Giorgio van Straten - These are the mythical books that were burnt, torn, stolen, or simply disappeared, but which certainly existed. In this elegiac and gripping volume, Giorgio van Straten is by turns detective and spy, traveller and scholar, as he sifts through clues, pursues leads, and interviews experts to discover the stories of these eight lost tomes, and their authors

Image result for Giorgio van Straten, In Search of Lost Books: The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes
Giorgio van Straten, In Search of Lost Books: The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes, Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, Pushkin Press, 2017.

This is a journey in search of the traces of eight legendary lost books. The clues are fragile, the hope of finding these pages scarce. Yet, maybe, somewhere, they still exist...They exist as a rumour or a fading memory. They vanished from history leaving scarcely a trace, lost to fire, censorship, theft, war or deliberate destruction, yet those who seek them are convinced they will find them.This is the story of one man's quest for eight mysterious lost books.Taking us from Florence to Regency London, the Russian Steppe to British Columbia, Giorgio van Straten unearths stories of infamy and tragedy, glimmers of hope and bitter twists of fate. There are, among others, the rediscovered masterpiece that he read but failed to save from destruction; the Hemingway novel that vanished in a suitcase at the Gare du Lyon; the memoirs of Lord Byron, burnt to avoid a scandal; the Magnum Opus of Bruno Schulz, disappeared along with its author in wartime Poland; the mythical Sylvia Plath novel that may one day become reality.As gripping as a detective novel, as moving as an elegy, this is the tale of a love affair with the impossible, of the things that slip away from us but which, sometimes, live again in the stories we tell.

Whatever happened to the books that once existed and can no longer be found? Not the forgotten books, or those dreamed up by the author yet never written, but books that were completed, even read, before begin destroyed or vanishing into thin air.

These are the mythical books that were burnt, torn, stolen, or simply disappeared, but which certainly existed. In this elegiac and gripping volume, Giorgio van Straten is by turns detective and spy, traveller and scholar, as he sifts through clues, pursues leads, and interviews experts to discover the stories of these eight lost tomes, and their authors. His pursuit takes him around the world, and across decades, to discover serendipitous encounters and unexpected connections. From Byron’s England to Sylvia Plath’s, and on to France in the 1920s and Hemingway, across Gogol’s Russia and from there to the Spanish frontier where Walter Benjamin tried to flee his destiny, from Nazi-occupied Poland where Bruno Schulz was killed in an argument between German officers and finally to a remote village in Canada where Malcolm Lowry took refuge …Romano Bilenchi The Avenue
Lord Byron Memoirs
Ernest Hemingway Juvenilia
Bruno Schulz The Messiah
Nikolai Gogol Dead Souls (part II)
Malcolm Lowry In Ballast to the White Sea
Walter Benjamin What was in the Black Suitcase
Sylvia Plath Double Exposure
These are the lost books. -

