Category Archives: Disappeared manuscripts

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.

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.



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.

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.

A kilo of Kafka

This week, on 7 August 2016, the supreme court of Israel brought to an end the trial of the Kafka manuscripts. Decades after the author’s death, they will no longer be lost to the world.

During Franz Kafka’s lifetime, a tiny fraction of what he had written was published. Metamorphosis came out in 1915 and, later, a few other stories, too.

The Czech writer left his manuscripts to his friend Max Brod. Like Kafka, Brod was part of the German-speaking Jewish community of Prague. Kafka left explicit instructions as to what Brod should do with the stuff. “Dearest Max,” he wrote. “My last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.”

Kafka’s death came disappointingly early. Suffering from tuberculosis, Kafka died in June 1924, a month short of his forty-first birthday.

Max Brod did not abide by his friend’s wishes. Kafka also left around 20 notebooks and 35 letters in the possession of his last lover, Dora Diamant. She didn’t abide by his wishes, either.

Brod pretty smartish brought out print editions of the novels that were now in his possession. The Trial came out in 1925. This book tells the tale of Joseph K, who is accused of a crime which is never explained and tries to defend himself in a system that is nothing but nightmare. In 1926, Brod published The Castle, which introduces us to another faceless, incomprehensible, dominating bureaucracy. As the twentieth century began introducing the world at large to various incomprehensible, dominating, bureaucratic nightmares, Kafka’s writing resonated with readers. We knew this world. We knew it made no sense. We knew it was cruel. We knew it was pointless to complain. Without Max Brod, we perhaps would not have the perfect word to describe this world: Kafkaesque. (The adjective continues to be useful: it was recently conscripted as an episode title in Breaking Bad.)


“For the proceedings were not only kept secret from the general public, but from the accused as well.” My own undergraduate highlighting of one of the most puzzling puzzles of the process.

So, some of Kafka’s work was published but some of his manuscripts got “lost”. Not lost in the traditional sense of being stolen, eaten, or burned. Lost in the sense that people knew roughly where they were — in an apartment in Tel Aviv surrounded by hundreds of cats, in a Swiss bank vault, or in the hands of the Gestapo, for example — they just couldn’t get their hands on them.

Because the story is so complicated, I’m splitting it into two parts. This is the tale of Max Brod’s suitcase. In another entry, you can read about Dora’s purloined letters.

In an episode worthy of its own television drama, Brod fled Prague the night before the Nazis invaded the city in 1939. He stuffed a suitcase with Kafka’s papers, snuck through the Czech border just before it was closed, and eventually settled in what became Israel.

When Brod died in 1968, he left the Kafka manuscripts to Ilse Esther Hoffe, his secretary and, some say, mistress. When she died in 2007, a legal battle began. Esther Hoffe had sold some of the papers but left the rest to her daughters, Eva and Ruth. Eva and Ruth claimed the papers were therefore their personal property. The National Library of Israel counter-claimed that the papers were the property of the state. Along the way, the German Literature Archive in Marbach, which had paid $1.98 million for the original handwritten manuscript of The Trial in 1988, demanded the right to purchase all the other manuscripts, too, claiming Israel did not have the proper facilities to look after them. (Although Kafka was born in Prague, German was his first language and the one in which he wrote.) The German proposal raised unease in Israel not only because Brod was a Holocaust survivor but also because Kafka’s three sisters were not Holocaust survivors. Elli and Valli died in the Łódź Ghetto; Ottla in Auschwitz.

In 2010, a Tel Aviv court ruled that the Hoffe sisters must release the papers for cataloguing. Eva and Ruth were actually proposing to sell them by weight, according to one of their attorneys, Uri Zfat: “If we get an agreement, the material will be offered for sale as a single entity, in one package. It will be sold by weight. They’ll say: ‘There’s a kilogram of papers here, the highest bidder will be able to approach and see what’s there.'” Some wondered whether selling Kafka by the kilo was an ideal idea.

Some were also wondering whether Eva’s cat-infested Tel Aviv apartment was really the best place to store potentially priceless unknown works by one of the most iconic authors of the twentieth century. Some papers were there, but nobody knew which, as Eva wouldn’t let anyone inside. Some were in safety-deposit boxes in Tel Aviv banks, others in four more boxes in Zurich’s UBS bank. During the Suez crisis in 1956, Brod had transferred the most valuable manuscripts to Switzerland for safekeeping. The boxes were finally prised open after the ruling in 2010. Inside were manuscripts, including a previously unknown story, it was said, but nobody really knew what, as Eva and Ruti had filed an injunction to keep their contents secret.

The legal battle continued.

And continued.

