A novel that everyone thought was lost is the literary phenomenon of the moment in France. The case illustrates the complex relationship they have there with their recent past. And it helps us to remember other lost books.

All cultures have their cursed creators. Authors of admired works but with biographies so controversial that they bother. For example, French literature has Louis-Ferdinand Celinewho in 1932 dazzled everyone with his first work ‘Journey to the end of the night’, based on his experiences of the First World War. From the outset he became a reference, but with the rise of Nazism everything changed. Their antisemitic and far-right ideology it made him enthusiastically embrace the German occupation, he did not hide his sympathies for Hitler and collaborated with the Vichy regime. When in June 1944 the Allies began their final offensive to liberate France, he left Paris for refuge in Denmark. In his haste, he left some 5,000 unpublished pages at his house. An invaluable literary material that disappeared.

In 1951 he was able to return and continued to publish, despite remaining marginalized from the cultural spheres of post-war France. Until the last day of his life – he died in 1961 – he demanded that whoever had stolen the manuscripts return them to him. It never happened. But in 2019 the surprise jumped and they came to light thanks to the former theater critic of the newspaper ‘Libération’, Jean-Pierre Thibaudat. He explained that years before a newspaper reader had given them to him on the condition that he not publish them until Céline’s widow died. Indeed, the woman she died in 2019, at the age of 107.

As our Paris correspondent Enric Bonet explained a few days ago, the prestigious Gallimard publishing house has just put ‘Guerre’ up for sale, an unpublished Céline, which was part of those papers that seemed lost. The novelty has become literary phenomenon this spring in France, because the writer still removes many things. And also because he is always fascinated by finding missing books. There is not always so much luck.

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Throughout history there have been many titles that were, but that we will never be able to read. In some cases, as is the case with Céline, because of the wars. That Nazi occupation that he lived with euphoria was a tragedy for Walter Benjamin, which led him to suicide in a hotel in Portbou in 1940 (although some theories suggest that he was assassinated by Stalin’s agents). In the room he left a suitcase with his belongings, among which there would have been a manuscript on which he had been working until the last moment. However, nothing was ever heard of those papers and no one has found them. Something similar happened to Antonio Machado a few kilometers away, the year before. In February 1939 he fled Franco’s Spain and took refuge in Collioure, where he died. After his death, it is said that writings that he had in his luggage disappeared.

When the great feathers of history die, these kinds of things can happen. They can be fortuitous disappearances or instigated by the living, who want to eliminate traces of compromising situations. Giorgio van Straten in its ‘Story of the Lost Books’ mention some cases. One of the most notable is the lord byron. When this symbol of English romanticism passed away, the relatives and friends in charge of looking after his legacy burned his memories to hide his homosexuality. A similar case, many years later, was that of the poet Sylvia Plath, who took her own life when she was separating from her husband, fellow writer Ted Hughes. The man destroyed the intimate diaries of his wife to avoid the suffering of his children. And incidentally perhaps to protect himself, that he had been unfaithful. Sometimes the fire is fortuitous as in the case of Malcolm Lowryfamous for his work ‘Under the volcano’ in 1947 and of which we will never be able to read part of his production because his house burned down with a thousand unpublished pages inside.

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If there is a lost text that has aroused all kinds of speculation, this is the second book of Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’, which is speculated to have been dedicated to comedy. Since the Middle Ages, scholars have developed a thousand hypotheses about its content and it even inspired Umberto Eco to write the famous novel ‘The Name of the Rose’.

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