Through the Pyrenees to Portbou

Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish philosopher, born in Berlin in 1892. He was wide-ranging in his interests; his work waltzed from translations of verses by the French poet Charles Baudelaire to the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. (In a nutshell? Originals good; copies bad.)

Benjamin finagled his way through the first world war by pretending to be ill in Switzerland but came into his own in the interwar years. A European intellectual of the highest degree, he managed to become friends with the political theorist Hannah Arendt, the novelist Hermann Hesse, the playwright Bertolt Brecht, and the composer Kurt Weill.

Name a topic and Benjamin had an opinion about it: art, drama, history, the cafe culture of Paris. He bobbed about the continent, too, spending time in Paris, Denmark, Nice and, as a pioneer for the tourist industry, Ibiza.

The years turned steadily less kind through the 1930s, though. The Nazi government stripped German Jews of their citizenship, while those with political thermometers could sense that even colder and darker days were ahead. Exile became the plan. Benjamin obtained a visa to the US; he planned to travel there by boat from neutral Portugal, which he expected to reach through the similarly neutral Spain.

Benjamin certainly got to Spain. Carrying only a heavy, black suitcase, he joined a Jewish refugee group and crossed through the Pyrenees from France on 25 September 1940. Stumbling through mountains is a monumental task. Stumbling through mountains with a heavy suitcase is almost impossible, but Benjamin would not leave his burden behind. It contained a typescript, he said. It was more important that the typescript should make it to America than that he should.

One of the group of refugees, a photographer called Henny Gurland, later explained: “For better or worse, we had to drag that awful thing over the mountains.”

On arrival at the coastal town of Portbou, in Catalonia, the refugees learned that the Franco government had cancelled all transit visas. The Spanish police told the group that they would be deported back to France the next day. Expecting that he would be delivered to the Nazi extermination camps — quite correctly; his brother, Georg, died in one in 1942 — Benjamin killed himself. He took an overdose of 15 morphine tablets that night. He was 48 years old.

His final letter contains these words:
“In a situation with no way out, I have no other choice. My life will end in a little village in the Pyrenees where nobody knows me.”

Benjamin’s status as a thinker and philosopher increased in the years after his death. Naturally, therefore, curious students would turn up in Portbou on the lookout for his lost work, the one he had refused to abandon in the mountains. “Seen a black suitcase?” they would ask. “Got any old typescripts?” No. There was muddle and confusion surrounding Benjamin’s death; nobody is really sure where the body is buried, never mind where the man’s luggage went.

Whatever Benjamin carried in his suitcase, up and down the rocky slopes of the Pyrenees, it has vanished. There are theories that it might have been the great philosophical work that would have transformed twentieth-century thinking. Then again… Perhaps the suitcase has joined Hemingway’s in a great Lost Luggage store in the sky. Until a miracle, we’ll never know.

All these years later, if you visit Portbou, you are unlikely to unearth this particular lost manuscript. What you can do, however, is walk the path through the Pyrenees that now bears his name — sentier Water Benjamin.

Take care, though. Even today, advises the local tourist board, the path is “difficult”. Leave that suitcase behind.

120 Days of Sodom: The most impure tale ever written

The author, Donatien Alphonse François, went to his grave believing his magnum opus had been destroyed. He wept “tears of blood” over its loss.

The author was wrong. However, over one hundred years would pass by before what some have called “one of the most important novels ever written” would see the light of print.

The author himself was a little more modest, calling it merely: “the most impure tale ever written since the world began.”

The most impure tale has a history unique among lost manuscripts of being hidden, lost, stolen, sold and confiscated.

The most impure tale is, of course, 120 Days of Sodom.

The Marquis de Sade wrote his controversial work in 1785 on a scroll made from bits of parchment joined end to end. At the time — the last days of the ancien regime — he was imprisoned in a cell in the Liberty Tower of the Bastille. The resulting manuscript is 39 feet (11.9 metres) long, just a few inches wide, and inscribed on both sides with thousands of tiny handwritten words so small that you need a magnifying glass to read them.

The Marquis hid the scroll between bricks in the wall of his cell. No wonder he hid it. The sensibilities of the time would scarcely have been welcoming of the tale. Four rich men rent a castle in the wilderness for the express purpose of abducting a bunch of teenagers and subjecting them to four months of torture, rape and bestiality. Not all of them survive the four months of what would later be called, after the name of the author, sadism.

