Ephemeral things…

At the weekend I read Lost Stolen or Shredded: Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature by book dealer, writer and broadcaster Rick Gekoski (Profile Books). I have read a couple of his other books (about books) and so I was really looking forward to settling down to stories of mysterious provenance, book yearning and dark deeds, told in his warm, humane and witty way. I wasn’t disappointed: each chapter was fascinating, even, or actually, especially, the ones I didn’t think were going to really interest me.

I really like Gekoski’s tale of chasing a ‘ghost’, a book or piece of writing that was never actually published or printed. The one that particularly haunts Gekoski is Et Tu, Healy, a poem by James Joyce, written when he was just nine. Joyce’s father published some of his precocious son’s early output as cheap, easily destroyed pamphlets or leaflets and so it may have been printed – but no copy has ever been found. Only three lines are known, and Gekoski carries them around in his head and dreams of coming across the flimsy sheet of paper that will reveal the other lines. He writes movingly of being slightly scared that someone else may discover the treasure first and then considers whether he really wants it found at all, whether it isn’t more useful as an idea or hope always just out of reach.
The sad and awful tale of the Salt Lake City forger and murderer Mark Hoffman is included. Hoffman “discovered” documents pertaining to the Church of Latter Day Saints and found that those that cast doubt on the Church’s history and creeds, were bought for large sums by the Church itself – and not seen again. I knew of Hoffman from the clever book by Simon Worral The Poet and the Murderer: A True Story of Verse, Violence and the Art of Forgery (Fourth Estate, now out of print) where Worral describes Hoffman’s forgeries of Emily Dickinson poems (so authentic, not just in material ink & paper terms but also in terms of voice, that he fooled many experts) and the increasingly murky world Hoffman inhabited: as a distraction from his desperate, unravelling plans for one last great forgery (featuring one of the USA’s most important founding documents) he set bombs that killed two people. Gekoski also examines that other dark lacuna of lost art and writings, when the Third Reich appropriated and often destroyed so much. Often all that is left is descriptions of what was.
Absence of the physical object is no hindrance to its veneration: when the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911, people turned up to look at where the famous picture had been, the blank space on the wall…
The second chapter “Possession and Dispossession in New Zealand: The Theft of the Urewera Mural” is of particular interest to those of us on these shaky isles, detailing the mysterious nicking (really, the security was so slight, ‘stealing’ seems far too big a word to apply to what happened) of a Colin McCahon mural from a visitor’s centre deep in the Urewera National Park. After much negotiation, and the realisation that there was no way to sell the work, it was returned.  Half late-night, stoned shenanigans, half serious protest, a response to a historical (and current, according to some) land dispossession felt deeply by the Tuhoi people, you get the sense that Gekoski, who has travelled here several times, thought this was an unusual art theft, layered with issues of politics and protest, as was its conclusion.
Particularly interesting also are Gekoski’s musings on the lost memoirs of Byron and Philip Larkin. An odd pairing, at first glance “the dashing Lord Byron and the retiring Philip Larkin, who couldn’t have swashbuckled his own raincoat” (as Gekoski wryly puts it) have little in common but they did both have what may have been important papers and writing destroyed at or near their deaths. Larkin wanted his destroyed, Byron was all for publishing, his executors were not. Who knows what would now be known about these people, or what literary treats may have been discovered. Kafka (whose truly, forgive me, Kafkaesque literary/legal afterlife Gekoski devotes a couple of chapters to) left instructions that all his unpublished works were to be destroyed. His best friend disobeyed him – we are lucky he did.
An altogether fascinating rummage down the back of the sofa of literary and artistic history, squirreling after lost treasures, hoping you’ll grasp one…


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