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Forgotten treasures or ‘uber-dregs’: is there ever such a thing as a lost literary masterpiece?

Has the world been in need of more writing by Marcel Proust (pictured c.1896)?
Has the world been in need of more writing by Marcel Proust (pictured c.1896)? Credit: Roger Viollet

Have you read the latest Marcel Proust? Not a question you expect to be asked in 2019. This autumn, a collection of his hitherto “lost” stories will be published in France. The stories were apparently left out of the 1896 collection Pleasures and Days because of the “audacity” with which they deal with homosexual themes.

“All of them remained secret, the writer never spoke of them,” claimed the publisher, Éditions de Fallois. “Proust is in his twenties, and most of these texts evoke the awareness of his homosexuality, in a darkly tragic way, that of a curse.”

Billed like this, these stories are a fascinating proposition, an insight into the developing talent of one of the great writers of the 20th century as he grappled with his sexuality. It is certainly plausible that he would have kept them secret if they were too explicit; EM Forster did not dare publish his novel Maurice during his lifetime for this reason (it was published in 1971).

What gives one pause, though, is that these stories were actually first discovered in the Fifties. Why had they not been published before? It might be a good idea to check one’s expectations. Over recent years, a steady stream of rediscovered works by literary greats have emerged from the archives, none of them a patch on the books that made those writers famous in the first place.

When The Original of Laura was published in 2009, Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished novel was described by his son, Dmitri, as an “embryonic masterpiece”. He was only half right; it was no more than a collection of intriguing fragments.

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, in 1961; her Go Set a Watchman was published to mixed reviews in 2015 Credit: Donald Uhrbrock/Getty

In 2015, Harper Lee published the rediscovered novel Go Set a Watchman, which was publicised as the sequel to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird but was in fact a first draft. Not only were questions raised about her consent in the process (Lee was in her late eighties and died the following year), but one bookshop even offered refunds for readers who felt cheated.

That same year, a new Sherlock Holmes story was discovered, although whether Conan Doyle wrote it is a more compelling mystery than the story itself. In 2017, it was reported that scholars had found a Walt Whitman novel, a play by Edith Wharton, and some new Plath poems. For scholars and hardcore fans, this stuff is indispensable, but the appeal beyond that readership is often pretty thin.

Rediscovered literary work tends to fall into several categories. There is juvenilia: stories and poems written at school or university, almost all of which is absolutely insufferable (check out TS Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s early poetry). Then there is the unfinished/unpublished work of the ageing writer, which rarely adds to their reputation (or in Ernest Hemingway’s case, actively degrades it).

Then there is peripheral work that the author did not deem important enough to collect or republish, often sitting in library catalogues. In 2017 a new collection of “lost” F Scott Fitzgerald stories was published. They were stories he had published in magazines during his lifetime but which editors of collections of his work had not deemed good enough, what one reviewer called the “uber-dregs”.

This raises the question: is it even possible to rediscover a lost novel, play or poem that ranks among an author’s best work? It’s a powerful fantasy, and one that is part of storytelling itself. It is baked into the premise of Don Quixote, for example, in which the putative author “discovers” the manuscript of the novel among scrap papers in the Alcaná market at Toledo. Cervantes was being playful, of course, but there is also a more serious point: while one of the marks of great literature was understood to be its survival into posterity, that process was often arbitrary. Literature can disappear.

The further one goes back, the greater the losses. The fire that burned the Library of Alexandria claimed hundreds of manuscripts, including dozens of plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. From hints in other works, we know that we have lost Homer’s comic epic Margites. The first part of Aristotle’s Poetics survived only by being translated into Arabic and was not rediscovered in the West until the Middle Ages. The second part is lost.

As with other Greek tragedians, many of Euripides's works are lost Credit: De Agostini/Getty

With the advent of print and other technologies, more writing was preserved. But a writer still had a degree of control over what they chose to leave behind. A pious Gerard Manley Hopkins burned his insufficiently godly early manuscripts and Nikolai Gogol torched the second part of Dead Souls for similar reasons.

Sometimes, the preservation of a work came down to those with posthumous control. Byron’s publisher John Murray, together with his literary executor and some of his old friends, destroyed his memoirs fearing for Byron’s reputation (although perhaps also worried about their own). Max Brod defied Franz Kafka’s wishes and refused to burn his friend’s unpublished work, including The Trial.

In the 20th century, great works were saved from authoritarian regimes. When the KGB confiscated the only copy of the Russian writer Vasily Grossman’s masterful novel Life and Fate, he was told it would not be published for centuries.

It was seeing this happen to Grossman that prompted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to start making multiple copies of all his manuscripts. Grossman died not knowing that a group of dissidents would eventually manage to smuggle the novel out to the West.

More recently, Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was published more than 60 years after she was murdered at Auschwitz. Other literary works did not make it out of the maelstrom: Bruno Schulz’s supposed magnum opus, Messiah, was entrusted to friends shortly before he was shot in the head by a Nazi officer and never resurfaced; a decade’s worth of work by Isaac Babel was seized by the KGB and, like Babel, never seen again. These are the reasons why neither of these writers are as well-known as they should be.

The odds of turning up a lost masterpiece are remote. There are some cases that tantalise: the bag containing Hemingway’s early stories and first novel that was lost or stolen at the Gare de Lyon; the manuscripts in the suitcase Walter Benjamin was carrying as he fled the Nazis, which disappeared after he committed suicide on the French-Spanish border; the box, buried somewhere in Normandy, that is thought to contain a trove of Flaubert’s letters; the novel Plath was working on before she killed herself.

Perhaps one of these works will turn up one day, but until then, we will have to content ourselves with what the archives give up: the intimations of talent, the out-takes and the bootlegs, the half-formed works.

And spare a thought for the next generation of readers. The concept of what constitutes a writer’s archive is ever expanding. In 2006, Emory University acquired Salman Rushdie’s papers, including his computers, hard drives and all future digital materials. It is a scenario in which nothing is lost, whether it’s fledgling ideas for a new book, or a Booker winner’s high score on Angry Birds.

The Mysterious Correspondent and Other Unpublished Novellas by Marcel Proust is published on October 9

Cold Warriors: The Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War by Duncan White is published on August 27

Do you appreciate "lost" works by famous authors? Or do you wish they would remain "lost"? We want to hear from you in the comments section below.