He wasn’t good with his timings, Donatien Alphonse François. On 2 July 1789, the Marquis used some metal pipe as a megaphone through his cell window to cause a riot. He shouted that the prisoners were being murdered and urged the citizens of Paris to burn down the Bastille.

In a panic, the authorities transferred the rabble-rousing Marquis to the lunatic asylum at Charenton. They hustled him off without a chance to retrieve his manuscript.

He therefore ordered the preternaturally patient Madame de Sade to retrieve it for him.

Unfortunately, however, the Marquise didn’t have time to complete her assignment as, on 14 July 1789, the mob got round to following the Marquis’ instructions and stormed the Bastille. This was the beginning of the French revolution and of the Marquis’ tears of blood. (Or, to be more precise: his “larmes de sang“.)

The Marquis believed his manuscript had been lost to the rioters. In fact, a young revolutionary named Arnoux de Saint-Maximin discovered the scroll, spirited it out of the dissolving prison, and enterprisingly sold it to the Marquis de Villeneuve-Trans.

For reasons best known to themselves, this particular Marquis’ descendants sat on the manuscript in their estate in Provence for more than a century.

Eventually, they woke up and, again, for reasons best known to themselves, in 1900 sold it to a German aficionado. In 1904, the buyer, the Berlin sex-pert Iwan Bloch published a few hundred copies of the Marquis’ previously unknown novel, purportedly for scientific reasons.

In 1929, the scroll returned from Germany to France, when Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles (who traced their ancestry to the Marquis de Sade) purchased it. In 1982, their daughter, Nathalie (for reasons best known, etc) lent the manuscript to a friend, the publisher Jean Grouet.

Rather than do anything like, say, publishing it, the publisher smuggled the manuscript into Switzerland. There, he sold it for around $60,000 to a department-store dynamo, Gérard Nordmann.

After legal battles that went on for years, France ruled in 1990 that the manuscript had been stolen and ordered Nordmann to return it to the Noailles. Switzerland disagreed. In 1998, the Swiss federal court ruled that Nordmann had purchased the manuscript in good faith. So, in Switzerland the manuscript stayed.

In March 2014, Gérard Lheritier, founder of Aristophil, a firm specialising in rare manuscripts, bought the scroll of The 120 Days of Sodom from Nordmann’s son, Serge, for seven million euros.

A share of the seven million euros went to the Nordmann family, the legal owners of the scroll, another share to Nathalie de Noailles’ heir. Without that agreement, the French authorities would have seized the manuscript the minute it crossed the French border. They, as you will remember, legally considered that the manuscript should never have crossed the border the other way in the first place.

Aristophil, however, went bankrupt in 2015, after Gérard Lhéritier was accused of fraud.

Aristophil’s assets would be gradually liquidated, and all their historic documents sold off. Aguttes, the Parisian auction company that was storing the company’s holdings, announced that the sale would start in December 2017, with a blockbuster auction, including The 120 Days of Sodom.

The day before the auction, the French government announced that the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom was a national treasure; a “trésor national“.

This meant that the manuscript could not be taken out of the country for at least 30 months, and gave the state the time to find the resources to buy it.

In July 2021, the Ministry of Culture announced that the Marquis de Sade manuscript had been acquired for the French nation for €4.55m.

The manuscript will spend the rest of its days peacefully in the Arsenal library in Paris, a branch of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

In just over 200 years, the Marquis de Sade has gone from a prisoner of the French state to national treasure. I think even the Marquis would have been surprised by that.

So might his son, the equally splendidly named Donatien Claude Armand, who, after inheriting the title on his father’s death, burned most of his father’s literary work. Those are the real de Sade lost manuscripts, as we will never be able to read them.

Perhaps, given their likely subject matter, it’s just as well.


A prologue of deadly dullness

In September 1953, a dog-eared typescript entitled Strangers from Within arrived at the offices of the publisher Faber. It had obviously visited several other publishers on its optimistic journey towards print. The first few pages were yellowed; the later ones seemed relatively untroubled. The typescript arrived with a handwritten note from its author: “I send you the typescript of my novel Strangers from Within which might be defined as an allegorical interpretation of a stock situation. I hope you will feel able to publish it.”

The feeling at Faber was that they wouldn’t be inclined, actually. Their professional reader, Polly Perkins, had dismissed the work in no uncertain terms. In green biro, on the corner of the covering letter, she wrote:

“Time: the Future. Absurd & uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atom bomb on the Colonies. A group of children who land in jungle-country near New Guinea. Rubbish & dull. Pointless.”

She consigned it to the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts. From there, the typescript was rescued by a new recruit at Faber, Charles Monteith, and by chance. Monteith needed something to read on a train journey to Oxford, so he grabbed the top bundle from the slush pile.*

Monteith’s reading material turned out to be Strangers from Within. The opening Prologue was indeed interminably boring. There was a nuclear war going on. No actual characters seemed to participate. After a while, there was an airborne evacuation of schoolchildren to safety. The hapless mites were shepherded onto planes which had detachable “passenger tubes” which could float safely earthwards. The author then spends time describing an air battle, after which a passenger tube floats down to a tropical island. Finally — finally! — some characters emerge: two boys.

Charles Monteith was on a train. In 1953.

Charles Monteith did not have a Kindle he could switch to; he did not have email to catch up on. He could neither take to Twitter to opine upon the unwarranted delays on the Oxford line, nor Instagram the surrounding wheatfields. He read on. There was nothing else to do. He read on past the point where previous editors had lapsed into a coma through boredom or hurled the typescript across the room in a rage. He ventured where no editor had ever ventured before.

As Monteith did so, something happened. A story started to be told. A story that was both vivid and murderous. The schoolboys, in the strange new world of their Pacific island, gradually descended into uninhibited savagery. The typescript closed the story with a warning, a time and date: “16.00, 2nd October 1952.”

This wasn’t a story of “Time: the Future.” This was a story of now.

Charles Monteith recognised three things:

1) The Prologue was terrible. It would have to go.

2) The title was terrible. It would have to go.

3) He really, really wanted to publish this book.

The third was dependent on whether the author would be amenable to his proposed changes. Turns out, the author was. He recognised that how the boys got to the island was neither here nor there. What mattered was what they did when they got there.

That’s why the opening lines of the book are as we read them today: “The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.”

The nuclear war vanished. As for the title, the author offered several equally appalling alternatives, including Nightmare Island. In the end, it was another Faber editor, Alan Pringle, who named the novel with a translation of the Hebrew “Beelzebub”: Lord of the Flies.

Its author went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.

On the 60th anniversary of the publication of his most famous novel, on 17 September 2014, his heirs loaned parts of William Golding’s archive to the University of Exeter.

The papers take up a whole five metres of shelf space.

Somewhere on those shelves is the original manuscript of Lord of the Flies, as the archival entry notes:

1. Manuscript notebook ‘Lord of the Flies’, green hardback notebook with front cover missing (Bishop Wordsworth’s School, 90 leaves (including leaf attached to rear cover). Includes extensive annotations and almost all of the pages are struck through with a vertical line. Dated 2 October 1952. Exceptionally fragile, requires assistance to handle.

That handwritten notebook does not contain the opening that had sent so many editors to sleep. Golding must have added it to the typescript that made its way from publisher to publisher. That typescript is long lost.

We’ll never know what drudgery of reading Charles Monteith ploughed through on that journey to Oxford. We can only be thankful he was on a train and so breached the final frontier. He arrived not just in Oxford but at the point where the story started.

Because, after all: some story.

* You always need something sensational to read on a train. Turns out, this was no exception.



From Anatomy to Atlantis

Olaus Rudbeck (also known as Olof Rudbeck the Elder) was a frighteningly brilliant man. He was a philosopher, scientist, anatomist, inventor, and professor of medicine at Uppsala University. As an enthusiastic teenage student, he was one of the first to discover the form and function of the lymphatic system. His findings were published in the paper Nova exercitatio anatomica in 1653. (The established Danish anatomy professor, Thomas Bartholin, published similar findings in the same year, however, and claimed priority.) Rudbeck built Sweden’s first anatomical theatre, in the face of public outrage, which you can still see today in its distinctive cupola on top of the main university building. When not dissecting corpses, Rudbeck pursued the noble art of botany, and established Uppsala’s Botanic Garden, now named after his successor, Carl Linnaeus.