This is an engaging book about other books, but it makes no judgements on them, and nor can we express, even internally, our own views on the books van Straten discusses – because none of them exist. However, in spite of the title, they are none of them mythical, though there is an element of speculation in some cases – but they all did exist once, but have been destroyed, by accident, deliberately, in natural or political disasters; and some of them have even been read by a few people before they were condemned by man or fate. They are not imaginary books, like The Snakes of Ireland, or hypothetical glories like a complete text of Sanditon, they are books which we once had, or almost had, but which were stillborn or died in their earliest days.
The history of these eight books is instructive and entertaining, giving us sometimes moving insights into the quotidian pressures and irresponsibility’s of authorship, and a range of motivations and causes – concerns for the reputation of the deceased author or someone else, worries about quality, bad luck, the failure of high risk strategies to protect work in time of war. Not everyone concerned, including some of the authors, comes out of this well.
Of course, there must be thousands, even millions, of books which have been written and then never published and then lost completely, including bad novels and amateur local history, a few at least no doubt of great interest. And then there are the known losses from the classical world, which move Thomasina to tears in Stoppard’s Arcadia:
the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue. Oh, Septimus!  Can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – thousands of poems – Aristotle’s own library! … How can we sleep for grief?
But these eight books, each treated affectionately and knowledgeably by van Straten, each different and each – he argues – a real book which once existed and is now tragically lost.  I wonder if anyone will know of all the books, I certainly didn’t, but here they are:
  • The Avenue, Romano Bilenchi
  • Memoirs, Lord Byron
  • Juvenilia (including a first novel), Ernest Hemingway
  • The Messiah, Bruno Schulz
  • Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol
  • In Ballast to the White Sea, Malcolm Lowry
  • The Contents of the Black Suitcase (literally, that’s not a book’s title), Walter Benjamin
  • Double Exposure, Sylvia Plath
You may think you have read one or two of these, especially Dead Souls, but you haven’t. The Avenue definitely existed, van Straten and others have read it, but the author’s wife destroyed it, and now ‘there remains a bitterness about a novel that no longer exists, and which is fading from our memories of it’. Byron’s memoirs certainly existed and were sent to his publisher, who was persuaded against his better judgement to feed the pages into the fire to protect Byron’s friends and family from the publication of his homosexual passions. Hemingway’s lover left a suitcase on a train, containing manuscripts and carbon copies; Hemingway was such a blageur it is impossible to be sure exactly what was lost, but a letter to Ezra Pound suggests much was bitterly regretted. Schulz’s novel certainly existed, indeed you can read part of it published as two short stories – The Book and The Genial Age – but the rest was probably hidden when the Nazis invaded Ukraine, and has never been seen again, in spite of many claims.
The Dead Souls you can buy and read anywhere is only the first third, the Inferno, of a planned trilogy, a Divine Comedy of the steppes. Some chapters of the second part survived, though Gogol had abandoned them through dissatisfaction, and this perfectionism led him, according to a story about a servant who allegedly saw him burn the rest, to destroy the other two volumes, some 500 pages of manuscript, a few days before his death. Lowry’s In Ballast to the White Sea is part of another  Divine Comedy, this time the Paradiso to bookend the Inferno which is Lowry’s masterpiece, Under the Volcano.  Allegedly 1,000 pages of manuscript, it burnt in a cabin fire in Canada, and having written it twice – the first, rejected version has in fact now been published – it is not surprising the alcoholic and chaotic Lowry could not do it a third time. Walter Benjamin, a German Jew, escaped from Paris when the Germans invaded in 1940, but crossed the Pyrenees into the hands of the Spanish police – who only that day had changed their policy of accepting refugees and started sending them back.  Overnight, he committed suicide, the heavy black suitcase he had carried over the mountain passes disappearing, probably forever. Van Straten is convinced it contained a novel or poems which have not seen the light of day – other manuscripts were given to friends for safeguarding – and although this is perhaps the most speculative of his eight books, van Straten permits himself the hope that “yellowing papers in a wardrobe or old chest” may yet survive and could one day be recovered.  And he has this hope, too, for Sylvia Plath’s novel Double Exposure, the manuscript of which her separated husband Ted Hughes says ‘disappeared’, although he published many poems, diaries and other writings of hers that he found after her suicide. The hope here has some basis – there are Plath papers which Hughes deposited in the University of Georgia but which cannot be accessed until 60 years after her death, in 2022; maybe the novel is there?
Some of these books, or parts of them, may reappear.  But if they don’t, we are surely richer even for knowing of their existence, and we can, if we will, take comfort in Septimus’ response to Thomasina:
By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! … We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.
Even if you can’t enjoy these eight books, I hope you enjoy this one, the meta-book! - Terence Jagger

