“O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the mischief thou hast done.” Newton, his dog and his manuscript, via Wikipedia

A novel was published recently, Heinrich Gerlach’s Breakout at Stalingrad, which has an extraordinary history behind it. Its author fought on the German side at the Battle of Stalingrad. He was captured by the Soviets, and while imprisoned he wrote a novel about the war, the manuscript of which was confiscated. But upon his release Gerlach underwent hypnosis and recalled the novel he had written, which was published in 1957 as The Forsaken Army, when it was acclaimed as a classic. Over fifty years later an American academic, Carsten Gansel, found the original manuscript in the State Military Archives in Moscow, which has now been published Breakout at Stalingrad.

I’ve not read either book, but reviewers have remarked upon the significant differences between the two, in both tone and content. Literary history is full of stories of works that have been lost through assorted misfortunes – Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Cardenio (disappeared), parts two and three of Gogol’s Lost Souls (burnt by the author), all of Ernest Hemingway’s writings up to 1922 (wife’s suitcase was stolen), Lord Byron’s memoirs (destroyed by his shocked publisher) – but reconstructed lost works are rare. Thomas Carlyle had to re-write the first volume of his History of the French Revolution after the unique manuscript that he had lent to J.S. Mill was used for kindling by a servant. The manuscript of Malcolm Lowry’s first novel, Ultramarine, was allegedly stolen from his publisher’s car and had to be reconstructed from random sheets thrown into Lowry’s litter bin. Isaac Newton, according to dubious legend, lost original copies of some papers when his pet dog Diamond knocked over a candle.

Lost works are never fully recovered, however, because what is lost is not just the words but the time. All creative work is specific to the time and circumstances in which it was created. No two pictures from an artist could ever be the same, no rewritten essay will ever replicate exactly the original, no story can be re-told without being changed in some way. It’s why only death could halt Marcel Proust from constantly revising his book about time, A la recherche du temps perdu. He could never settle on the perfect moment, or the perfect phrasing, because of the shifting nature of his very subject (which is the subject of all art, ultimately).

Illustration of 1914 cinema from Ursula Bloom’s ‘Youth at the Gate’

From the sublime to the significantly less than sublime. I have been rebuilding too. A few weeks ago the database behind one of my websites, Picturegoing, which reproduced eyewitness testimony from memoirs, interviews, newspapers, novels and travel books on the experience of viewing pictures (mostly, but not exclusively, motion pictures), became corrupted. Four years of it, covering 2014-17, simply disappeared. My site providers (who shall remain nameless) were unable to recover the lost pages. Fortunately I had a backup of the site up to September 2017, and so all but fifteen of the most recent posts were eventually restored.

To rebuild the rest I had to go about things the long way. I tried looking for what the Internet Archive would have preserved, but the last time the site had been crawled was September 2017, so I had to go back to the original sources. Firstly, I knew what the fifteen posts were because I had tweeted about each on of the day that I published them, so I could track their subject and dating at least through my Twitter archive (Twitter allows you to create a download in spreadsheet form of all of your tweets).

Thereafter I had to locate the original volumes, from my shelves, from a nearby second-hand bookshop, from public domain sites such as Hathi Trust and the Internet Archive, or from the ‘Look Inside’ feature provided from some books by Amazon. It’s extraordinary what can be recovered simply by means of a keyboard and an Internet connection (I lost that for a few days too, but that’s another story). The traces are everywhere. All that is real can only be so where it has a virtual shadow. So it was that I brought back to life posts on the novelist Ursula Bloom’s memoirs of playing piano in a cinema on the outbreak of World War One; a lyrical piece by someone rejoicing in the pseudonym ‘Inbad’ of attending an open-air film show on the Cook Islands in 1925; and Arnold Bennett’s startled view of audience hysteria at a film premiere attended by Gloria Swanson in 1929. Ironically, the only post I could not reconstruct was one on Kinemacolor being exhibited for the first time in the USA, when of all subjects that was the one I should have been able to track down quickest. None of it is recovered art, and I have tried to cheat time by date-stamping each post according to when it was originally published. So everything (bar that elusive Kinemacolor article) is as it was. So none of it is art.

I’ve also been rebuilding myself. I was struck by the flu virus that has been laying waste to millions, and it triggered vertigo. For a couple of days I could not open my eyes because the whole world was swirling round me. Thereafter the dizziness lessened, but walking became eccentric, as I would suddenly lurch the wrong way, or else have to cling to walls as my brain struggled to maintain true bearing.

I’m better now. I can keep to a straight line, having trained my brain to remember what that should be. I spent some days looking enviously out of the window at people who, quite unselfconsciously, could walk from A to B without needing to visit Z along the way, who could turn their head to look at something and not fall into a spin by doing so. Now I have rebuilt and recovered. But things are not as they once were. I now treasure straight lines, and the privilege it is to be able to follow them. Memory is creativity, as Proust understood. I remember where I was, and where I am now is in a different place.


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One thought on “Rebuilding

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t have copies of the individual entries. Recently a website to which I had contributed 40 book reviews disappeared, but I have Word copies from which I can recreate the originals elsewhere. I used to do make a PDF of my own posts as well at one time but found it unnecessary if I have the originals in Word.

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