Copper engraving of Olof Rudbeck

Rudbeck points out the location of Atlantis (northern Sweden)

Rudbeck’s main obsession, though, was Atlantis. He shared Plato’s belief that this lost civilisation was real. More than that, he advanced the theory that the fabled city was actually situated somewhere in the north of Sweden. He was assiduous in his search for archaeological evidence, so bustled tirelessly about his native land studying rune inscriptions, excavating natural landmarks, and collecting folklore and tales from the Norse sagas. In the course of these expeditions, he invented stratigraphy, a method for dating artefacts by soil strata, which is still in use today.

The resulting book, Atlantica, outlined in detail Rudbeck’s patriotic theory that Sweden was indeed the cradle of civilization, settled after the flood by the descendants of Noah. Many contemporaries considered the professor insane.

Atlantica was published in 1679, in parallel columns of Swedish and Latin, and thus could be read by scholars deficient in the Scandinavian languages. (Every decent scholar had Latin in those days.) In four volumes, and running to over 2,000 pages in length, it was a work of undoubted scholarship as well as excited imagination.

Having set the world to rights, Rudbeck found time to work with his son (fortuitously named Rudbeck the Younger) on the hugely ambitious and poetically titled Campus Elysii — the Elsyian Fields — a botanica that aimed to survey and illustrate, in their natural colours, every plant so far discovered in the world.

Sadly, thousands of woodcuts and many copies of Atlantica were lost in the fire that destroyed most of Uppsala on the 16th of May, 1702. While his house was burning down and his manuscripts were being reduced to ashes, Rudbeck stood on the roof of one of the university buildings and shouted fire-fighting instructions at the people of the city below.

Rudbeck died shortly after the fire, some say from despair and disappointment caused by the loss of his great work.

Or possibly because documentary proof that Sweden was indeed the first and lost cradle of mankind perished in the conflagration.

For more information see: Isis, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Feb., 1939), pp. 114-119

Dead Souls

Of course, no self-respecting catalogue of lost manuscripts would be complete without mentioning Nikolai Vasilievic Gogol and his Dead Souls: Мёртвые души.

All sorts of first drafts and irreplaceable manuscripts have perished in incandescence: plays baked by Betsy, mathematical jotterings and passionate first drafts tidied up by housekeepers. Even proof that Atlantis lies in northern Sweden was culled in a conflagration. Yet it is rarely the authors themselves who fling their pages into the flames. Robert Louis Stevenson is a notable exception. Nikolai Gogol is another.

Dead Souls is still with us. It first appeared in print in Moscow in 1842; it was an instant hit. Today you can walk into a bookshop and there it still is on the shelves.

In the Russian Empire, at the time Gogol was writing, landowners also owned the peasants — the serfs — who farmed their land. The landowner could buy and sell serfs, just like any other piece of property. The government taxed the landowners according to how many serfs (or “souls”) each one owned. This meant that landowners could be paying taxes on serfs who had died. The novel tells the tale of Chichikov, who, in a get-rich-quick scheme of his own devising, tries to buy these “dead souls” from their owners.

The novel that you might pick up off those shelves today, however, is merely Part One of what its author intended to become a trilogy. Gogol planned a three-part epic detailing Chichikov’s spiritual redemption; after the Inferno, he would win his way through to Purgatory and, as with Dante’s The Divine Comedy, reach Paradise.

You’d certainly expect there to be a sequel, given that the novel ends mid-sentence. The prince who has recently arrested Chichikov is railing against the corrupt government:

“I invite them to observe more closely their duty, and to keep more constantly in mind their obligations of holding true to their country, in that before us the future looms dark, and that we can scarcely…”

We can scarcely what?

It’s the next two parts of Dead Souls we don’t have.

Why? It’s a sad story.

Gogol suffered ill-health. Whether it was real or imaginary, he suffered it. He spent most of the three years after the publication of Dead Souls writing Part II of his magnum opus and travelling round Europe in search of a cure for his maladies. In 1845, in the midst of a spiritual crisis, he burned the manuscript of Part II for the first time.

Not even a pilgrimage to Jerusalem could cheer him up.

One theory for the unending spiritual crises and poor health is that Gogol blamed himself for not being a good enough writer. His aim was to reveal to Russia the righteous way of living, to effect moral improvement through his art. Yet he felt that he was failing.

Gogol’s crises were not helped by the fact that he came under the influence of Father Matvei Konstantinovsky; Konstantinovsky was — to put it mildly — a religious fanatic. He condemned all of Gogol’s written work and pronounced it sinful.

What do you do when you’ve been told that the very act you felt God had called upon you to do — to write to save the world — would lead to your own perdition, to the flames of Hell? What do you do when fasting, scourging and flagellating yourself aren’t enough?

