August 25, 2012

Tracking down lost, imaginary books


The best-known forgotten author of the century

Laughter in the Dark was the first of Vladimir Nabokov’s novels to be published in the United States, in 1938, by the then venerable Bobbs-Merrill of Indianapolis. The beautiful jacket carries the first, obsolete transliteration of the author’s name: Nabokoff.

And on the first page of the novel another book is introduced:

“It so happened that one night Albinus had a beautiful idea. True it was not his own, as it had been suggested by a phrase in Conrad (not the famous Pole, but Udo Conrad who wrote the Memoirs of a Forgetful Man and that other thing about the old conjuror who spirited himself away at his farewell performance).”

The tone of this suggests the unlikelihood of either existing — the author or memoir — but I did not resist the compulsion to Google both. (The title anticipates Oscar Levant’s culty The Memoirs of an Amnesiac by some 25 years; but Levant is the originator of one of my all-time favorite titles, that of his first memoir, A Smattering of Ignorance.)

Within a click or two I was in The Invisible Library, a searchable, annotated catalog of fictional authors and their works created by “invisible librarians” Ed Park and Levi Stahl. As Park put it in a 2009 Times piece, “This library contains books that exist only between the covers of other books — as descriptions, occasionally as brief excerpts, often simply as titles.” (Laura Miller wrote on The Invisible Library and its predecessors here for Salon.) Udo Conrad is on the shelf.

Melville House will be publishing a new edition of William Gerhardie’s first novel, Futility (1922) at the end of September. An intriguing detail in Gerhardie’s biography sent me back to the Library. Gerhardie had been acclaimed as a writer of great promise — of genius — in the Twenties and Thirties; but he died in 1977 having not published for almost forty years — he had called himself “the best-known forgotten author of the century.” Gerhardie reported, in several interviews, that he was writing a four-volume novel called This Present Breath but, tantalizing evidence of its gestation notwithstanding (here and here), the book seems to have left no trace. Was it imaginary, or is it merely invisible?


Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.