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“Now I sit at my open window, writing—for whom?” asks the protagonist. “Not for any friend or mistress. Scarcely for myself, even…” The novel, about sex and death, abortion and euthanasia in Sweden, created a stir in 1905. Now it’s disappeared, only occasionally fluttering in someone’s memory, as much ghost story as novel.
Margaret Atwood got Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doctor Glas in the mail from some Swedish friends, who had found the out-of-print work in a used bookstore. She quickly succumbed to this tale of a woman seeking refuge from a lecherous clergyman and finding it in a fake disease Glas invents. Atwood offers that the story eventually becomes a “triple-tied knot.”
And Atwood continues to untie and retie that knot; the book continues to haunt. The 1970 paperback edition—with blurbs hailing the work as a “masterpiece” and “the most remarkable book of the year”—remains with her.
There are other ghost stories. Some in the form of poems, some lost postcards from Liberia. There are a man’s childhood memories of Sri Lanka, tales of three 10-year-old French girls, a guide to living from a mother to a son circa 804 A.D., a behind-the-scenes account of Orson Welles’ making of Othello.
And in those ghost stories, there are the ghosts themselves. The doltish Peterkin family. The repressed Alwyn Tower. An ignored cousin to Alice (in Wonderland), Anna Lavinia. John Greeve, a suicidal headmaster who pens two goodbye notes, the second in the form of a poem. “We are forever in the stands kid, sorry,” Greeve writes to his son. Barbara Greene, cousin to Graham, roughing through Liberia, loaded up on scotch and tinned meats: “It sounded fun.” Moritz Thomsen, 63 and alone, on a trip through South America meditating on what he thinks is his imminent death.
Thomsen might as well have passed away in Belem. He’s just a ghost now, the author of The Saddest Pleasure. A story long forgotten, last seen in a slight edition from Graywolf Press in St. Paul, Minn. That seems a long time ago.
Now, Glas, Greeve, Thomsen, and his travels are part of a seance called Lost Classics: Writers on Books Loved and Lost, Overlooked, Under-Read, Unavailable, Stolen, Extinct, or Otherwise Out of Commission. The editors have nudged authors and poets and cranks to resurrect the cult treasurers everyone else seems to have forgotten.
“A book that we love haunts us forever; it will haunt us even when we can no longer find it on the shelf or beside the bed where we must have left it,” write the editors, Michael Ondaatje, Michael Redhill, Esta Spalding, and Linda Spalding, in their introduction. “Being lovers of books, we’ve pulled a scent of these absences behind us our whole reading lives, telling people about books that exist only on our own shelves, or even just in our own memory.”
Ondaatje and Co., who publish Brick: A Literary Journal, received so many essay submissions for a proposed “Lost Classics” issue that it became a book of its own. The contributors, ranging from John Irving and Philip Levine to Pico Iyer and Jeffrey Eugenides, have called up their inner bookworms, their own little Dirdas at work, and have plucked 70-plus works out of the world’s remainder pile for a new appraisal, a fresh telling. The result is a compendium of short essays—most only two or three pages—detailing the authors’ personal relationships to loved and lost books.
The book’s first goal amounts to literary CPR for the unknowns, runners-up, and never-made-its. Among the unfamous writings of famous authors are books that succumbed to wars, indifference, self-doubt, a bad title, an untimely death, a more famous relative, university politics. But what makes this volume interesting is not the particular “classics” chosen, nor even the stories of how they were found.
What makes this collection so compelling is that all these books or fragments of books are remembered despite their cultural handicaps—no Oprah, no Amazon.com, no Modern Library editions. Like all decent books, they had the power to leave a mark on their reader when the circumstance was right. They may be cultural orphans, but they still found homes. Aren’t you supposed to take in orphans?
You carried your book in your backpack forever. It was your security blanket, a little talisman, worn and dog-eared, always loyal. It shuttled with you from bunk bed to dorm to apartment. It has been boxed and shelved and fingered by sometimes even careless hands. But it still remains with you—still shadows everything you do, still colors your thoughts, still wades with you knee-deep in your depressions. Through late nights when you couldn’t sleep, it was at your bedside. Through romantic splits, it was among your most steadfast friends.
You aren’t sure why it was that book, but it just was. Maybe it seared in you images you just can’t forget. The way the main character smiled. The fact that the story was about Jews living in Brooklyn, like your own family. Maybe it was the first gay poet you ever read.
Lost Classics contributors list A.E. Housman’s The Name and Nature of Poetry, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, and Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child, among others. Some should be more well-read, such as William Gass’ On Being Blue, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, and Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders. Some never had a chance to leave more than a whisper on lit culture.
Like Henry Lee Dumas’ Play Ebony Play Ivory. Poet and playwright George Elliott Clarke discovered the book at 17 in 1977 Halifax, Nova Scotia. Dumas never marched with the popular Malcolm Poets of his day. Instead of throwing down stanzas punctuated with Molotov cocktails, he celebrated black life without machismo or sentimentality. It didn’t help matters that he was shot and killed by a New York City transit cop in a case of mistaken identity in 1968.
Dumas’ poems remain largely unknown and distant. Clarke discovered them in a dusty library:
I loved it so much that I photocopied a bunch of the poems on a primitive Xerox, stapled the finished wad of pages together, and then slashed away the excess paper with a jagged-edged paper cutter. The finished “book,” about the size of a Penguin paperback, has fantastically ragged edges, a brownish patina, a basementy smell and a now-rusting staple, but all the pages (save the first) are intact, though I have carried it with great passion across two decades.
Play Ebony is a book, Clarke attests, that holds up just as well as, or better than, the revolutionary raised-fist manifestos of other Black Power poets. The reader pretty much has to take Clarke’s word for it, though, because he provides few of Dumas’ actual writing beyond one curious lick of love: “The trees honor you/in gold/and blush when you pass.”
Wouldn’t it be fine to memorize that line? To find that line in a new edition of Dumas somewhere? To then let the line bounce around your backpack for a while? To hold hands with that line before finally letting go of it and giving its honor and gold and blush, yes, blush, to some lucky sweetheart—a sweetheart who now realizes that you have taste.
On second thought, one person’s personal best may be another’s fuel for book-burning. Dumas’ trees that go gold and then blush may seem to some just purple musings best left scrawled on some 13-year-old’s three-ring. The authors of Lost Classics make their strongest case not for the resurrection of particular books but for readers to choose and savor their own literary underdogs. Opting out of the canon and choosing your own little classic is a truly personal quest. More than likely Clarke couldn’t give Dumas’ poems away. What Lost Classics affirms best is that reading is personal, that books can catch you at just the right moment and stay around in your mind’s shadows forever.
Poet and novelist Brian Brett found Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited as a brokenhearted 22-year-old hitchhiking his way home from a “doomed” love affair in Oaxaca in 1972. Rexroth lived in Santa Barbara. Brett called him up, bunked at his house for a week, and left with Rexroth advising him bittersweet: “There’s love on every trolley car.”
“When young I longed for someone who would talk to me and, often as not, that person was found in a book,” poet Robert Creeley writes. Creeley corresponded briefly with one of his literary heroes, David Rattray. Rattray was the author of How I Became One of the Invisible, a collection of reflections and essays—”that rare instance of a book in which the writer speaks of the proverbial ‘many things’ of a life.” Rattray has died, but his book and his phone calls still mesmerize Creeley.
Novelist and journalist Carole Corbeil remembers a bound collection of French magazine articles for girls called Bernadette. Novelist Anchee Min recalls I Want to Go to School by Yu-pao Gao. Poet Janice Kulyk Keefer writes of a Russian primer: “The Byzantine elegance of those Cyrillic letters I loved like secrets, coded treasures, my tongue the key.”
Then there is the book called The Fishes, a history of aquatic life. In her essay, poet Erin Mouré thinks the volume might be by “Url Lanham.” All she knows is that she was in her 20s when she found it, “in a bookstore on West Broadway in Vancouver, in a bin in front of the store, only one copy, either remaindered or damaged, I think.”
Mouré bought the book, and it quickly became something like a recurring dream. She seemingly never stopped thinking about it. She quoted it in her own works. And then, in 1995, she lost it. She admits that she’s talked about the book for 20 years. And now, she wonders where it ended up. She’s not sure why she has this pull to this book on fishes. She can only write: “All I know is that when you come home on a hot day and fill the kitchen sink with cold water and bury your head in it, the only noise you can still hear is what comes from inside; you know you’re an organism then.” CP