You burn your writing, of course. Which, in February 1852, is what Gogol did. Why worry about dead souls on paper when the only soul that matters is your own, immortal one?

It may have saved his soul, but destroying his work seems to have immolated a part of Gogol’s physical self, too. He entered his own, private Inferno. After the burning of the manuscript, he took to his bed and stopped eating. Nine days later, he died of starvation.

A short life. A sad life. We may have two lost manuscripts, but we also have a masterpiece from it. Konstantinovsky wasn’t able to take those Dead Souls away from us.


The bakings of Betsy

Paper was once precious. It is so ubiquitous today — newspapers, paper towels, wrapping paper, paper napkins, tissues — that we forget it was once a valuable commodity.

Nowadays, paper is produced in industrial quantities from wooden pulp. Before the nineteenth century, however, paper was difficult to make, took ages to make, cost a fortune, could only be made from rags, and rags were in constant short supply. So short, in fact, that in England the export of rags was forbidden and, in 1680, an Act of Parliament directed that people could only be buried in wool and not linen. The Act had the intention of “lessening the Importation of Linnen from beyond the Seas and the Encouragement of the Wollen and Paper Manufactures of this Kingdome”.

So he should have known better, John Warburton. Much better. It was only the middle of the eighteenth century, after all, and paper was still hard to come by.

He was a collector, John Warburton, as well as being the Somerset herald of arms. What he collected were old manuscripts. Not just any old manuscripts but around 60 play manuscripts; manuscripts of plays performed in the sixteenth century by The King’s Men, the acting company to which William Shakespeare was attached for most of his literary career.

Some of the manuscripts were over one hundred years old, otherwise unpublished, and featured classics of the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses. The collection included such delights as Love Hath Found His Eyes by Thomas Jordan, The Maiden’s Holiday by Christopher Marlowe, and the alarmingly titled ‘Tis Good Sleeping in a Whole Skin by William Wager.

Where did John Warburton keep these 60 irreplaceable manuscripts? That’s right. In the kitchen.

When he went looking for them later, he found only a few remaining. His cook (sometimes referred to as Betsy Baker, although I suppose she could just have easily been Betsy the baker) had used most of them while baking. Betsy was probably delighted by the discovery of a paper collection, what with paper being so expensive, in her kitchen. Turns out, rare Elizabethan and Jacobean scripts are perfect for lighting fires or for lining the bottoms of baking dishes. Just three were left. (They’re now safely in the British Library, not still in the kitchen.)

Upon discovery of the loss, Mr Warburton lamented: “After I had been many years collecting these MSS. Playes, through my own carlesness and the ignorance of my ser… in whose hands I had lodged them, they was unluckely burnd or put under pye bottoms.”

One of the works Warburton lists as lost is “A Play by Will. Shakespear”, with no title mentioned. Could this be a completely unknown work by the genius dramatist? Probably not. Plays, by their very nature, usually require several copies. Also, John Warburton would likely have mentioned the fact.

Betsy was not alone in her arsonous activities. In 1835, another domestic servant burned Thomas Carlyle’s manuscript of The History of the French Revolution. In 1866, a proof for Riemann’s hypothesis may have blazed in a housekeeping bonfire.

Betsy the Baker, however, in pursuit of her pies, managed to deprive us of over 50 manuscripts that are now lost forever. Who knows how different the world might have been if ‘Tis Good Sleeping in a Whole Skin had survived? How changed might the landscape be if The Puritan Maid, the Modest Wife, and the Wanton Widow had not been baked in a pie? If The Lovers of Ludgate had not succumbed to the flames?

We’ll never know.

Thanks, Betsy. (But I bet the pies were delicious.)


Fire and pie: an unbeatable combination

A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces is a winding novel that follows the adventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, a lazy, obese, misanthropic, sometime hot-dog vendor in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The book was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. Ignatius, unusually for a fictional character, even has his own statue on Canal Street, New Orleans.

The author must have been pretty pleased with all the attention, surely. I mean: A statue. Well, he would have been, but John Kennedy Toole committed suicide in 1969, 21 years before the book was published. The failure to get Confederacy of Dunces and his earlier work, The Neon Bible, into print sent him into a spiral of paranoia and depression.

He killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning when he was 31. We can’t be entirely sure of his reasons as, although he left several letters, his mother destroyed them.

