Category Archives: Misplaced manuscripts

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.

The Chronicles of Ivan the Terrible

Manuscript news caught my eye this week (February 2016). I learned that the Russian consul in Edinburgh, Andrei Pritsepov, had presented a copy of The Chronicles of Ivan the Terrible to the Princess Dashkova Russian Centre, part of the University of Edinburgh. “How did Mr Pritsepov manage that?” I wondered, given that this epic medieval manuscript had supposedly vanished and been “lost for more than 400 years“. (You can see what caught my attention.)

The answer took a little finding out.

Ivan Grozny, the first tsar of all the Russias, is perhaps nowadays better known as Ivan the Terrible. “Terrible” might to our modern ears imply that he was a spectacularly bad tsar of all the Russias, losing territories, devaluing the rouble, under-counting serfs etc. Yet, before translation, the word has more of a sense of “inspiring terror” or “terrifying”. Both of which Ivan certainly was. He had laudable triumphs: he commissioned the construction of St Basil’s cathedral and instituted Russia’s first printing presses, for example. He had less laudable moments, too. As well as perpetrating cruel and senseless slaughter in a paranoid campaign against any perceived traitor, he also managed to accidentally kill his own son.


One of Ivan’s better moments: St Basil’s cathedral. (Sorry, it was a grey day in Moscow when I visited.)

When he wasn’t annihilating thousands of innocent people, Ivan Grozny had an eye on the future. He commissioned The Chronicles: a series of handwritten illuminated manuscripts created between 1568 and 1576. The manuscripts were stitched into ten separate volumes. This “Tsar Book”, as it became known, covered all of world history from Adam and Eve to Ivan’s own reign. Ivan intended the chronicles to provide an education for his children; a sort of How to be a better Tsar.

Sadly, the educative purpose failed, despite the manuscript’s 16,000 illustrations. Shortly after Ivan died in 1584, Russia was plunged into a chaos eloquently described as “The Time of Troubles“. The troubles involved famine (about two million people died; one-third of the population), war and general unrest.

Yes, yes, but how does a set of medieval manuscripts disappear for more than 400 years?

The answer, of course, is that they don’t.

In those troubled times, the volumes of the original work were removed from the Kremlin, separated, scattered in various regions of Russia, but not exactly lost. The Historical Museum in Moscow had volumes 1, 9 and 10. The rest of the volumes lounged in the libraries of St Petersburg. They simply have never been brought together again as one since The Time of Troubles. Until now.

Step in The Society of Ancient Literature Lovers.

This Russian charity is also known in English as The Society of Lovers of Ancient Literature or The Lovers of Ancient Script or, sometimes, simply The Society of Ancient Literature, with no love of any description involved. Prince Pavel Vyazemsky established the society in 1877. Its main purpose is to “publish Old Russian manuscripts remarkable in literary, scientific, artistic terms or in terms of everyday life, and re-print rare books” (Charter of the Society of Lovers of Ancient Literature, Saint Petersburg, 1877).

The Society of Ancient Literature Lovers has faithfully recreated the Tsar Book as a rather lovely facsimile. The ten volumes in Edinburgh are a newly created copy. Valuable, beautiful, an astonishing gift from Russia; but, despite the original headlines, not the first appearance of the chronicles in 400 years.

Lost Manuscripts: Reporting from the news headlines for you when things aren’t even, it turns out, lost.

Go Set a Cat Among the Pigeons

It’s a big month for lost manuscripts, July 2015. Midnight parties around the world to celebrate the publication of Go Set a Watchman. This is the first novel from Harper Lee since the universally beloved To Kill a Mockingbird was published by JB Lippincott on 11 July 1960, exactly 55 years ago today. (Universally beloved and one of the bestselling novels of the 20th century: it’s never been out of print and is a favourite with exam boards, which means that schools purchase new copies year after year.) The new novel has a strange history.

The story is this: Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted for publication. Set in the 1950s, it features the character known as Scout in Mockingbird as an adult woman. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, much taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded Lee to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. As a first-time writer, Lee said: “I did as I was told.”