The term “lost books” usually conjures up long since forgotten tomes; novels that have fallen out of print, non-fiction that has fallen out of fashion.
Rarely is it used to refer to volumes that have actually vanished in the mists of time, never to be found again; but it’s eight of these such cases – “those that once existed but are no longer here” – that are the subject of Giorgio van Straten’s delightful and absorbing In Search of Lost Books: the forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes.
Van Straten begins with a personal tale; he’s one of only a handful of people to have read an incomplete, unpublished, and for the most part unknown novel written by the great Italian writer Romano Bilenchi.
Discovered after the author’s death in 1989, unfinished and deeply personal – it fictionalised the romantic relationship between Bilenchi and his second wife, Maria, which they embarked on while Bilenchi was still married to his first – opinion is split about what to do with it. “If Romano did not finish it, and didn’t publish it, then his intentions should be respected, and his reservations maintained,” said Maria.
Van Straten felt differently though. “But it is equally true to say,” he argued, “that Romano did not discard the manuscript, did not destroy it, but chose to keep it instead. This seems to me just as significant.”
The latter argument initially won out, and the manuscript was preserved as part of Bilenchi’s archive. Two decades later, however, after Maria’s demise, van Straten was shocked to learn that one of the last things she did before her death was to destroy the manuscript, and its photocopy.
He can understand the widow’s position, he respects it even – “It might be the wrong decision, but the heirs are within their rights”, he reiterates when later discussing Sylvia Plath – but he can’t quite forgive the act: “there remains a bitterness about a novel that no longer exists”, he writes at the end of this chapter, “and which is fading irrevocably from our memories of it”.
Each of van Straten’s eight case studies is given a chapter in this slim volume. Half are examples of works destroyed on purpose – action, it should be pointed out, usually taken by others, the exception here being the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol who, in February 1852, a mere 10 days before his death, is believed to have burnt the second volume of Dead Souls. An eyewitness recounted how the writer slowly fed the five 100-page manuscript sheets by single sheet into the fire before collapsing on his bed and weeping.
The other four subjects are works that were lost either by accident or what we might deem the vagaries of fate.
We can mourn Gogol’s decision, regard it as foolhardy and a waste, but whether he had the right to do what he did is not up for discussion. Less clear-cut is Maria’s destruction of Bilenchi’s work, or Ted Hughes’s of his wife Plath’s.
Following her suicide he destroyed what he claimed were diary entries so upsetting he didn’t ever want their children to read them; re-ordered the works in the book of poetry that posthumously made her name, Ariel; and, most significantly for van Straten’s endeavour, got rid of the manuscript of her second novel, a work in progress that apparently fictionalised Hughes’ infidelity, tentatively titled Double Exposure.
Given how Hughes and Plath’s marriage has fascinated readers since, it’s maddening for many to think that Plath’s own thoughts on the matter will never see the light of day. Or will they? There are some papers that Hughes deposited at Plath’s archive at the University of Georgia with orders that weren’t to be looked at until 2022. Might Double Exposure be among them, van Straten hopes? So too, any Byron scholar would give their right arm to read the infamous 19th-century poet’s scandalous memoirs, but when, following his death, his publisher, family and friends made the collective decision in 1824 to burn them, there were reasons aplenty and reputations at stake.
In writing about these cases, van Straten is posing questions about ownership and the public’s right to access. When it comes to the cases of those books that were mislaid, however, his role is a different one.
Hemingway’s lost papers, for example – left unattended in a train carriage at the Gare de Lyon by his first wife Hadley Richardson as she scurried off to buy a bottle of water, vanished on her return – and the loss of Malcolm Lowry’s manuscript of his novel In Ballast to the White Sea, which he’d been working on for nine years – destroyed when the cabin in British Columbia, Canada, in which he was living and writing burnt to the ground. Both cases are both horrible, senseless accidents: the stuff of fiction, if you will.
Two of van Straten’s cases that are the most haunting however, are both casualties of the Second World War: Bruno Schulz’s The Messiah – which vanished after the author was murdered in Poland in 1942 – is a loss so poignant it has inspired other writers: Cynthia Ozick’s novel The Messiah of Stockholm; and Ugo Riccarelli’s A Man Called Schulz, perhaps – and the mysterious manuscript Walter Benjamin was carrying in a black suitcase when he died in Portbou on the border between France and Spain in 1940. Here, van Straten turns literary detective, chasing leads, trying to discover what might have happened to these works.
Elegantly translated from the original Italian by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, In Search of Lost Books is a little gem of a collection; recommended reading for any curious bibliophile.

Romano Bilenchi The Avenue
Lord Byron Memoirs
Ernest Hemingway Juvenilia
Bruno Schulz The Messiah
Nikolai Gogol Dead Souls (part II)
Malcolm Lowry In Ballast to the White Sea
Walter Benjamin What was in the Black Suitcase
Sylvia Plath Double Exposure - Lucy Scholes

Image result for Giorgio van Straten, My Name, A Living Memory,
Giorgio van Straten, My Name, A Living Memory, Trans. by Martha King, Zoland Books, 2003.

SPANNING SIX GENERATIONS and three continents, My Name, a Living Memory is a fictionalized saga of author Giorgio van Straten’s family from the Napoleonic era through World War II. The story begins in Rotterdam in 1811, when Hartog son of Alexander — father, cucumber salesman, and Dutch Jew — is forced by Napoleonic edict to choose a last name. He chooses Straaten, the Dutch word for “street.”
The name presages a journey through history that flings Hartog’s descendants as far afield as San Francisco, London, Odessa, Sao Paolo, and Tbilisi. They witness the Gold Rush, the Russian Revolution, the Stalinist purges, and, finally, the Holocaust. Some are uprooted by business interests, including the author’s grandfather, who lost one of the A’s in his surname en route. As the political climate grows increasingly perilous for Jews throughout Europe, several are forced to flee for their lives, and many fail to return from Auschwitz, Sobibor, and Bergen-Belsen.
Historical fiction of a very personal sort, van Straten weaves his relatives’ stories together, much as an art restorer reconstructs the missing portions of a fresco, guided by the evidence that remains. A gold watch, a few photographs, crumpled documents and letters, family lore; these are the artifacts from which lives are re-created. In the end, the story of van Straten’s family can be read as a testament to the rich and varied history and culture of Jews in Europe and the Americas.