Toole had had high hopes for his Ignatius. He submitted the manuscript to publisher Simon & Schuster, where it reached the legendary editor Robert Gottlieb.

Gottlieb saw potential in the work and encouraged Toole to revise the story. Toole did so but never made it gel to Gottlieb’s satisfaction. In December 1964, Gottlieb wrote to Toole:

“There is another problem: that with all its wonderfulness, the book … does not have a reason; it’s a brilliant exercise in invention, but … it isn’t really about anything.”

After her son’s death, Thelma Toole became mired in mournful thoughts herself. The manuscript that contained Ignatius remained on top of a cedar armoire in Toole’s former room. She then roused herself, and went on a mission to have the book published, to vindicate her son’s talent. She sent it out to publishers but met only rejection after rejection.

However, in 1976, she learned that novelist Walker Percy was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans. Thelma badgered Percy to get him to read the manuscript. And badgered. And badgered. Finally, he agreed, just so she would stop all the badgering. He admitted to hoping the manuscript, which looked ”physically shabby” when he received it, would be so bad, he could discard it after just a few pages. But he read on.

“And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity; surely it was not possible that it was so good.”

The badgering had paid off. Walker Percy helped to usher the book into print.

But is the version we see in print the original version, or the revised version after Gottlieb’s changes? No-one knows. No-one knows where the original manuscript is. The manuscript that Thelma fought so fiercely for, for so many years, has vanished. Does it even still exist?

Cory MacLauchlin, the author of Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces (Da Capo Press, 2012) spent a long time looking for the manuscript and says:

“I still have hopes someone, someday will uncover the manuscript, hidden in a box in an attic or brought to light during an estate sale.”

Copies of the manuscript certainly exist. In 2013, The University of Louisiana at Lafayette Foundation purchased Lot 228 at a Sotheby’s auction in New York. The acquisition included a photocopy of the manuscript, with handwritten corrections. A snip at $25,000.

Imagine the auction price if the original did turn up in that attic or estate sale.

However, the lost manuscripts for me in this story are the ones that were never written. Imagine if someone had published the book deemed worthy of a Pulitzer Prize before its author ran a hose from his car’s exhaust. Imagine what we might be reading now.

Clearly, A Confederacy of Dunces continues to divide readers: some love it, some hate it.

But we’ll never know what might have come next.

Shirley Jackson: The magic box

“The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.”

That’s a line from one of the most unsettling stories from one of America’s most unsettling writers: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. Jackson specialised in the odd, the inexplicable, and the off-key. So perhaps it is not surprising that when it came to the matter of her manuscripts, something decidedly odd happened, also involving a mysterious box, and also unexplained.

Shirley Jackson died in her sleep, in 1965, at the saddeningly early age of 48. Her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, donated around 50 boxes of Jackson’s manuscripts to the Library of Congress. And that was that.

The world would just have to live with what Shirley Jackson had already given it, including: the insane house in The Haunting of Hill House, the most unreliable narrator of them all in Mary Katherine Blackwood of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the charms of Life Among the Savages*, and that story. “The Lottery”, when first published in The New Yorker in 1948, prompted more mail to that esteemed publication than it had ever received about a work of fiction. While some were outraged, most correspondents were merely baffled. What did it all mean?

We could discuss that for ever. So, that was that.

Well, that was almost that.

For years, it was that. Then there was a sudden flurry of interest in Shirley Jackson. A new biography has just come out (2016) and we are being treated to previously unknown stories and writings. Where did they come from?

According to her children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Stewart, it was “a carton of cobwebbed files discovered in a Vermont barn” that changed things. Cobwebbed cartons are not unknown on the planet of lost manuscripts, but a barn in Vermont is more of a rarity.

As Laurence Jackson Hyman explained to The New Yorker, the box arrived on his porch with no return address. “After hours of suspicious avoidance, I opened it to find the manuscript of one of my mother’s novels, lots of notes, and half a dozen of her unpublished stories.”

Who sent the box? No-one knows.

The arrival of the box prompted the “children” to consider publishing a new book containing the uncollected stories. They hunted down other Shirley Jackson pieces in library archives, chivvied relatives for copies of now out-of-print magazines which contained one of her stories, and opened the boxes in the Library of Congress. Just an Ordinary Day, published by Bantam, came out in 1997 and brought 54 stories back into the world. (It’s in the introduction to that book that the children describe the genesis of the collection.)

Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, which came out in 2015, mixes the eeriness of Jackson’s fiction with humorous bulletins from the front-line of family life. Thus we have “Here I Am, Washing Dishes Again” bustling up against “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. (I’m waiting for my Kindle edition — 2017.)

All because of a mysterious box. Something out of a Shirley Jackson tale all by itself.


The blurb on the back cover of my copy of Life Among the Savages. Back in the 1950s, the expected answer was “no”

* Seems less likely you could get away with calling your children “savages” these days. Also, her follow-up collection of domestic despatches was entitled Raising Demons. Social services would be called.

The book “lost and found in time”

The Portuguese author José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. The Swedish Academy praised his work “sustained by imagination, compassion and irony”. So, a pretty important writer.

You’d think that if he sent a manuscript to a publisher, that manuscript would get noticed. Perhaps it was noticed. But it was certainly lost.

Saramago wrote ClarabóiaSkylight is the English translation — in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1953, he sent it to a publisher. He never heard back from them.

Not an acknowledgement of receipt.

Not even a “no thank you”.


This plunged him, his wife Pilar del Rio says in her introduction to the novel, “into a painful, indelible silence that lasted decades”. As he himself explains, in the biography he put together when he accepted the Nobel prize, he “started another one, but did not get past the first few pages… The matter was settled when I abandoned the project: it was becoming quite clear to me that I had nothing worthwhile to say.”

He tinkered with poems, with newspaper articles, and then, in 1976, Saramago spent time in Alentejo, a rural Portuguese province where his family came from. His time there led to his 1980 novel Raised from the Ground. This tells a story over decades of the peasants who work on — but who do not own — that land, specifically through the years of the Salazar dictatorship. Saramago did have something to say after all.

And he had found the voice in which to say it. In this work, for the first time, we meet his distinctive narrative style. His prose takes on a rhythm unlike any other. Single sentences pour over pages, uninhibited by punctuation, shifting between the characters, their dialogue, his thoughts as narrator, and some useful agricultural apercus. You move in perspective from the ants on the ground who watch a political prisoner being beaten, to the red kites gliding in the air currents above. It is a beautiful, brutal book.


The wooded hillsides of southern Portugal. (I missed the red kite.)

Throughout the 1980s, Saramago published several other novels. Then, in 1989, the publishers to whom he had sent Skylight called him to say that — guess what? — they had found the manuscript when they were moving offices. They added that they would now, actually, be honoured to publish it.

Not surprising, Saramago was now a well known author.

We all know publishers can take ages to decide whether to publish a book, but Saramago  obviously felt that 36 years was just that bit too long. He declined their offer, went to their offices, and fetched his manuscript home. Pilar del Rio tells us that he never re-read it, and declined the beseechings of others who did, and who tried to persuade him to publish it. Skylight was finally published only in 2011, after his death.

Skylight‘s story takes place in an apartment block in 1940s Lisbon. The narrative weaves its way in and out of the apartments and in and out of the heads of the people who live in them “under the same roof, in the same light, breathing the same air”. They’re all poor, but variously happy, unhappy, frustrated, angry, uncertain, scheming or “dreaming a dream with no beginning or end”. Several ponder the meaning or meaninglessness of life but reach no firm conclusions about it.

It’s not a bad book, though not great, so why did the publishers not publish it? We’ll never know, but I am going to take a guess. It has passages of extraordinarily frank sexuality; the incestuous lesbian embrace by Isaura of her sister Adriana is as powerful and disturbing for the reader as it is for the sisters. The book does not paint a happy picture of family life: those closed apartment doors hide rape, abuse and prostitution.

All of these aspects would not have gone down well in Lisbon in 1953, in the conservative Catholic atmosphere, under the authoritarian regime of President Salazar. It would have been a risky choice to publish a book such as this by an unknown author.

Perhaps someone at the publishing house recognised the novel’s merits and, rather than disappointing the author with a rejection, put the manuscript away in a drawer and waited for the day repression would be replaced with democracy in the land. Surely that would be soon? Alas, it would be another twenty years. The Carnation Revolution took place in 1974. By then, the manuscript had been forgotten.

There are other unanswered questions. Would Saramago ever have developed his distinctive style if he hadn’t spent years in the literary wilderness? If Skylight had been commercially successful in 1953, would he have gone on to take such risks with his prose? If Skylight had been a commercial disaster in 1953, would he ever have written fiction again?

