Reviewing 2015’s remarkable run of rediscovered lost books – including works by Charlotte Brontë, F Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Dr Seuss and, above all, an entire previously unknown novel, Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee – Claire Fallon wondered in November if the streak of luck would continue in 2016 and, more cynically, “did any famous authors not have lost manuscripts?”.
The first question can be easily answered, since in January a long-lost Beatrix Potter book was readied for publication – The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots immediately entered Amazon’s bestseller chart, eight months before its publication in September – and this week the New York Review of Books’ blog revealed that a literary manuscript assumed to be among those lost for ever, like the first version of Seven Pillars of Wisdom that TE Lawrence left on a station platform, has reappeared.
Arthur Koestler’s original German text of Darkness at Noon, his classic novel about the Soviet Union’s Stalinist show trial, was hitherto known only via the English translation that his British lover, the sculptor Daphne Hardy, hurriedly made in the spring of 1940 before they fled south to escape the imminent Nazi occupation of Paris.
With the German version apparently lost, the inelegant English text they posted to Jonathan Cape in London – published in the same year, but only acclaimed post-1945 (notably by Orwell) once the cold war began – became the basis for all translations including, bizarrely, Koestler’s own retranslation (once he had morphed into an English-language writer) into German.
Michael Scammell’s NYRB piece suggests that reading the Ur-text, which was found by a researcher looking through the papers of Koestler’s Swiss publisher, will be “like seeing a cleaned oil painting for the first time after the old and discoloured varnish” – meaning the “sins” of the translation – “has been removed”.
And perhaps the discovery is itself also illuminating, pointing to which of the missing manuscripts whose stories are recounted in Stuart Kelly’s The Book of Lost Books have any chance of showing up: those that went to libraries or museums (the Potter book’s trail began in the V&A) or publishers or lawyers (where Lee’s novel was found), or remained in the author’s home (Seuss’s What Pet Should I Get? turned up in a shoebox), and ideally where their estate was kept together and managed carefully.
So, conversely, we might as well give up on some of the most-missed manuscripts of the modern era, because they are unlikely to be in archives or attics awaiting discovery: the notebook of never-seen Rimbaud poems that a schoolmate managed to lose; the Hemingway first world war novel that was in a suitcase stolen from his wife on a train, and the Walter Benjamin manuscript, also in a suitcase, that vanished after his suicide; the fragment of a second Sylvia Plath novel, Double Exposure, that mysteriously disappeared in the chaotic aftermath of her death.