKE
In 1962 to 1963 Plath was working on a second novel, provisionally entitled Double Exposure, or Double Take. She told her mother that she intended to use her recent, painful experiences (much as she had done with The Bell Jar), and apparently 130 pages of the manuscript were written. According to her husband, Ted Hughes, these disappeared some time before 1970. It is a frustratingly vague verb: lost? shredded? burned? The critic Judith Kroll saw an outline for the novel, and it is generally held that it featured a husband, wife and mistress. The manuscript, it seems, has its own ghost: the librarian of Smith College, Massachusetts's rare books department had to take an unprecedented step and make clear that it did not possess the manuscript, nor was it housed with them under a seal to prevent its contents being made public too soon.
The titles alone conjure a work of more subtle texturing and novelistic layering than the earlier, autobiographical writing. The "double" suggests the reduplication of the wife in the mistress, or the schizophrenic fissuring of the man into husband and adulterer. The rest is speculation. Double Take implies a Freudian moment of confusion and realisation, when the world suddenly reveals a glitch in its smooth operation; Double Exposure refers to a photographic anomaly where one image is superimposed on another, as if the wife and mistress were somehow merged.
The rest is speculation. Hughes himself is now dead: the Plath-Hughes estate keeps the flame for two great poets. Never has the potential, ulterior capacity for such a flame to become an agent of erasure been so obvious.