In 2015, the Tel Aviv District Court awarded custody of the estate of Max Brod to the National Library in Jerusalem. At the heart of the decision was Brod’s own will. He left the manuscripts to Esther Hoffe for her lifetime with instructions that she donate the Kafka papers to a public institution on or before her death. Israel’s National Library was at the top of his list of suggested such institutions.

There was, naturally, an appeal but finally, the supreme court of Israel ruled that Franz Kafka’s manuscripts must go to the National Library. At last, in 2016, the door to the law was closed.

Courts, secrets, cats, safety-deposit boxes, legal proceedings that go on for years and years and years: quite… well, you know the adjective.

What was in those boxes? We still don’t know. I’ll update when we do.

The Adventure of the Southsea Sorting Office

It’s not a great start to a literary career. The manuscript of your first novel is lost in the post. Your second, The Mystery of Cloomber, isn’t much of a success, either; it languishes in obscurity and isn’t published in Pall Mall magazine until 1888. By then, however, people were taking an interest in your work because it really was third time lucky. Your third manuscript, published in 1886, cemented your literary reputation forever by introducing to us for the first time, in A Study in Scarlet, Dr John Watson and his friend Sherlock Holmes.

While he was a struggling young doctor in Portsmouth, in 1883, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his first novel, The Narrative of John Smith. Off he despatched it to a publisher. The manuscript was never seen again. As Conan Doyle remembered years later: “The publishers never received it. The Post Office sent countless blue forms to say that they knew nothing about it, and from that day to this, no word has ever been heard of it.” (Taken from his article “My First Book” in The Idler magazine, 1893.)

Conan Doyle began to rewrite the lost Narrative, but abandoned it in mid-conversation. He was on to higher things. That might have been the end of it. Probably Conan Doyle hoped that was the end of it. In that same article in The Idler, he goes on to say: “My shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again—in print.”

Yet his abandoned rewrite did appear in print. The manuscript turned up in one of the 15 cardboard boxes that had been gathering dust in the corner of a London office, while lawyers for the various surviving Conan Doyle heirs argued about to whom the boxes belonged. Two of the boxes went to the British Library under the terms of the will of Conan Doyle’s daughter, Dame Jean Bromet. The contents of the other thirteen went for auction at Christie’s in 2004, despatched thence by the three beneficiaries of Anna Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur’s daughter-in-law; they had inherited her property when she died in 1990. The auction caused a certain amount of brouhaha: protestors campaigned to stop it on the grounds that such a sale might be illegal and would scatter across the world, into the hands of private buyers, a collection of materials that might never be seen again, thus lost to scholarship for ever.

The British Library, however, made a successful bid (£47,800) for Lot 11, Conan Doyle’s incomplete rewritten manuscript of The Narrative of John Smith. In 2011, they published it, around 130 years after it was written.

The trouble is, the novel isn’t very good. The 50-year-old John Smith is confined to his bedchamber after an attack of gout. He has various conversations with visitors on topics ranging from war to religion. That’s it.

It’s interesting, of course, because the book sheds light on the literary development of one of the most widely read authors in the world, but it’s not going to keep you page-turning until midnight.

Young girl with a paper fairy

Perhaps the fairies Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in will also turn up one day

Still, while it’s always nice to have a lost manuscript partially back in the world, perhaps, on some dark shelf in a sorting office in Southsea (where the youthful Conan Doyle was living when he penned his original oeuvre), the first Narrative of John Smith still awaits discovery.

Get out your blue forms and your lanterns, posties, and take another look? Not very probable but not impossible. Elementary.

In which Page 49 goes missing for 34 years

For many years, a manuscript circulated among science-fiction fans. It was a transcription of an original piece of fiction. It was copied, retyped, and often passed on without including the name of the original author. Some disputed that there ever was a single original author. Special events were held at science-fiction conventions concerning this manuscript. None who read it would ever forget its fervid grip.

What made this piece of fiction such a perennial hit? What made the exploits of Grignr, a barbarian, so relentlessly popular? Was it the wooden characters, the hackneyed plot? No. People generally agreed that it was the prose: the prose was spectacularly appalling. The special events at the science-fiction conventions were competitions: who could read the story aloud for the longest before beginning to laugh uncontrollably and thus be unable to continue?

The author of this work has a touch of genius for picking the wrong word, an acquaintance with spelling that is sometimes distant, and often dispenses with the grammatical rule that adjectives generally have to bear at least a slight relation to the object they are describing. The gem that gives this work its title — The Eye of Argon — is a “many fauceted scarlet emerald“. The wench who catches Grignr’s eye in the opening tavern has “stringy orchid twines of hair swaying gracefully over the lithe opaque nose“.

