There is, however, one major exception to this general principle, and it happens whenever someone - generally an ambitious academic - digs up a literary manuscript that has been missing, presumed destroyed, for decades or centuries. It happened a couple of years ago, when the scholar Gary Taylor declared that he had found a 'new' poem by Shakespeare. The broadsheets reproduced it, RSC actors crooned it on radio and television, and for a day or so, a slight little Elizabethan lament beginning 'Shall I Die?' became the best-known English verse since the heyday of Kipling.
In a quieter way (the authors concerned do not yet rival Shakespeare in popular affection), it has happened again twice in the last couple of weeks. Saturday's Independent contained a news story about the discovery of Finn's Hotel, a 'lost' book of stories by James Joyce; and that story came hard on the heels of an announcement that the publisher John Calder is about to issue A Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the 'lost' first novel by Joyce's old friend Samuel Beckett.
Now, merely using the word 'lost' in connection with manuscripts summons up slightly melodramatic ideas about the nature of such discoveries, and suggests a process of brilliant detection or fortunate blunder suitable for the big screen. The reality is often a good deal less exciting. In the case of the Finn's Hotel, what has happened is that after 16 years of wading through archives, Danis Rose has come to the conclusion that a number of pages Joyce wrote in 1923, before embarking on Finnegans Wake, are not simply working notes but amount to an opus in their own right.
This is clearly not quite so arresting a business as, say, the sudden find of an old manuscript stuffed away in some attic in Zurich, especially since something very similar has happened in the Joyce industry at least twice before. First, in the mid-Thirties, a large chunk of Joyce's first novel Stephen Hero (the disgruntled novelist had thrown the manuscript on the fire, but his sister Ellen managed to save a few hundred pages) was put on the market, bought by Harvard University, and subsequently published. Then, in the late Sixties, the author's biographer Richard Ellmann brought out an edited edition of his 'lost' novella Giacomo Joyce. Some sceptics denied that this slim and rather fragmentary text was anything more than jots and scribbles, never intended to stand in its own right, and it seems likely that such arguments will greet Mr Rose's Joycean find in the next few years.
Similarly, Beckett's first novel has not so much been 'found' as finally been made available for publication. Scholars have known about A Dream of Fair to Middling Women for a long time, and those with the money for a ticket to New Hampshire have been free to visit the Baker Library of Dartmouth College, where the manuscript has been held ever since Beckett's biographer Lawrence Harvey deposited it there in the Sixties. What has happened in this case is that Beckett suppressed the material throughout his lifetime, both because he thought it 'immature and unworthy' (typical incident: the hero, Belacqua Shuah, masturbates while quoting the English mystic Dame Julian of Norwich) and because he knew it was likely to pain the friends and acquaintances he lampooned cruelly in its autobiographical chapters. A few weeks before he died, however, Beckett told Owen O'Brien, a Dublin physician, that he had no objections to a posthumous publication. With luck, Dr O'Brien's edition should be available some time next month, once certain disputes about production costs have been resolved.
Delighted as Beckett fans will be to have ready access to this precursor of More Pricks Than Kicks, it seems unlikely that it will greatly change our views of Beckett, any more than the attribution of 'Shall I Die?' to the Swan of Avon did very much to overturn centuries of Shakespeare studies. Finn's Hotel may indeed prove to be the major work Mr Rose claims, but the majority even of those finds which are trumpeted to the world generally turn out to be of quite scanty interest.
Which is not to say that there may not be some considerably more exciting discoveries ahead. If the simple reattribution of an undistinguished trifle such as 'Shall I Die?' created a stir, imagine the fuss that would attend the recovery of Love's Labour's Won, referred to by a contemporary diarist but otherwise mysterious (unless, as unromantic souls maintain, it is actually Much Ado About Nothing). Scholars would kill to lay their hands on that - in fact they have already done so, at least in the pages of Edmund Crispin's novel Love Lies Bleeding. Then, to go further back in time, there is the second book of Aristotle's Poetics, which treats of comedy, and which caused all that mayhem in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.
The mere fact that such discoveries are improbable enough to be the stuff of best-selling fiction should not blind us to the fact that startling discoveries have sometimes been made: think, to move away from purely literary manuscripts for a moment, of the boys who turfed up the Dead Sea Scrolls. Moreover, there are still plenty of masterworks on the missing list. In the case of classical literatures, for example, we lack not just Book Two of Aristotle's Poetics but virtually the entire corpus of Greek tragedy - the surviving plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes amount to no more than a fraction of the hundreds they are known to have written - and though it is unlikely that any of them have survived in toto, archeologists are almost certain to keep unearthing scraps and tatters in Pompeii and the Middle East.
As recently as 1979, for example, excavators found a short text by one C. Cornelius Gallus, a First century AD Roman elegist long known to have been the literary forebear of Tibullus, Propertius and Ovid, and thus of the keenest interest to classicists. Until that year, Gallus's only remains had been a single line of poetry quoted by a geographer of the Fifth Century AD. (To contemplate such matters is to realise how utterly fortuitous our possession and so our view of the classics has been: the entire works of Catullus, for example, have come down to us thanks to a single copy of his poems found in the early Renaissance.)
Attic works will be recovered not from attics but from the sands of Egypt. As to modern works. . . well, those who now feel like rummaging around in the loft just in case there was something in Uncle Jim's old story about the funny man he met in a pub one night who gave him a big envelope have some obvious treasures to keep in mind. Among the more notable lost books of the last century or so are Thomas Hardy's first novel The Poor Man and the Lady (two publishers turned it down); the first draft of T E Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom ('I lost all but the introduction and drafts of Books 9 and 10 at Reading station, while changing trains,' said Lawrence, sounding less like the uncrowned prince of Arabia than a character from The Importance of Being Earnest); and a suitcase full of Hemingway's apprentice writing, mislaid by his wife at a railway station in Paris.
And if the attic doesn't seem to hold any of these items, there is always the option of following Messrs Eco and Crispin, and writing a bestseller about the quest for the missing masterpiece, then selling the results to the movies; a good title might be something like Raiders of the Lost Art.