After the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee shunned celebrity and the literary world; she stopped giving interviews to the press in 1964. She just got on with whatever she wanted to do for the rest of her very private life. She shared a home with her sister, Alice, in Monroeville, Alabama, where she had been born in 1926. She had no need to work: her first publication saw to that.

Orange cover of paperback edition of To Kill A Mockingbird

My own, much read copy of Lee’s novel, dating from the days when it had only sold 11 million copies

We know she began another manuscript, tentatively entitled The Long Goodbye, but she never completed it. She told a close friend she had two reasons not to write another book: “One, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”

So Harper Lee might have happily remained in that small but distinguished category of authors who have published only one work of fiction. Then two things happened. One: Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, went through all her papers in 2014 and discovered the lost manuscript. It was in “a secure location”, affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird. Two: Lee’s sister Alice, for many years her protector, died in November 2014 at the age of 103. Pretty quickly thereafter, Tonja Carter negotiated a deal with (who else?) HarperCollins for publication.

The book’s title is from the Bible: For thus has the LORD said to me: Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he sees. (Isaiah 21:6) (The watchman saw “a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels” among other things.)

Pretty quickly, people were declaring what they could see all over the place. They declared calumny, mainly. Lee had said she never want to publish anything else so why, at the age of 88, had she suddenly changed her mind? If the book wasn’t good enough to pass the whip of her editor at the time of submission, why was it suddenly good enough now? Why, back in the 1960s, after Mockingbird had been such a tremendous success and the author was being dilatory with a follow-up, didn’t the publishers dust off the manuscript already in their hands and bring it out as a sequel?

Lee, who had a stroke in 2007, suffers from memory loss, has severe hearing and vision problems, and lives in residential care. Speculation about her state of mind was instant and rife. Had she really consented to publication? If she wanted the book published, why didn’t she set about it smartly some time ago? She said she had forgotten writing it. “How can you forget a whole novel?” people wondered. “Especially when it is 50% of all the novels you ever wrote?”

A compelling question, one might think, but not without precedent. When Graham Greene published The Tenth Man in 1985, he stated in the preface that he had “forgotten” writing it in the 1940s while he was working for MGM. (I can’t recall anyone speculating whether Mr Greene was doo-lally when he mentioned this.)

In a statement to the New York Times, Tonja Carter said that Harper Lee was “extremely hurt and humiliated” at suggestions that she had been pressured into publication. Nevertheless, The Alabama Securities Commission launched an investigation under their remit to help prevent financial fraud against the elderly. After talking with her, they concluded that Lee wanted the book published.

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” says Atticus Finch.

Is Go Set a Watchman a bluejay or a mockingbird? Guess we’ll soon find out. Publication  is on 14 July. The initial print run? Two million copies. A triumphant lost manuscript, indeed.

* Statement from Harper Lee in Harper Collins Press Release 3 February 2015: Press Release

* As quoted by the Rev Dr Thomas Lane Butts of the Monroeville Methodist Church in an interview with Australia’s Sunday Telegraph

* Even that is disputed. The New York Times reported that Justin Caldwell, Sotheby’s rare-book expert, discovered the typescript of Go Set a Watchman during a visit to Alabama in 2011. At that meeting, to appraise a Mockingbird manuscript for insurance purposes, both Tonja Carter and Samuel Pinkus, Harper Lee’s then agent, were present. Tonja Carter acknowledged that she had been there but she said that was out of the room running “an errand” during the crucial time and therefore knew nothing about the new manuscript. “Really?” some people said.

1066 in the back of a taxi

The book 1066 and All That has one of my favourite subtitles: “A memorable history of England, comprising all the parts you can remember including 103 good things, five bad kings, and two genuine dates”.

According to the short Preface to the Second Edition: “A first edition limited to 1 copy and printed on rice paper and bound in buck-boards and signed by one of the editors was sold to the other editor, who left it in a taxi somewhere between Piccadilly Circus and the Bodleian.”

The preface does not specify whether it was Walter Carruthers Sellar or Robert Julian Yeatman doing the signing or the losing. Nor does the Compulsory Preface (this means you) cast further light upon this circumstance, either, although it is more specific as to the purpose of the book. History is “…what you can remember.” This salient volume certainly does contain the history I remember, including the Venomous Bead, the Disillusion of the Monasteries, and the Industrial Revelation.

