Chekhov once wrote that you need to be a god to distinguish success from failure in life without making a mistake.
While none of the 52 writers in C.D. Rose’s mischievous book “The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure” is a household name, to read of how much Lysva Vilikhe, Edward Nash and so many others sacrificed for their art is to come away wishing they could be as famous as Stephen King or J.K. Rowling.
Nonetheless, because of personal misfortune or the vicissitudes of publishing, little — if any — of their work remains extant; in some cases, their poetic or novelistic visions were never even set down on paper.
One of the most pitiable may be the case of Hans Kafka, who found that everything he wrote — including “the grotesque story of a beetle who is transformed into a man” — was completely overshadowed by the work of his neighbor Franz (no relation).
Or take Otha Orkkut, the last surviving speaker of Cimbrian, a Bothno-Ugaric language. Every one of her works — of poetry, history and translation — was composed in that language, which no one can now read.
No matter. As Keats reminded us, heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter still.
That we know of these writers at all is due almost entirely to the efforts of C.D. Rose. In fact, some querulous readers might even ask, “Are these people real?”
Rest assured, they are as real as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; they just aren’t as famous.
While it would be churlish to question this book’s scholarly rigor, according to the reviewer, the editor assures The Star’s readers it would be foolish to swallow Rose’s “tantalizing traces of untold stories.”
Rose recounts “the discovery of abandoned manuscripts in house clearances, trawls through the rotting slush piles of minor literary agents, overheard literary gossip and tales from the failing memories of librarians, book dealers, academics and fellow writers across the world.”
After a scholarly introduction that touches on such topics as blankness, the whiteness of the page and the ontology (metaphysics, another inside joke) of fiction, Rose opens his listings with an account of the life of Casimir Adamowitz-Kostrowicki.
First, though, he asks us to recall how Max Brod saved Kafka for the world by ignoring the mortally ill writer’s injunction that all his manuscripts be destroyed.
Unfortunately, Rose sighs past a tongue firmly in cheek, Adamowitz-Kostrowicki had a friend faithless enough to obey his dying wishes. Thus, when the writer failed to return from the front during World War I, Eric Levallois obediently burned the only copy of “L’homme avec les mains fleuries.”
To gauge our loss, Rose notes that “this, it is said, was a work which would have … made ‘The Man Without Qualities’ look as dull as its title, dwarf ‘Ulysses’ in its range and scope, render ‘To the Lighthouse’ small and parochial.”
And so the plangent litany of loss and disappointment begins. En route to London to discuss the publication of “Here Are the Young Men,” Stanhope Barnes accidentally left the only manuscript of this modernist epic on the train.
To bring attention to his verse, Pasquale Frunzio resolved to commit suicide and be found with the typescript of his collected poems, “Lo Specchio Segreto,” at his side. By accident, a spark ignited the gas-filled apartment, and all its contents were incinerated.
Ernst Bellmer, suffering a strange oral compulsion said to have attracted the attention of Freud himself, literally consumed page after page of his writing, including the entirety of his bildungsroman “Der Mann mit den bluhenden Handen.”
Later, you will be told how the notorious forger Eric Quayne is said to have written “The Man With the Flowering Hands,” which, hmmm, is the title of both Adamowitz-Kostrowicki’s burnt French manuscript and Bellmer’s German-language masterwork?
Female authors suffer perhaps even more from marginalization.
For instance, Wendy Wenning, enraptured by minimalism, tirelessly, obsessively refined the huge first draft of her novel “An Empty Chair”:
“She removed every adjective from her book. Once that task was completed, she turned back to the beginning and started again. Relative clauses went next, then the passive voice. Metaphor, simile, symbol. All felt the knife. None were spared.”
In the end, she was left with a blank page.
Perhaps the saddest figure of all is Sara Zeelen-Levallois. “No one knows with any certainty where she was born, grew up, studied, or even less what ever happened to her. None of her works have survived, or have ever been seen. They exist purely in the domain of hearsay and rumor.”
Rose writes with wit, playfulness and an impressive knowledge of the byways of modern literature. We may, alas, never hear any more of Ellen Sparrow, Aurelio Quattrochi or even Jurgen Kittler.
But I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of C.D. Rose.
The Biographical Distionary of Literary Failure, by C.D. Rose (175 pages; Melville House; $18.95)