Rick Gekoski’s collection of essays offers tantalising glimpses into lost treasures – among them Byron’s burned memoirs and a jewel-encrusted Rubaiyat.
It’s good to have London rare book dealer Rick Gekoski return (somewhat) to the kind of thing he did in Tolkien’s Gown with his new book, Lost, Stolen or Shredded: Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature. Outside of a Dog, his follow-up book, an engaging and funny bibliomemoir still disappointed for sticking to the 12 books that deeply marked him as a reader (more than as a dealer or collector). What I wanted, of course, was for him to look at rarer books, dealing with stories and talk of editions and points and collectors and runners and antiquarian bookshops.
In Lost, Stolen or Shredded (Profile Books, 2013) Gekoski offers us 15 essays that tell the story of some precious, tantalising works of art (from a mere broadside to a sumptuous binding to unrealised architectural designs) now lost to us, and examines other versions of ‘lostness’ and what they mean to us. These, he notes, make up an “internal museum of loss”. The stolen Mona Lisa and how people still stood in long queues to see the empty space left by the missing painting. The original was important; it had its own presence even in absence. Gekoski demonstrates why an “artistic object has to include as part of its definition, its own history.” Why provenance is essential in making the aesthetic experience real and complete.
Let’s take a hypothetical, he says, where we have before us two Mona Lisas; one by Leonardo Da Vinci and the other a perfect copy. You don’t know which is which and you are shown both. You admire both, not knowing which is real. Once you find out, he says, you are forced to say, ‘I love the original Mona Lisa, but can only admire the copy.’ And so it’s not appearance alone that counts here but history.
Lord Byron’s memoirs burnt by his publishers. An especially deep loss Gekoski points out because like Wilde, Byron displayed another kind of genius in his prose. Wilde’s essays on art and beauty are celebrated today as much as his plays and stories, if Byron’s two-volume memoir had survived, that may well have turned out to be his masterpiece.
Philip Larkin’s diaries shredded first and then destroyed. Larkin the outspoken racist and misogynist, considered to be one of the wittiest men you can meet, adored by friends. “He lived in a permanent state of fastidious recoil”, writes Gekoski. And his humour was full of loathing and irony. (Jeanette Winterson writing on Larkin’s reputation says he “makes V. S. Naipaul read like Germaine Greer”). “We are critically so obsessed by tracing life into work”, notes Gekoski. Our interest now is focused on the archives of an artist – the diaries, the journals, the personal histories. “Artists”, he notes, “like the rest of us, have their little secrets… Why not afford them kindly discretion?”
What does one do with prurient art, especially as a book dealer stuck with such material? Gekoski recounts a personal dilemma that sprang up for him as a book dealer: He came into possession of an illustrated manuscript, meant obviously for private circulation only. It was by T.H. White, the author of the much beloved classic, The Sword in the Stone. The three bound volumes of this manuscript, called The Boy’s Own Book of Spanking, contained 160 pages of text illustrated with photographs of boys with severely whipped bottoms. Since this was a White manuscript and thus a museum-quality collectible, the rare book dealer offered it to the Manuscripts Librarian at the British Library who turned it down. He sold it eventually to a private collector.
My favourite piece is ‘Death By Water: The Great Omar’, on the most fabulous of all jewelled bindings that was on board the Titantic. Still unrecovered, lost to us. A passenger had in his possession on the ship a very unique copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The finest work produced by the bindery of Sangorksi and Sutcliffe, it was encrusted with over a thousand diamonds, rubies and emeralds, as three magnificent swirling peacocks. Jewelled bindings, says the rare book dealer, are a rage at auctions, commanding great prices, leaving the original edition behind. Collectors obviously have a taste for this kind of thing, but says the dealer, “I wish they collected Nabokov.”
There are other essays, just as fascinating, dealing with lesser known artists, artefacts and places: the un-built designs of the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the forgeries of Mark Hoffman, the library at Herculaneum destroyed when Vesuvius erupted, the looting of Iraqi museums and the theft of the Urewera Mural.
The centerpiece in the collection has to be the one that is the most personal to the dealer. It’s no more than a fragment, but it has haunted Rick Gekoski since school days. James Joyce’s first published work, a poem (probably) titled ‘Et Tu, Healy’. Joyce’s father proudly published this broadside and no copy of this little thing has ever turned up. Gekoski confesses that the broadside is not only obscure but “intrinsically uninteresting.” But it has personal meaning for him, a story of two fathers, his and Joyce’s, and so he will go on looking for it.
He sums up his quest beautifully and movingly: “Being haunted by a lost scrap and occasionally tormented by a repetitive inner melody is a small price to pay for the delight of the chase, however futile. That excitement is strong enough to resist its shadow, and the continued loss of ‘Et Tu, Healy’ suits me just fine. The delicate tendrils that attach ‘Et Tu, Healy’, my father and me require a subterranean ground to thrive, and are nourished in the poem’s absence. It can be a bad mistake, if you are a collector, making the unconscious conscious; if a copy were located, something of him, and me – and of us together – would be endangered. I hope it never gets found.”