Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Consolations of the Lost

Perhaps one of the most famous lost notebooks is a collection of the mathematician Ramanujan's notes from the last year of his life, though it was only designated as 'lost' when it was found. This is, I believe, an example of irony, or at least it appears as such from my perspective. The line that it was, for mathematicians, the equivalent of discovering a tenth symphony by Beethoven, non-mathematicians, is interesting. It implies that Ramanujan's book could be somehow appreciated by mathematicians in much the same way as a Beethoven symphony could by music-lovers (a set which of course would include mathematicians), and this is obviously flawed in just the right way to point up one of the central concerns underlying this blog.

That enquiry is: what is the relation between a thing (obtainable or otherwise) and those other things that are asserted to be its equivalents? What can I really produce here: an imitation of the notebook, or a type of detailed allusion to it? The role of will is obviously crucial: the original notebook was constructed by a series of accumulations of more or less unrelated decisions to write, and its identity as a single notebook was not particularly intended. By losing it, however, its identity has now become unfortunately singular. But is the act of will required to produce a version of it, however fragmentary in process or result, similarly singular?

While I ruminate on this theme (which has, naturally, only presented itself as a result of loss), I thought it might be entertaining to begin a list of the lost. There are, of course, lots of far more prestigious examples of books gone missing than my miserable case, and many of these were gathered in Stuart B. Kelly's witty Book of Lost Books, a highly-recommended guide for those struggling to come to terms with this particular experience. The consolation of contemplating just how many books -- philosophic treatises, novels, plays and poems -- have gone missing over and because of the millennia is, to put it mildly, debatable, but in the absence of other effective therapies, one can but try.

I rather liked this passage in Charlotte Higgins' piece on the Greeks in the Guardian a few weeks ago:

'We will never completely grasp ancient Greece. An enormous wealth of literature, art, architecture and other artefacts have survived but, for every survival, there are a thousand losses. We have 20 dramas by Euripides, but we know that his complete works numbered 90 plays. For Aeschylus, we have seven out of 90 extant. And for Sophocles, just seven out of 123. Works that were seen as masterpieces in antiquity are nothing but dust, ashes and the occasional quote in other texts.'

During the same summer that the notebook recorded with a degree of closeness I can fantasise about, but no longer assess, I was struck by a passage in Maria Rosa Menocal's fascinating book on what we persist in thinking of as Moorish Spain, The Ornament of the World. She was writing about Ibn Hazm's little book, The Neck-Ring of the Dove, an impressively influential work: its brief catalogue of thirty of the major tropes of Arabic love poetry finds echoes in the troubadours, courtly lovers, sonneteers and concettists of successive centuries. Menocal says, 'This resume of complex conceits, and some of the poetry that exemplified them, was a work of powerful nostalgia and recolection, both personal and communal...The Neck-Ring was a tribute to a world of courtliness that Ibn Hazm had just seen obliterated, and that seemed every day more likely to vanish completely.'

As pertinently for this blog, it was among the few which survived of the works of this cantankerous old man of eleventh century Andalusian letters, who wrote around four hundred books.

Another important Medieval writer, this time from the Abbasid rather than the Umayyad end of the Arabic world, was the tenth-century traveller from Baghdad, Mas'udi. I bought his Meadows of Gold in that nifty little Penguin series on Great Journeys (everyone should acquaint themselves with a few of these -- Chekhov's account of his journey to Sakhalin Island, for instance, has already marked itself as one of those books that people 'borrow' from me and never return). It's full of what often turns out to be the first appearances of nagging little details you remember from elsewhere -- the Jewish kingdom of the Khazars, for instance, though one that stood out for me was the first reference to what is present-day Somalia (I was translating the great Somali poet Gaariye with Martin Orwin throughout this period): 'The whole of this coast is without resources, and its one export today is the incense called kundur [frankincense].'

As you've no doubt anticipated, Mas'udi wrote thirty six books, of which only two survive, the titles of which are delightful enough to require quoting in full: The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Precious Gems, and The Book of Admonition and Revision. That latter name could well stand as a draft title for the final goal of this project, a version of a notebook that was never intended to be a book, a version which is inevitably incomplete, but only in reference to that notebook, itself an extract from an ongoing project.

Any further examples of lost works you care to send me will receive a sorrowful welcome here.


Charles Fernyhough said...

What is your remembering strategy? Are you trying to recall the materiality of the written words - feeding yourself clues about what ink they were written in, where they were positioned on the page, etc.? Or are you trying to recall the events and moments of inspiration that triggered them? Are you taking yourself back (mentally or physically) to places you know you went to, and asking yourself 'What was going on for me here? What might I have written down?' What are the notebook entries for you, in memory: bits of language or fragments of experience? For that matter, what are the bits of your known, non-lost poems - are they set in language or are they still bits of remembered experience?

Bill Herbert said...

I'm both imagining the book as a physical construct, and remembering ('reliving')the experiences that I wrote about.

Charles Fernyhough said...

The reason I ask is that I'm surprised at how good our memory generally is for text organised on a page. I can often remember that something was halfway up on the left-hand side, for example, better than I can recall the details of its meaning. Is it thus for you?

Bill Herbert said...

Yes, I've always had a good memory for the geography of a book, though a rather bad one for quotes, song lyrics, jokes, street names, card games.

So I wouldn't be able to reel off lines by a given writer, but I'd go to a bookcase (and my bookcases are not alphabetised and rarely logicaly ordered), find the book, and know approxiately where in the book the desired quote was.

Not that this is 100% the case...