The two dates are, of course, 1066 (it’s in the title and is memorable for the Battle of Hastings; this post published on around about the 948th anniversary of that Battle) and 55 BC (when Julius Caesar master-minded the first Roman invasion of Britain). However, Caesar was compelled, the book reminds us, to invade Britain again the following year — 54 BC, not 56 — owing to the peculiar Roman method of counting backwards. The ever-informative book’s preface mentions that originally the authors planned to include two other dates, but last-moment research (at the Eton and Harrow match) revealed that they were simply not memorable.

If the first edition printed on rice paper and bound in buck-boards ever turns up in the back of a taxi, I will be very surprised.


The saints include St Pancra and St Ive

Test Paper I

If this mythical manuscript did turn up in the back of a taxi, would it be worth:

a) A surfeit of lampreys?
b) A wave of saints?
c) Agincourt?

(Be vague.)

Something sensational to read on the train

The source of all the confusion in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest is a lost manuscript. Miss Prism’s self-penned three-volume novel, in fact. Despite it being a fictional work, this literary treasure has raised unanswered questions for serious scholars of Wilde. (Oh, fine then, just me.)

When we meet Jack Worthing, the protagonist of the play, he is pursuing unsuccessful matrimonial ambitions. He wants to marry Gwendolen Fairfax but is failing on two counts. One: Gwendolen will only marry a man named Ernest (“a name that inspires absolute confidence”). Two: His parentage has not proved sufficiently sophisticated to win the approval of Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell. Instead of being able to intimate that he will inherit an estate in Shropshire, for example, Jack’s antecedents are uncertain. As a baby, he was found in a handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station (the facility for the Brighton Line).

Upon the arrival of the governess, Miss Prism, Jack’s antecedents become more apparent. Miss Prism, Lady Bracknell informs us, left Lady Bracknell’s sister’s house 28 years ago in possession of a baby in a perambulator. Neither Miss Prism, the perambulator, nor the child returned. “Prism!” Lady Bracknell demands to know. “Where is that baby?”

The wretched Miss Prism is forced to confess that she had confused the baby in her charge with a manuscript, a work of fiction that she had composed during her (few, she mentions) unoccupied hours. One item was to go in a capacious handbag suitable for the transport of many leaves of paper, the other in the perambulator. “In a moment of mental abstraction, for which I never can forgive myself,” says Miss Prism, “I deposited the manuscript in the basinette, and placed the baby in the handbag.”

The handbag, of course, she had left at a cloakroom at Victoria Station (the Brighton Line). (People are always leaving manuscripts at train stations; they just can’t help it.) Immediately, Jack is revealed to be the lost baby, the son of Lady Bracknell’s sister, Mrs Moncrieff, and therefore acceptable breeding stock after all, as well as happily restored to his kin. Also, hey presto! Turns out his given name really is Ernest, after all. So that’s the marriage with Gwendolen sorted.

Mrs George Canninge as the original Miss Prism, with Evelyn Millard as Cecily Cardew in the 1895 production of The Importance of Being Earnest

Mrs George Canninge as the original Miss Prism, with Evelyn Millard as Cecily Cardew in the 1895 production of The Importance of Being Earnest

Miss Prism’s novel (“of more than usually revolting sentimentality”, according to Lady Bracknell) was discovered at midnight, still in the perambulator, standing by itself in a remote corner of Bayswater.

We know little about Miss Prism’s history. We know, according to the scars on her handbag, that she was involved in (as a very early suffragette, perhaps?) “the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days”. We also know that she chose to deposit the handbag containing the baby at the rather more fashionable side of Victoria Station.

The east side was the home of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway and its platforms. To the west lived the more upmarket London, Brighton and South Coast Railway — the Brighton Line — from which one could travel to Worthing, the flourishing seaside town to which the gentleman who found lost baby Jack was travelling (and after which resort the boy was temporarily named).

