LiteratEye #42: Stuart Kelly Guides Us On the Madcap Trail of Lost Books

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes

Here’s the forty-second installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #42: Stuart Kelly Guides Us On the Madcap Trail of Lost Books
By W.J. Elvin III
December 4, 2009

ThomasUrquhart-200The quiet of a library, the reverential hush, is a courtesy to readers. But it might also involve respect for great works of literature and god-like authors. And do those authors, often gilt-edged and wrapped in fine-tooled leather, really rate our awe?

Many were loose cannons, some eccentric and others flat out insane.

Not that you or I would necessarily know their biographies. But Stuart Kelly does, pretty much. And I don’t think he got his insight into their writing from Classic Comics. He seems to have actually read the stuff.

Kelly is author of The Book of Lost Books.

The subtitle of his book is: “An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read.”

I got onto Kelly’s book while digging for dead authors who are still writing, the topic of a recent column. (#40: And Death Shall Have No Dominion)

The fact is, most books produced before the onset of mass production and general literacy are lost, with neglect, political or religious mania and war being among prime causes.

Then too there is the author factor; some thought their books revealed too much or didn’t reflect what they had hoped to achieve, so they destroyed them.

Kelly, a Scottish reviewer, is a companionable, entertaining and very informative guide. Who knew these greats, whose names alone intimidate, much less their prose, were not all solemn, stodgy boors awaiting their turn to be made into statues. Many were truly weird.

Kelly’s focus is on lost works but the book is chocked full of anecdotes that make good reading regardless of what they are meant to illustrate.

Being sort of off early Greeks and Romans at the moment, I’ll leave Homer, Euripides, Callimachus and that gang for another day. Let’s veer the time machine along through the centuries to the 16th, and Sir Thomas Urquhart.

Figuring out what Urquhart actually wrote, what got lost and what was just his inflamed imagination staking claim to some project never accomplished is a major chore.

Among Sir Thomas’ works is the Pantochcronochanon, tracing his family’s descent from Adam. It has been both taken seriously and branded a joke – no one seems entirely sure.

Urquhart was an inventor of words, few of which seem to have survived the test of time. His highly regarded translation of Rabelais came out 70,000 words longer than the original and, some say, improved the Frenchman’s bawdy, carnivalesque prose.

Urquhart’s books, Elixir of Eternal Life, and Specifications for an Engine to Travel to the Stars, are among missing works, quite possibly because they never existed. However, thieves stole his manuscripts, apparently by the cartload, while he was locked away on charges of treason. He had been captured while assisting Charles II in an unsuccessful attempt to retake the British throne for the Royalists.

Urquhart’s work wound up as wrapping paper for fruits in the market stalls, and tinder for lighting tobacco pipes.

While a prisoner he wrote a book, Logopandecteision, including his plans for a language incorporating every sound the human mouth can make.

Some scholars say the idea was a joke, but it seems more likely he was trying to barter for freedom with a display of his intellectual value to society.

Five years after having made his peace with Oliver Cromwell and achieving parole, Sir Thomas died during a laughing fit — prompted by news that Charles II had at long last gained the throne.

Another interesting character in Kelly’s book is the poet Francois Villon, who, unlike many poets who cultivate a bad-boy image, really and truly was a crook and a killer.

Villon was sentenced a couple of times to be hanged and strangled but somehow dodged the executioner’s clutches. Among his lost works known to have existed at one time is The Romance of the Devil’s Fart. The title is taken from the name of a popular house of ill-repute.

Moving right along: Saikaku was a 16th century Japanese poet who produced far more work than has survived. He set a number of astounding records for speed in composing 17-syllable haiku poems. He once made it his goal to make up verses from the birth of mayfly to its death, resulting in 23,500 haiku. A mayfly doesn’t live long – Saikaku would have cranked out about 17 haiku per minute.

Kelly takes to task those, myself included, who perpetuate the story that Sir Richard Francis Burton’s wife consigned much of his work to the fire after his death. I wrote two weeks ago that she was shocked by what she found — Sir Richard was an enthusiastic translator of erotica.

Kelly says that while Isabel Burton did indeed burn a lot of Sir Richard’s left-behind manuscripts, it was done out of loyalty. Her husband had specified that they be destroyed – a request that many authors’ heirs, seeing money to be made, have ignored.

There’s much more to the book, but let’s conclude with an anecdote about pyrotechnic poet Dylan Thomas. His tales of a fictional Welsh town would be among the lost were it not for a BBC producer. The story goes that she literally dragged him from a pub where he was, as usual, drinking himself toward an early death, and back to her office to complete the script. The town he wrote about was Llareggub. You don’t have to know Welsh to translate it, just read it backwards.

photo: Wikipedia

(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact

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