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Flotsam and jetsam


In November of this year, Penguin will roll out a novel that has remained an enigma for over half a century. An early collaborative effort between Jack Kerouac and William S Burroughs, the mystery of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks has now outlived its creators. With the discovery of the missing reels of Metropolis and all the haggling over Nabokov’s manuscripts, what is it about such lost works that cast such a spell and what cult treasures may still be out there, waiting to be found?

It began with a murder straight out of a grisly pulp paperback. The New York Times reported “the discovery of a bound and stabbed body…in the murky waters of the Hudson River,” not far from Broadway. Several days previous, Lucien Carr, a promising and literate young student had been hanging around the shorefront, drinking with an associate David Kammerer in the early hours of the morning. Obsessed for some time with his young friend, Kammerer had aggressively tried it on with Carr and, when rejected, had threatened to kill them both. A fight broke out, during which Carr lodged his penknife into Kammerer’s chest. He died almost instantly. Panicking, Carr tied the body up and dragged it out into the water. Then he fled to a friend’s house; a certain William Seward Burroughs.

They were all part of the Times Square/Columbia University gang of writers and reprobates who would later become the nucleus of the Beat Generation. Though he avoided a major sentence under a plea of self-defence, Carr was locked up for his crime of passion for two years and henceforth bailed out of the literary limelight. His friends Burroughs and Kerouac would be implicated in the whole sorry affair for withholding and helping dispose of evidence. They escaped punishment but it was a close call. Shortly afterwards, the incident inspired them enough to work on a manuscript together, each producing an alternate chapter loosely based on recent events. Burrough’s would take the pseudonym Will Dennison, Kerouac’s was Mike Ryko. They’d name the book after a strangely surreal line heard on a radio news report, concerning a blaze at St Louis zoo.

The publishers blanked it so And the Hippos… joined an illustrious and disreputable cast of forgotten, rejected, destroyed and misplaced novels from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Won and Jonson’s The Isle of Dogs to Bruno Schulz’s The Messiah and Phillip K Dick’s “unsalvageable” Nicholas and the Higs. It’s a fascinating counterpoint to the official literary canon, an underworld filled with rejection slips and madness, acts of god and the devil. Sometimes the reasons for their absences are mundane, at other times epic. Take Hemingway’s suitcase. Filled with a draft for a novel, a series of letters and at least 20 short stories (all original and solitary copies), his wife Hadley had momentarily sat it in a train compartment whilst she went for a drink. When she came back, it was gone. Hemingway took it well, suggesting a lobotomy so he could forget his loss.

By contrast, the travails Nikolai Gogol endured had a certain grandeur. Never of the most stable disposition (his short stories have a remarkably modern but also unhinged quality), Gogol fell under the spell of an aesthetic Orthodox priest by the name of Father Matvei Konstantinovskii. Convinced that fiction was a wicked enterprise, Gogol burnt the concluding parts of his magnum opus Dead Souls. Driven to the point of hysteria and beyond, he went on hunger strike and, despite the remedies of well-wishers (including arguably unhelpful doses of vodka, cold showers and leeches), he died at the untimely age of 42.

When books only exist in your head, they’re immune to everything; criticism, fallibility, commercialism. They’re the boy in the bubble. They’ll never fuck things up or let us down. Take Joyce’s prospective book about the sea, Byron’s licentious and long-turned-to-ash diaries or Orwell’s deathbed-plan for an oriental novel entitled A Smoking Room Story. It’s an illusion to think these works would have automatically been masterpieces but it’s an irresistible one nonetheless.

Sometimes, thankfully, life proves our cynicism wrong. After Flann O’Brien had sadly drunk himself under the table and into the next life, they discovered the manuscript of perhaps his finest (or anyone’s for that matter) work The Third Policeman mouldering beside his bed. Rejected by soft-headed publishers, it had lain there for a quarter of a century. Similarly, A Confederacy of Dunces appeared eleven years after its author John Kennedy Toole had hooked up a hose to his car’s exhaust pipe. The casual tragedy of both of these writer’s ends were only exacerbated by the discovery of these masterpieces.

