Stuart Kelly pines for works of literature that are lost to the world. Among the most tantalizing, in Kelly’s view, are Gogol’s Dead Souls, Part II, Homer’s Margites, the lost plays of Aeschylus, Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Won, Byron’s memoirs, some of Flaubert’s letters, Sylvia Plath’s second novel and Hemingway’s First World War novel.
It is intrinsic to the nature of literature that it is written: even work initially preserved in the oral tradition only truly becomes literature when it is written down. All literature thus exists in a medium, be it wax, stone, clay, papyrus, paper or even – as in the case of the Peruvian knot-language, khipu – rope. Since it has a material dimension, literature partakes of the vulnerability of its substance. Every element conspires against it: flame and flood, the desiccating air that corrupts, the loamy earth that decays. Paper is particularly defenceless: it can be shredded and ripped, stained and scrubbed away. Countless living things, from parasites and fungi to insects and rodents, can eat it: it even eats itself, burning in its own acids.
The much-vaunted Western canon, trumpeted for its wealth, happiness and strength, is not an Olympian torch or a thoroughbred horse; it exists by chance, not necessity, a lucky crag protruding from an ocean of loss. It is our conditional, might-have-been-otherwise, sheer-damn-lucky tradition. Those overwhelmed by Time’s corrosion are not so fortunate.
Literature and language preservation efforts: