In Search of Lost Books by Giorgio van Straten – Book Review

Title: In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes

Author: Giorgio van Straten

Translators: Simon Carnell, Erica Segre

Genre/Themes: Non Fiction, Literary Criticism, Books about Books

Blurb from Goodreads

This is a journey in search of the traces of eight legendary lost books. The clues are fragile, the hope of finding these pages scarce. Yet, maybe, somewhere, they still exist…

They exist as a rumour or a fading memory. They vanished from history leaving scarcely a trace, lost to fire, censorship, theft, war or deliberate destruction, yet those who seek them are convinced they will find them.

This is the story of one man’s quest for eight mysterious lost books.

Taking us from Florence to Regency London, the Russian Steppe to British Columbia, Giorgio van Straten unearths stories of infamy and tragedy, glimmers of hope and bitter twists of fate.

As gripping as a detective novel, as moving as an elegy, this is the tale of a love affair with the impossible, of the things that slip away from us but which, sometimes, live again in the stories we tell.

My Review

There is something so sad about the idea that a writer of significant talent could once have written a work of great majesty but for whatever reason it becomes lost to the hands of time.

This short book, In Search of Lost Books, explores the concept of the lost book by discussing missing works by various writers.

Romano Bilenchi’s missing work, ‘The Avenue‘, was destroyed by his wife with unclear reasons as to why. It is theorised that due to its content concerning actual events and existing persons that perhaps his wife felt it was in the best interests of all involved to remove the text from history.

Lord Byron’s manuscript for ‘Memoirs‘ was destroyed due to censorship because of his wrong about his homosexuality.

A suitcase containing the juvenile writing of Ernest Hemingway was stolen from a train in 1922.

A novel called ‘The Messiah‘ written by one of the greatest Polish writers, Bruno Schulz, was lost during World War II.

Nikolai Gogol, a great of nineteenth-century Russian literature was the reason behind the loss of part of his novel ‘Dead Souls‘ as he was unhappy with it. The version that we are able to read today is much shorter than the original novel.

Malcolm Lowry’s novel ‘In Ballast to the White Sea‘ was lost in a fire.

Walter Benjamin’s story is a sad affair that revolves around his tragic death and the alleged misplacing of a suitcase by the authorities that may or may not have held manuscripts…

And lastly the book talks about Sylvia Plath and what works Ted Hughes chose to publish after her death and what works, such as her final diary, he did not. And the book also asks whatever happened a novel written by Plath with the title ‘Double Exposure‘.

This made for a very interesting short read but in some instances I would have preferred it to have had a little more heart as sometimes I felt the writer, van Straten, was almost a little too dispassionate due to the directness of his prose.

Although I must commend the author on his research as even though this was short it felt incredibly in depth and I feel like I learned a lot about each of these lost books. 

I know as readers we are gluttonous and want to read everything by our favourite writers… But these writers had personal lives, family, friends… And sometimes maybe it’s best that decisions to destroy certain works were made if they were made by family members.

In the case of Hemingway he ultimately found the loss of his juvenile writings to be a good thing as he believed their quality was not up to scratch.

However, to lose a book due to issues surrounding censorship made me feel quite sad and empty. Books are a writer’s truth. Even if they are fiction. They are the truth of their imaginations and it is sad to think of someone’s truth being censored.

In Search of Lost Books was a fascinating and entertaining read, and one I would recommend to the kinds of people who root around in jumble sales and second hand bookshops in the hopes of discovering a missing treasure of a book.

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