The questions are unanswered but also unanswerable. We’ll never know.

But if the price for this lost manuscript was decades of silence followed by the music of his later novels, Saramago might have thought it was a price worth paying.

I do.


Read Raised from the Ground.

Saramago himself called Skylight “the book lost and found in time”. You can read it here.

Dora Diamant’s letters

It’s an image that does not spring readily to mind. Franz Kafka — the tortured Czech-Jewish writer of our imaginations — once harboured an ambition to open a restaurant. In this culinary nirvana, his last lover, Dora Diamant, would be the cook. He would be the waiter. Obviously, this career move never happened, partly because Kafka had laryngeal tuberculosis, which made it difficult for him to eat, never mind take orders. Kafka died in June 1924, never adding waiting at tables to his CV.

It’s a lovely image, though. Imagine strolling out and having the author of The Trial drift by to advise you on the soup of the day. Which might turn out to be some burned cous-cous.

Kafka and Diamant met in July 1923, in the Baltic seaside resort of Müritz. She was working there, supervising a summer camp. He was having tuberculosis. He spent a lot of time in those wicker beach chairs which are an enviable feature of the Baltic coast. They fell in love. When the summer was over, they moved into a small series of lodgings in Berlin. Diamant taught Kafka Hebrew and this is when they rhapsodised over opening a restaurant.[1]

In April 1924, Diamant accompanied Kafka to the sanatorium in Kierling where doctors made a last-ditch attempt at restoring him to health. She was with him he died.


The Baltic coast (with swan)

Although Kafka had told Diamant, as he had Max Brod, to burn all his writings, she didn’t. She held onto around 20 notebooks and 35 letters that Kafka had written to her, which we only know about because she had to come clean to Max Brod when they vanished. How did they vanish? Like many other manuscripts do: bureaucracy.

After Kafka’s death, Diamant studied acting and joined a theatre company where she met Berta Lask, a communist playwright. Diamant threw herself somewhat into the spirit of the times: joining the Communist Party, changing her surname to Dymant, and marrying Bertha’s son, Ludwig (also called Lutz) Lask in June 1932. Happy though the newlyweds might have been, other forces in Germany at the time were not quite so well disposed to either Jews or communists — and the newly-minted Dymant-Lask was both.

In April 1933, the Gestapo raided the apartment where the Dymant-Lasks lived.They took away “every scrap of paper they could lay their hands on,” according to Kafka’s biographer Ernst Pawel.[2] Off went the notebooks and the letters. The disconsolate Dora confessed to Max Brod what had happened. Brod mobilised the Czech writer Camill Hoffmann, then working as a cultural attaché in the Berlin diplomatic corps, to see if he could help. However, the Gestapo told Hoffmann that they already had mountains and mountains of paper and the chances of finding a few notebooks were vanishingly small.

In the 1950s, Brod had another go. He asked a Kafka scholar, Klaus Wagenbach,  to just go to the police in Berlin and ask for the documents back. Simple.

According to Wagenbach, the helpful chief of police told them that the army had probably taken the papers east for safekeeping during the bombardment of Berlin.


Silesia? Warsaw? Moscow? Where?

Those papers have not been found.

People are still looking. San Diego State University operates a Kafka Project which conducts the international search for Kafka’s writings. While his letters to Diamant are officially the property of the Kafka estate, the idea that they may unofficially end up in the hands of someone else cannot be discounted.

The letters to Dora Diamant are not the only letters Franz Kafka wrote to a young lady. Felice Bauer — to whom he was engaged, twice — kept the 500 or so letters he had written to her. In 1955, needing the money, Bauer sold the letters to Schocken Books. At auction at Sotheby’s in 1987, Shocken Books sold the letters again for $605,000. They went to a “European private collector” and disappeared from public view.

Dora Diamant went on to live an interesting life. She fled with her daughter from the Nazis first to Russia, then to England, an upright nation which promptly deported them both to the Isle of Man as enemy aliens.

She never wanted to or could forget Kafka

She named her daughter, after all, Franziska Marianne.

1 Back up JP Hodin: “Memories of Franz Kafka”; Horizon, January 1948 pp26 – 45. Accessible at:

2 Back up Ernst Pawel (1984): The Nightmare of Reason, Farrar Straus & Giroux.