Alongside all of the millions of stories that I haven’t yet read, and the millions more still to be published, here’s a book that offers a tantalising glimpse of what I’ll never be able to read. This collection of essays describes literature that exists only as fragments, or even as rumour.
Imagine that – texts with such an impact that readers have described them in their writing. Then, future generations, having failed to trace the originals, have also described what they know. Are these myths about myths?
So, I’ve been reading a book about books I’ll never be able to read, instead of writing my own stories? Put that way, it seems like I’ve discovered a new level in displacement activities.
But, these aren’t any old lost texts. The compiler of these forty-four essays, Professor Bernard Richards, sub-titles them, ‘Unpublished Masterpieces by the World’s Greatest Writers‘. According to his index, the Greatest Writers start with Virgil, and finish at Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I might be inclined to argue for a few additions, but that’s another blog-post.
When they’re done well, stories about stories are a fantastic resource for the creative writer. Learning the background to author and text, and putting writing into its historical context, can reveal fresh layers of meaning.
Might Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales be complete? Put aside the traditional speculations about why he never finished them, tantalising as they are, and what happens to the way we understand them?
Helen Barr, proposes that, thinking about the way the characters arrange and conduct themselves offers another, ‘more plausible explanation’ for the way the Tales abruptly end.
While the Parson’s Tale and The Retractions provide a decorous holy close to the storytelling, the preceding unruliness, purposefully or not, casts doubt on their sincerity. In a perfect world The Canterbury Tales could be “finished”. With its interleaving of play and devotional earnest, Chaucer’s narrative delivers a world that is fallen.
This alternative interpretation makes Chaucer’s text seem remarkably, even excitingly, modern.
Is nothing new?
Where an author’s reflections survive, we can learn more. Italo Calvino said of his unfinished manuscript, Il bianco veliero.:
‘…the heat of inspiration – too thin anyway – with which I’d started out writing it cooled along the way, and I decided to finish the book more out of the pig-headedness of not wanting to leave anything unfinished than because I was really keen on it.‘
I can identify with that. But, does all that writing have to go to waste, then?
Well, consider Stephen King. His fourth novel got out of hand. He’d started writing about the abduction of Patty Hearst, in 1974, but kept flowing off that plot.
…from the piles of screwed-up typescript pages in King’s waste bin emerged one of his most memorable recurrent characters, Randall Flagg – also known as the Dark Man, the Walkin’ Dude, and the Ageless Stranger, among other names…
So, part of my joy with these essays is the way they offer multiple views on how writers work, and why they work.
The other thing, is that dipping into this collection, and I do find it’s a dipping-in kind of book, I learn how many more classic/great writers I still have to read – probably starting with some of their completed texts, now that I’ve had the spoilers.
Or should I say, now that I’ve been given the key to reading them?