The distinction remains today. You can ask cabbies to drop you at the Brighton Line, and they will make their way unerringly to the station entrance in Buckingham Palace Road, steering clear completely of the Eastern proletariat trains for commuters to Gravesend and beyond.

Still, I wonder about Miss Prism. What could have caused such a monumental moment of misperception in Victoria Station to deposit an infant in a fashionable left-luggage office and take a stroll around London with a bundle of paper dripping with sentiment?

Above all, what was she doing in Bayswater? It is an indeterminate district, unsure even of its postcode at times. What further nefarious actions, perhaps involving more omnibuses, could have caused this upright governess to abandon her perambulator in darkness?

The play leaves this rich field unharvested. As, upon reflection, do I. Instead, I like to think that Miss Prism married the Reverend Chasuble and they took the train to Worthing and pioneered the caravan park.

Under Milk Wood: O my dead dears!

It is human to lose a manuscript. To lose the same manuscript twice is possibly super-human. To lose the same manuscript three times shows a positively heroic dedication to the art of lost manuscripts.

Dylan Marlais Thomas, a Welsh writer who wrote in English, is now often remembered for his poems, including the defiant villanelle for his dying father, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night. He is also remembered for his legendary speaking of verse as well as his legendary alcoholism. But he is also fondly remembered for what he called his “play for voices”: Under Milk Wood. In this hypnotic play, we listen to the dreams and thoughts of the inhabitants of an imaginary Welsh village in a “starless and bible black” night.

Thomas lost the manuscript of Under Milk Wood first in Cardiff, then in America, and then in London (where it turned up in a pub).

To begin at the beginning. Thomas was staying in the west Wales town of New Quay in the winter of 1944. One dawn, perhaps when the sky was starless, he went out walking and imagined the thoughts of those still sleeping. This became “Quite Early One Morning“, a story recorded for radio in 1945. Thomas continued to work on the idea, though, for the next eight years.

Under Milk Wood had actually been commissioned by the BBC, but Thomas found it difficult to complete that “infernally eternally unfinished play“. It was scribbled here and there, rewritten, revised, recalcitrant. In March 1953, Dylan read a “chunk” of the play in Cardiff, and then lost the manuscript, which was in a briefcase. He wrote to his host, Charles Elliott, of University College Cardiff, to ask him to find it. “I left the briefcase somewhere. I think it must be in the Park Hotel. I’ve written to the manager but could you possibly, when and if passing by, drop in and see if it is there? It’s very urgent to me: the only copy in the world of that kind-of-a-play of mine, from which I read bits, is in that battered, strapless briefcase whose handle is tied together with string.”

Charles Elliott duly sent the briefcase back to Mr Thomas.

Manuscript One: Saved.

On 14 May 1953, the play had its first reading on stage at The Poetry Center in New York. The experience was not wholly successful. Thomas read an unfinished version, for which no script or recording has ever surfaced.

Manuscript Two: Lost.

On Monday 19 October 1953, at Victoria Station in London, Thomas handed over three copies of Under Milk Wood to his BBC producer Donald Cleverdon. Thomas was leaving for the US to promote the play. Thomas told Cleverdon that he could keep the original manuscript of the play — if he could lay his hands on it. Thomas had actually lost the manuscript in a pub when out drinking the night before. He couldn’t be certain which one, although he made a few suggestions. It turned up at The French House, in Soho.

Manuscript Three: Found.


The French House in Soho, London

Thomas died in New York on 9 November 1953, surrounded by alcohol and debts. He was taken from the Chelsea Hotel where he was staying to St Vincent’s hospital, where he failed to come out of a coma. He was 39. Pneumonia was the cause, although there were rumours that he drank himself to death. Thomas’s wife, Caitlin, claimed back the French-House manuscript of which Cleverdon was now in possession, but was unsuccessful. (See Thomas v Times Book Company [1966] 1 WLR 911.)

Under Milk Wood refused to die, to be a lost manuscript despite its author’s best efforts. It lives on today in new productions, but also the mesmerising recording, first broadcast by the BBC on 25 January 1954, with Richard Burton as the narrator. You can hear this recording here.

“O my dead dears!” The manuscripts may be found or lost, but the words live on.