Monday, 12 December 2011

Make Copies

In an article by Peter Robb I read the other day there was a reference to a friend of his called Paul Hoffmann, who held the chair of German at Cambridge University. Robb mentioned that Hoffmann gained a doctorate from the University of Vienna although his 'original doctoral thesis for Vienna, having been sunk at sea on its way to New Zealand in 1940, he'd written another on a different subject after the war.'

When I read this, I'd just watched the first episode of Simon Russell Beale's television series on the development of the symphony. In it, he mentions that Haydn lost a symphony in a similar kind of accident to Hoffman's, although the ship was travelling different seas. According to Russell Beale, Haydn also sat down and wrote a completely new piece of work to replace the missing one. This started me wondering whether this losing and then just whipping up a quite new work is a more common occurrence than I'd realised.

I know TE Lawrence lost his manuscript for Seven Pillars of Wisdom by leaving it behind on a railway station platform or, in the manner of modern-day British intelligence officers, in a train compartment - I don't remember which - but, as I understand it, Lawrence merely set about rewriting the original text, so his experience was a) less dramatic than loss at sea, as it left open the possibility that the original manuscript might eventually be returned intact and b) less extraordinary than the others, since they cheerily started all over again, creating something entirely new, whereas he just tried to remember what he'd written the first time.

Patrick Leigh Fermor had his notebook stolen in Vienna and left one behind at someone's house. While the one he left behind eventually found its way back to him, I still wonder what became of the one that was stolen. Is it possible it still exists, hidden away in someone's attic?

Are there other famous examples of similarly miserable losses - or, more sadly, are there many other unknown instances, which have put paid to potentially great artists' careers? Have countless gifted people, having poured their souls into great works they have lost subsequently, given up forever in complete despair?

There may well be more, for already, after only half a minute's thought, I've remembered another - I'm not sure of the details but didn't Thomas Carlyle's maid use a huge book of his, the product of years of labour, to light the sitting-room fire one afternoon? I have an idea that that happened and that, like Lawrence, Carlyle rewrote the thing, which also seems sad in the context of today, since so few people read anything he wrote anymore.


  1. I think Carlyle sent the MS to John Stuart Mill and it was Mill's maid who put it on the fire. It wasn't the whole work, but only the first part of the work -- and the work itself was The French Revolution, which Dickens loved, and read, and reread, and even if people today don't read original Carlyle as much as they did in the 1800s they still read his Revolution, only they call it A Tale of Two Cities, and they read it translated through the brain of his admirer.

  2. You've just proved what a pointless exercise reading biographies is, Umbagollah, for I just recently read Claire Tomalin's biography of Dickens and she didn't mention Carlyle once, let alone how important his book was to the development of Tale of Two Cities (or maybe she did, but I missed it, because I was spending so much energy getting enraged with her boring obsession with proving that Dickens was a rotten husband which a) makes no odds to a reader of his fiction and b) is impossible to judge, since we weren't there, but this doesn't stop Tomalin getting out the cudgels in a tedious fit of feminist solidarity. I still suspect Carlyle's version was quite dull, based on what I have taken a look at of his.
    Smiler - poor Brahms. Perhaps one of the pleasures of heaven could be hearing all the music he'd vetoed and seeing him free of his own anxiety and composing in a less self-critical way.

  3. I have a sketch memory of an incident with Steinbeck -- probably from Benson's bio. Steinbeck had lost a manuscript and then set out to rewrite the book. When the original manuscript was found, legend has it that the new pass was almost identical -- minimal, minor word-choice differences.

    I'm no Steinbeck or Haydn, but I once lost an orchestral piece I had worked on for a year. I was surprised by my own reaction: it barely bothered me. In fact, there was an odd feeling of relief -- as if I had been given a second chance. Strange. I don't know if this has happened to others, but I suppose it is possible.

  4. I didn't prove it very well -- I last read that fact about Carlyle in Michael Slater's Dickens biography approx. a week ago.* One of the good things about Dickens biographies, is that there's so many of them they come in different flavours: one biographer talks about his life, not his work, another one talks about his work, not his life, one tries to deal evenly with both work and life, and then Peter Ackroyd flies into a seance. Slater is a work-not-life biographer. He points out the usual milestones (blacking factory, visit to America, separation from wife, railway accident) but it's the details of the work he likes: when was such and such published, what was the response to the Lirriper story, how did Dickens deal with his editing duties, what did he like to read, and so on.

    As for Carlyle, I can't say anything about him as a whole because I haven't read him as a whole but I thought French Revolution was thrilling, and I admire the way he goes from a multitude of people to the specifics of a single man's "buff jerkin," pierced by a bullet, and then thinks for half a page about the passage of time, or about action versus thought, concluding, "the All of Things is an infinite conjunction of the verb To Do."

    * The Victorian Web has a page about it here:

  5. If one can believe Hemingway's A Moveable Feast (and on various other points, I don't), his first wife lost a suitcase full of manuscripts during a train trip.

  6. John Meade Falkner left the manuscript of his fourth novel on a train - it was never recovered. As much as I liked Falkner's 'Nebuly Coat', I don't feel a huge sense of loss.

    The losses that hurt me more than anything are musical: Bach's St Luke and St Mark Passions, Sibelius's Symphony No.8 (which he allegedly burned) or the works that George Butterworth and Walter Leigh would have written if they hadn't been killed while on active service.

    There are also quite a few examples of writers losing whole novels during the early days of the 'word processor', when 'diskettes' were the size of frisbees.

  7. Chris - it's interesting to get a firsthand reaction to the experience. Did you set about writing another orchestral work or just feel you'd done it to your own satisfaction and that, in fact, was all that mattered?
    George - was Hemingway claiming they were his own manuscripts or his wife's or, perhaps, manuscripts stolen by his wife from her various lovers - or stolen by her from women she thought he might be involved with?
    Umbagollah - Ackroyd, don't get me started, I can't warm to him; "the All of Things is an infinite conjunction of the verb To Do" - I find that sentence impossible to understand, is this a sign of incipient dementia?; is the Slater book called the Making of Dickens or something similar? I just read a review, via Books Inq, which suggested that that was the best of the latest bunch of Dickens books. I'm not sure why I'm reading any book about him anyway, given that I haven't read every single thing that is by him yet. Despite his winsome females, absurd plots and all the other things people throw at him as faults, I still love Dickens almost to the point of wanting to shed a few pathetic tears just thinking about it.
    Steerforth - I will have to look into John Meade Falkner, who I've never heard of. If you read The Towers of Trebizond, I'll read Nebuly Coat. Thank you also for telling me of the existence of Butterworth and Leigh, whose work I shall now seek out with interest. Did Bach definitely write those other Passions or is it just assumed? Perhaps he simply put it about that he'd written them (as people put it about that they are writing novels [neither am I, as Peter Cook replied to one such, supposedly]). Was the problem with the diskettes not only that they were the size of frisbees but that they got mistaken for same and consequently ended up in trees, rivers, deep mud et cetera, made unuseable as a result?

  8. I did, in fact, rewrite it -- at any rate, I reworked the same themes in a similar piece. In a sense, the original was lost, after all, but I'm sure I reproduced a lot. Years later, it would be nice to find the original, though.

  9. It was Hemingway's manuscripts that the wife lost, or was said to have lost.

  10. Chris - after such a long time, it might be better not to. Freed from reality, you can turn it into a work of supreme majesty in your memory.
    George - I imagined that was probably the case (not the case she lost them in, of course).