Rare though they are, remarkable discoveries still do take place. Several weeks ago, it was revealed that a previously unknown poem by Arthur Rimbaud, the flea-ridden, priest-baiting, absinthe-swilling enfant terrible of French letters, had been uncovered. A bookseller in his hometown of Charleville, Francois Quinart had come across a set of old journals and papers belonging to an elderly resident and found in the pages of Le Progres des Ardennes a poem by Jean Baudry, a pseudonym occasionally used by the young poet. A fifty-line mockery of France’s great nemesis, “Bismarck’s Dream” is only the latest in a long line of Rimbaud dispatches from beyond the grave. Given his casual disregard for his own work and the dissolute decadence of his early years, much of his writing was frivolously scattered around, long gathering dust in Latin Quarter attics and bird cages and encouraging a thriving obsessive clique of collectors. To this day, they dream of discovering one of the fabled lost works to rank alongside the symbolist delirium of The Drunken Boat and the searing stuka dive of A Season in Hell: his mystical La Chasse Spirituelle, thought to have been destroyed by Verlaine’s wife but reportedly last sighted in 1908, the notebooks filled with cartoons and verse mislaid by a classmate or an entire chest full of writing from his shady years in Africa, unearthed by Allied soldiers in the midst of the Second World War.

Inevitably the question of ethics rears its ugly head. Should the public pour over writing that the author did not see fit to preserve or in some cases wanted destroyed? We’d know little if nothing about Franz Kafka had his friend Max Brod obeyed his final instructions to use The Trial, The Castle and his other major works as kindling. Within the last few days, it’s come to light that a decaying hoard of his papers have been unearthed in a Tel Aviv flat, where they’ve been acting as food for cats and dust mites for decades. Similarly there’s been fresh controversy over Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, the book he’d been working on when death inconveniently intervened. Though the writer had expressly requested that the work be destroyed, it seems, after some debate, his estate have decided to publish the work, weighing up the quality, or if you’re scornful, the saleability of the work against the wishes of its creator. Whatever way it goes, it proves a writer’s wishes, when he or she puts pen to paper, are worthless.

And god help those who go against the desires of the audience. Despite gifting Sylvia Plath the mystery and magic of a lost book, Ted Hughes’ legacy as a poet of greatness will always be tainted because he destroyed her last diary. Whether it was the deliberate silencing of her voice or an act of kindness to their children, as he claimed, we’ll never know.

On reflection, perhaps the worst thing that could happen to And The Hippos… is its publication. Unearthed in a New Jersey warehouse decades after it was written, the Kerouac play Beat Generation did little for the legend except dilute it. What appears to be a holy grail can easily be exposed as inessential juvenilia, writing that never would have seen the light of day had their creator lived. Things gather dust for a reason after all. What promises to be a Smile could end up being a Chinese Democracy. It’s a chilling prospect.

Wondering what could have been is one of the great literary indulgences – Stuart Kelly, for one, has constructed an entire book out of such possibilities. What has J D Salinger been doing all those years? Which dive off Rue de la Huchette or Kelvingrove or East Village contains the next cobwebbed masterpiece? Few knew the essence of the lost work more than Alexander Trocchi, the sheer power of it, not just in adding to a writer’s mystique but also in funding their excesses. For years, Troochi used his Long Book to repeatedly shill money from publishers for dope. To this day, no-ones entirely sure if it ever really existed beyond some fragments and ramblings. But then again that was never the point…

Darran Anderson is an Irish writer from Derry, currently residing in Edinburgh, Scotland. He co-edits Dogmatika, Laika Poetry Review and 3:AM. He is the latest in a long line of scurrilous deadbeats and scoundrels to blacken his family name and sully the noble art of writing.

Books image – Courtesy of Oscar Pereira – © www.opimaging.co.uk

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 15th, 2008.