Any family history is filled with fiction, and for van Straten, that's the way it should be. This novel about his real family history spans six generations--from when the name van Straaten was chosen for his family in Holland, to the present, in Italy, now with a missing a. What occurs within those six generations of van Straatens is not an unusual story for an upwardly mobile Jewish family. Settling all over the world, including in Odessa, Sao Paolo, San Francisco, New York, and Genoa, they experience the gold rush, the Stalinist gulag, the rising tide of anti-Semitism, and, of course, the Holocaust. So many descendants of this proud family end up in Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen, and Sobibor that van Straten feels the need to construct his family history, much as in real life he reconstructs damaged frescos--carefully, painstakingly, and with the slightest embellishment here and there. What van Straten produces is not just a restored fragment but a breathtaking masterpiece in its own right that details in a very personal way the history of Jews in Europe during the past two centuries. - Michael Spinella

A fictionalized family history traces the fortunes of the ancestors of Italian novelist van Straten from Rotterdam in 1811 to the present day.
In the early-19th century, the Jews across Europe began to be integrated into the mainstream of society, in a gradual and halting process that alleviated many old injustices but also gave rise to some new ones. The narrator (named Giorgio van Straten) is an Italian art restorer who begins the saga with his great-great-grandfather Hartog’s choice of a family name in 1811 (when Napoleon decreed that Jews were henceforth citizens and had to be officially registered as such). A cucumber seller and father of five in Rotterdam, Hartog sees little to be gained from his new status, but he dutifully registers himself as Hartog van Straaten (Henry of the Street) and goes about his business as before. Over the next two centuries, the van Stratens (the second “a” was lost when Giorgio’s grandfather moved to Genoa in 1913) step carefully through history in a larger world that encompasses wars, revolutions, and massacres, as well as the smaller family dramas of marriages, births, and emigration. Hartog’s grandson Benjamin, for example, quarrels with his father Emanuel and runs away to sea, ending up in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Benjamin’s nephew George, on the other hand, applies himself so dutifully to his work as an insurance agent that he is sent to Italy to manage a new branch of his company. We learn the history of how George’s boss Henry Goldstuck rose from obscure beginnings in Latvia to become an international tycoon. George’s nephew in Russia gets himself into trouble with the NKVD, and nearly everyone in the family has to scramble to escape the Nazis. The story ends with the death of the author’s father, but like all family sagas it is primarily an account of the generations the narrator never knew in his own lifetime.
An elegant account, told with clarity and grace: van Straten’s history has a limited scope but should strike a chord with amateur genealogists everywhere. - Kirkus Reviews

Giorgio van Straten (born 1955) is an Italian writer and manager of arts organizations. His first novel Generazione was published in 1987. In 2000 he won four literary prizes for Il mio nome a memoria, published in English as My Name, A Living Memory (2003), the story of his Jewish-Dutch family from 1811 to our days. That same year he was awarded the Grand Official Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.[1]
In addition to being a novelist, he is also an editor of texts and a translator. He translated from English into Italian The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Giunti, 1992),The Call of the Wild by Jack London (Giunti, 1994),The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (Giunti, 1995) and The Pavilion on the dunes of Robert Louis Stevenson (The Unit, 1997). He is one of the directors of the Italian literary magazine Nuovi Argomenti.
He also wrote texts for musical theater: Tre voci for voice, string orchestra, percussion and tape, music by Giorgio Battistelli, commissioned by the Sagra Musicale Umbra (First performance: Assisi, 1996); Auf den Marmorklippen (On the Marble Cliffs), from the novel by Ernst Jünger, music by Giorgio Battistelli (First performance: National Theatre, Mannheim, 2002); Open Air, music of Andrea Molino, commissioned by the Società Aquilana dei Concerti (First performance: L'Aquila, 2012); Here there is no why, multimedia music theater project by Andrea Molino (first performance at the Teatro Comunale, Bologna, 2014).
From 1985 to 2002 van Straten was the chairman of the Orchestra della Toscana. From 1997 to 2002 he was on the Board of Directors of the Biennale di Venezia and in that same period (1998-2002), he also served as president of AGIS, the Italian association for the performing arts. From 2002 to 2005 he was general director of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. From 2005 to 2008 he managed Palazzo delle Esposizioni e Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. From 2009 to 2012 he was on the board of directors of the RAI. Since 2015 he is the director of the Italian Cultural Institute in New York.