In The Eye of Argon, the author has created a world where heads are loped off, barbarians have moments of carlessness, hair prickles “yawkishly” and when women say things, they may do so “bustily” or “whimsicoracally”. From the first line of dialogue (“Prepare to embrace your creators in the stygian haunts of hell, barbarian”) this fiction wove its spell, to the final chilling moment when the scarlet emerald has transformed itself into a blood-sucking blob that has sloozed up Grignr’s leg and…


For decades, that was where the circulated copies and photocopies ended. Did Grignr prevail, or did the blob exsanguinate him? No-one knew. The origins of the story had become obscure. Some thought it a pastiche, or a joke.

The dust racked climes of the baren land which dominates large portions of the Norgolian empire

The dust racked climes of the baren land which dominates large portions of the Norgolian empire

It was not. The Eye of Argon was first published in 1970, in OSFA (the mimeographed magazine of the Ozark Science Fiction Association) in St Louis, Missouri. In 2003, there was great excitement; a copy of this fabled periodical was found in the Paskow Collection at the library of Temple University, Philadelphia.

Sadly, however, this library copy was missing page 49, the one with story’s ending on it; page 49 was also the inside back cover of the original magazine and it had become detached. Staple-management techniques in the 1970s — in Missouri, at least — obviously hadn’t reached the dizzy heights they have today. Was the last page of The Eye of Argon destined to remain a lost manuscript forever throughout the stygmatic pool of time (like the last page of Lady Don’t Fall Backwards)?

Happily, no.

In November 2004, Gene Bundy, administrator of the Jack Williamson SF Library at Eastern New Mexico University, found on his shelves an intact copy of the crucial edition (10) of OSFA. In December 2004, the ending had its first public reading after 34 years at Philcon (the world’s first and longest-running conference on science fiction, fantasy, and horror) in Philadelphia.

All were pleased to discover — after decades of doubt — that Grignr was victorious. “The thing was gone forever. All that remained was a dark red blotch upon the face of the earth, blotching things up.”

At long last, as “the weary, scarred barbarian trooted slowly off into the horizon to become a tiny pinpoint in a filtered filed of swirling blue mists”, the name of the author became clear beneath the ur-text:

by Jim Theis.

Jim was 16 when he wrote The Eye of Argon, 17 when it was first published, 48 when he died in March 2002. He wasn’t too happy that the SF world celebrated his adjectival originality in the manner in which it did and vowed never to write anything again.

Jim Theis, I salute you. As long as people talk about science fiction, they will mention The Eye of Argon. It is a manuscript that deserves to be unlost. I am glad it is.

You can read the circulating internet text complete with updated ending courtesy of Ansible as well as a pdf (large file) of the original mimeograph.

Long leave the king!!!!

The original story of Moby-Dick: A mere 108 years between manuscript and publication

Your name is Thomas Nickerson. You are fourteen years old when you set sail from Nantucket Harbour in August 1819 on a ship called the Essex. The expedition is part of the murderously efficient industry of this Massachusetts town: the hunting of whales.

You do hunt whales. You sail across to the Azores then down the coast of South America. The crew sees and despatches its first whale somewhere between Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, then continues round Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean.

On 20 November 1820, after many months at sea, you witness an incident that would later inspire Herman Melville to write his epic Moby-Dick. It was something of which whaling crews had never heard before, never seen. Two of the small whaling boats that the Essex carried were off at the hunt at the time, harpooning whales. You, Thomas, in fact, are steering the ship towards the boats when you see it: just off the port bow, an enormous whale. An enormous whale not doing what whales usually do — getting out of the range of a whale ship as rapidly as possible — but watching you.

This enormous whale then swims directly towards your ship and rams it. As if in revenge for the bloody murder being wreaked upon its cousins.

Recovered from the blow, the whale turns round and, with fury and with malevolence, rams your ship again. Within moments, the ship founders under your feet and the Essex sinks and is lost.

The crew split into the three surviving whaling boats, taking what provisions from the wreck that they can. You join the boat of the first mate, Owen Chase, himself aged only 23. The aim is to ration the provisions and sail to South America, a journey of several thousand miles.

Twenty men leave the wreck of the Essex; eight survive. Some succumb to starvation, some become food for the remainder.

Sea foam against a boat

Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink

You return home to Nantucket almost two years since you left, in June 1821, on the Eagle. The crowd on the Nantucket docks meets you and your fellow survivors in silence.

No wonder, when someone suggests that you write down this tale of hunger and cannibalism and fortitude, you do.

But Thomas Nickerson did not write his tale for many years. Amazingly, the optimistic teenager set sail again, serving on other whale ships and eventually becoming a captain in the merchant service. Owen Chase, meanwhile, was busy penning his memoirs, with the aid of a ghost-writer, and described the crew’s adventures in The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, which was published just four months after his return home.

Upon retiring from his seafaring life, Thomas Nickerson ran a guest house in Nantucket. One of his summertime guests was the writer Leon Lewis, who encouraged Nickerson to write his version of the Essex story. In 1876, Nickerson sent his manuscript to Lewis, who lived in Penn Yan, New York. Lewis, however, did nothing with the work, having creditors, debts and sailing to England to escape them, alongside his 14-year-old niece, on his mind. Nickerson died in 1883, his manuscript lost.

In 1960, Nickerson’s manuscript was re-discovered. Before a sale of Leon Lewis’s property to pay off some of his creditors, a friend of Lewis, Darius Ogden, took possession of several of his items, including Nickerson’s manuscript. At some point, someone put the manuscript in the attic of Darius Ogden’s house, and that is where it stayed as the house passed down through the generations. There it was in the attic when a family member retrieved it in 1960. She kept it in her study, thinking the story was make-believe. Not until she visited Nantucket in 1980 did she decide to check its authenticity. Nantucket whaling expert Edouard Stackpole duly did authenticate the manuscript.

Just over a century after his death, in 1984, the Nantucket Historical Association published an abridged version of Nickerson’s manuscript, using his original title: The Loss of the Ship “Essex” Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats.

Herman Melville heard about the malevolent whale that sank the Essex while he was serving on a whale ship, in 1834, before he began his literary career; he met the son of Owen Chase, who was serving on another whale ship, not far from where the Essex originally sank. Chase gave his father’s account of the incidents to Melville, who read it at sea and pondered a whale capable of violence, of retribution: a white whale, at that.

Moby-Dick, published in 1851, ends with the sinking of the Pequod. As Ishmael alone survives the whale’s malevolence, the book does not explore the subsequent horrors of abandonment, loss and cannibalism that Nickerson and Chase describe so honestly and well.

Larkin down the back of a bedside cabinet

Sometimes a lost manuscript just lurks for a while. It’s the way of manuscripts. Pesky things.

The acclaimed British poet Philip Larkin, who spent 30 years running the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull University, died of cancer in December 1985. We have definitively lost his diaries. Betty Mackereth, his secretary — the self-same “loaf-haired secretary” of his 1965 poem “Toads Revisited”, in fact — destroyed all 30 volumes. “I was perfectly happy to destroy his diaries by first shredding them and then burning the remains because that is what he wanted,” she said.

The house where Larkin lived in the Newland Park area of Hull wasn’t cleared until December 2001, after the death of his friend, Monica Jones, who had lived there with him. The house was thoroughly inventoried by the Larkin Society, who wanted preserve his possessions for researchers and posterity. What furniture remained was sold to the Newland Discount Furniture company. All done and dusted.

Except, a few months later, in June 2002, up turned a red A5 notebook containing early drafts of two of Larkin’s published poems and a free-standing quatrain that was unknown: “We met at the end of the party/ When all the drinks were dead/ And all the glasses dirty:/ ‘Have this that’s left’, you said.”

The owner of Newland Discount Furniture explained that the notebook had fallen behind the drawer of Larkin’s old bedside cabinet which was destined for the dump (“wasn’t worth a fiver”), where it had remained for approximately a quarter of a century. The book then made its way to a local man, Chris Jackson, who maintained that he had bought it from a friend, after the friend had removed the cabinet drawers for repainting, although quite how the book was saved from immolation by attentive furniture workers remains somewhat mysterious.


The last of summer

This same lost notebook of Larkin’s turns up again in 2006, in the possession of a book dealer, and on sale for £20,000 at the Antiquarian Book Fair in London. The appeal to a collector is obvious.

You couldn’t publish the contents, as the copyright in all Larkin’s estate lies with the Society of Authors, but few other Larkin manuscripts are likely to come on the market given Larkin’s preference for leaving his papers in the public domain (although a handwritten poem torn from a notebook sold at Bonham’s in 2013). Larkin drafted most of his poems in large notebooks, the first of which he donated to the British Library in the 1960s. His remaining manuscripts nestle in the archives of the library where he was for so long librarian. Larkin campaigned for the manuscripts of all British poets to be left in the public archives. A private collector might therefore also take some joy in circumventing the wishes of a poet who is disliked by many for what they consider his personal failings in the areas of racism, misogyny and right-wing political views.

The unknown free-standing quatrain was part of an untitled but complete poem, written by Larkin for his confidante, secretary, lover and post-mortem diary-shredder extraordinaire, Betty Mackereth, in the 1970s. It was published by the Larkin Society in their newsletter in 2002. Its lines which celebrate love in the autumn of life have at times been appropriated for obituaries, and you can see why. “We walked through the last of summer, When shadows reached long and blue…”

Myself, I don’t let the personal attitudes of a poet bruise their lines, which are separate and have an independent life. And I have to admit admiration for any librarian who tells us in his poem “A Study Of Reading Habits” that “Books are a load of crap”. I am very pleased to walk these long, blue evenings with his poetic arm occasionally in mine.