Lost and Rediscovered Books

In Mikhail Bulgakov's fantastical novel "The Master and Margarita," manuscripts may be enveloped in flames, but they don't burn. In real life, alas, they do burn -- and rot, gather dust in attics and get rejected by publishers. But there are also writings that are rediscovered and published decades, even centuries, later. Sometimes the story of the book is as good as the story in the book. Here are some recent rediscoveries:

1. The Diary of Petr Ginz, 1941-42.
When the space shuttle Columbia exploded in 2003, the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, was among the casualties. Moreover, he had taken into space a drawing of the moon (on loan from the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial) by Petr Ginz, a Prague teenager who died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz in 1944. News accounts of this tragedy led a Prague resident to retrieve some old diaries and notebooks from his attic. They had been written by Ginz, partly in code, partly at the Thereisienstadt concentration camp. Translated by his sister, who survived the war and lives in Israel, they were published in Europe in 2004 and in the United States this year.

2. Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil, by Wallace Stegner.
Before he won fame for, among other works, his 1972 Pulitzer Prize winning novel "Angle of Repose" (which keeps getting shout-outs here in Short Stack), Stegner taught creative writing at Stanford and sometimes needed money. On one such occasion he accepted a commission to write a history of the Arabian American Oil Company, ARAMCO. He researched the book in Saudi Arabia in 1955 and turned in the manuscript the following year. But it was not as flattering as the company hoped, and executives used the 1956 Suez Crisis as a pretext to shelve it, much to Stegner's annoyance. Until this year, it had appeared only in a small paperback edition in Lebanon in 1971.
It's a riveting picture of the desert kingdom before it was transformed by oil wealth.

3. Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky.
Born in Kiev to a wealthy Jewish family, Nemirovsky fled the Russian revolution for France, where she became a well-known author in the 1930s. In 1942, she and her husband were deported to Auschwitz and died there. Their two daughters, hidden by nuns, survived and kept her notebooks. But the script was so tiny it required a magnifying glass to decipher, and for 60 years, the sisters did not realize they possessed this novel, which became a bestseller when it finally was published in France in 2004. This year, another previously unknown Nemirovsky novel, "Fire in the Blood," also appeared.

4. The Gospel of Judas.
Historians of the early church knew that this gospel once existed, because it was denounced as heresy by the bishop of Lyon in 180 C.E. But for centuries the text was presumed lost. Then, sometime in the 1970s, looters unearthed 13 papyrus sheets in Egypt. They passed through the gray market in antiquities and spent 16 years crumbling in a safe deposit box. But in 2004 the National Geographic Society reached a deal to authenticate, preserve and translate the manuscript. Last year it was published, setting off a vigorous debate about its importance. One of numerous gospels that were not incorporated into the Christian canon, it portrays Judas as an apostle who did Jesus' bidding and was entrusted by Jesus with secret knowledge.

5. The Last Cavalier, by Alexandre Dumas.
Though seriously ill and out of literary favor, the author of The Three Musketeers continued to write in the last year of his life, 1869-1870. His work in progress, a novel, was serialized in a French newspaper. But Dumas got only about a third of the way through the plot before he died, and the story never came out in book form -- until 2005, when a French scholar compiled the installments and edited them. Full of romance, pirates, battles and spies, the book came out in English this year.

-- Alan Cooperman

By Christian Pelusi |  October 25, 2007; 6:56 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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These make an interesting list, I suppose. But what do they say as a whole? (Haven't read any of them except Suite Francaise, which was amazing. Maybe more amazing since her other books never appealed to me. You ever read David Golder? Boring! One more thing: I just looked in Wikipedia and saw that seven of Nemirovsky's books were published posthumously. Where was she keeping all those manuscripts?)

Posted by: Marcy | October 26, 2007 6:45 PM

Maybe it's because I'm a Jew, but the only book you mention that isn't part of Jewish history or of Middle Eastern interest is the Dumas. What are the rediscovered books of Asia? Tale of Genji? Or of South America (Can't think of one! Oh, yes, Don Quixote was recently translated, wasn't it? But that's Spain . . . ) Interesting how the publishing world is so narrow in its tastes, after all.

Posted by: Sidney | October 29, 2007 12:10 AM

Sidney, I'm sorry that you found my list, which ranged from The Gospel of Judas to Wallace Stegner, to be too narrow. Here's another arguably "rediscovered" book: Le Corbusier's "Toward an Architecture," just published by the Getty Research Institute in a new translation. I didn't put it in my original shortstack because, really, it was never lost -- it made a worldwide impact on architects and designers when it was first published in France in 1923 as "Vers une architecture." (The original English translation, by the way, used the title "Toward a New Architecture"). But though it was a canonical text for architects, widely taught in design schools etc, it was overdue for retranslation and re-introduction to a wider audience in the United States. It's an eclectic, opinionated volume that includes this definition: "Architecture being the masterful, correct, and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light, it is the architect's task to bring the surfaces that envelop these volumes to life, without their becoming parasites that consume the volume and absorb it to their profit: the sad story of the present day." (p.109)
I'm not aware of any particular connection between this book and Jewish or Middle Eastern history, although it strikes me as likely that someone could find one.

Posted by: Alan Cooperman | November 1, 2007 12:38 PM

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