Manuscripts lost and found - a fire isn't always the end of it; Week in Books


Arifa Akbar
Thursday 22 January 2015 13:12

Poor Daisy Goodwin, who might or might not have lost her half-written novel in a house fire this week. But at least she’s in good company, despite her appalling loss. She figures in the pantheon of writers whose creative juices have flowed for nought.

VS Naipaul’s manuscripts were accidentally incinerated while in storage in the 1970s; Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, left his early stories on a Swiss train; Dylan Thomas, apparently, lost the manuscript of Under Milk Wood three times before it was found again, and Charles Dickens nearly lost an instalment of Our Mutual Friend in the Stapleton train crash of 1865 (though he managed heroically to retrieve the manuscript).

Lost manuscripts. But are they ever really lost? Many emerge out of hiding after years, decades, sometimes centuries of mysterious disappearance. Who knows where they sit all those years but conspiracy theorists might see a clever marketing brain at work behind the trickle of lost manuscripts found every year, in attics, in the backs of taxis and those other dark nooks spider-webbed by lost hope.

Although – and this is a difference that might make us re-think, or re-appreciate, our new paperless lives – Goodwin’s manuscript is electronic, and it might not be lost at all if (she hopes) it was backed up in the “Cloud”. With these words she has some of us wandering whether paperless novel writing is better or worse, at least when it comes to the painful job of keeping hold of manuscripts. To write on one’s laptop is to minimise the risk of only having one working copy. Most writers duplicate their work-in-progress as they go along in some sort of virtual format. But if you’ve forgotten to do it, then a destroyed or lost laptop is really the end of the road for you.

There is yet more hope, if a paper manuscript is accidentally abandoned, for it to be found in a battered suitcase or in a charity shop, in a way that Goodwin’s half-novel never can be, unless she printed the entire thing out. The electronic manuscript will not reveal itself in the surprising, serendipitous way that a physical manuscript can, years from now.Whichever way – paper or electronic – guarantees a greater chance of rediscovery is up for debate, but how does a writer move on from such a loss? How did VS Naipaul and Hemingway overcome the trauma of their wasted hours of creative effort?

Goodwin, one hopes, will finish the story anyway, if not by finding the back-up then by the painful process of re-writing, which may – one hopes – lead her to improve on the one she wrote pre-fire. Jilly Cooper lost her manuscript of Riders in the back of the Number 22 bus (the Evening Standard put out an appeal!). The excruciating process of re-writing paid off when she finally published it. Who can forget Riders?

From pop gigs to protest hubs, libraries are mobilising again

Libraries are all the rage again, even as they’re woefully understaffed and threatened by closure. They’ve had Elbow play in them, and we know they serve fancy coffee. Now they’re set to take centre stage in fiction – heroic protagonists, of a kind.

David Whitehouse’s new novel, Mobile Library, is a tragicomic adventure of a 12-year-old boy who runs away from home in a stolen library-on-wheels. Genevieve Cogman’s debut, The Invisible Library, is a first instalment that follows stolen books and forbidden societies.

Last autumn, Haruki Murakami brought out a surreal picture book, The Strange Library, about a boy who gets trapped in the sinister backrooms of a public library, which had all the makings of a modern-day crossover classic, with its invisible, CS Lewis-style other world, and its sense of the marvellous, magical and spooky.

It’s high time we celebrated these sacred spaces. Improbable Libraries by Alex Johnson, due in April, will show us how the library is being radically re-imagined for greater reach, be that a library by bike in Chicago, or one on a donkey in Columbia, or even the pop-up library tent that was erected in New York during the Occupy Wall Street movement (it was destroyed in a police raid in 2011, but inspired similar libraries at Occupy protests across America and Europe). These quirky redesigns show that if we don’t want to go to the library, the library will come to us.

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