:: Article

Literature is what we are lost in

By David Winters.


Ivan Vladislavić, The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories, Seagull Books, 2012.

‘These notes deal with unsettled accounts. They concern stories I imagined but could not write, or started to write but could not finish.’

So begins The Loss Library, a collection of unclassifiable texts by South African novelist Ivan Vladislavić. Split into eleven ‘case studies of failure,’ the book draws on two decades’ worth of its author’s ‘stillborn schemes and incomplete drafts,’ telling the stories of stories that went untold. Yet every account stands at several unsettled removes from its object. The notes that we read are not Vladislavić’s notes toward his unfinished books, nor are they even his notes on those notes. Each essay offers only a reconstituted reflection, an inverse image of an imaginary origin.

The project gives rise to a generalisable problem. Its eleven texts clearly ‘exist,’ insofar as literature ever exists, but each is predicated on a prior, ‘nonexistent’ model. Are these models therefore brought into existence, achieving a life of their own in the texts that transmit their traces? There’s a sense in which an incomplete thing is ‘completed’ if we give an adequate account of its incompleteness. So, are Vladislavić’s fragments in fact finished stories?

This paradox is what propels The Loss Library. The book doesn’t read like something straightforwardly ‘written.’ Instead, it is brought into being by the tension between being written and unwritten, where neither ever overwhelms the other. In this way the work answers to Rilke’s requirement that art should arise ‘out of necessity.’ It does so to the degree that it doesn’t work out, isn’t resolved into a work, but rather results, inevitably, from a field of forces whose opposed poles are what Vladislavić calls ‘the beginning and end of story-making.’


The first fragment, ‘The Last Walk,’ focuses on an image which seems to condense these concerns. Vladislavić recalls how his eyes once alighted on a photograph, now well-known, of Robert Walser lying dead in the snow. Here the death of the author brings about the birth of writing, with Walser’s fallen, frozen figure stirring Vladislavić to ‘write a story about the last days, hours, minutes of a writer.’ But the story dies on its feet, first dispersing into digressions, then disappearing completely, just as Walser’s footprints ‘break off in mid-sentence,’ and his collapse ‘carries him onto the silence of a blank page.’ Writing is like dying and being born both at once. As Mallarmé wrote to Camille Mauclair, ‘I only exist on the page; preferably one that’s still blank.’ Like the photograph, then, the scene of writing is static but perfectly preserved: a circular, synchronic world in which, Vladislavić observes, ‘there is not much else besides snow and the body.’

Later essays relate other, more worldly derailments, which any writer might well recognise. In ‘Mrs B.,’ the author becomes too closely caught up in his historical research, letting reality get between his words and ‘the invention of a world.’ In ‘Gross,’ an Oulipian game is simply ‘abandoned because I lacked the stamina.’ Some of these texts barely bruise the skin of the invisible books they describe. Yet there are several that intersect with their phase space, cutting into an infinite interior. Then, from the inside, we learn that literature itself is ‘loss,’ is what we are lost in. Again, a limitless literary space is accounted for. In ‘The Dictionary Birds,’ Vladislavić envisages an imaginary ‘aviary,’ built to house ‘the menagerie of creatures seen only in the dictionary,’ those real entities he has only ever encountered in their unreal, readerly forms. But a dictionary bird must be a higher dimensional object than a bird that we see in the sky; life’s extent is less than that of literature. Any enclosure for such entities would therefore be endless, or at least, its ends would be imperceptible to us.


Fictive forms preserved in infinite space: the theme achieves its fullest expression in the central text of The Loss Library, ‘The Loss Library.’ Vladislavić’s library is both birthplace and grave, an archive where all unwritten books are assembled and catalogued. The account stands alone as an autonomous story: unlike the other texts in the collection, ‘The Loss Library’ lacks a model. Indeed, it enacts a crucial exception to the rule of the rest of the book: ‘The Loss Library’ is what enables The Loss Library to exist. It’s logical, too, that the two texts should share the same name, since the story described by ‘The Loss Library’ is also the story of how The Loss Library tells its stories. That is, this account of an archive of unwritten books is itself an account of the book in which it is written. The loss library is where all of The Loss Library’s incomplete works would end up, with the necessary exclusion of ‘The Loss Library.’ What’s more, as the librarian notifies the narrator:

‘When a reader opens one of these books it has consequences in others. Things are shaken up. Matters that appeared to be settled are reopened for discussion. The extent of the disruption depends on the book. There are certain slim volumes, the reading of which would hardly cause a ripple. And then there are others with the power to change everything. Entire books melt away under the reader’s eye, schools of imitators dwindle to nothing, towers of study guides topple over.’

The texts in the library are described as ‘lost’ books but also ‘potential’ ones. We know by now that the two terms are not mutually exclusive. But nor are books, written or not, isolable from each other. The librarian’s warning suggests a systemic connection between them, an intertextuality in which real works are reconfigured by their unreal archetypes. Literature is a holistic structure, more than the sum of its parts. Here that excess is expressed by the endlessness of the library, which we assume is an annex of another total library. And any actual book we can hold in our hands is only a point on an infinite line which leads back to the library. Indeed, the loss library is precisely that place where literature may be perceived in the form of a line, not a point.


Behind any book lies another, unwritten book which itself encompasses every book, whether written or unwritten. All of our books are already ‘lost’ insofar as writing a book reduces its unwritten magnitude. In other words, to write a book is to remove it from the loss library. Hence Vladislavić has his librarian advise the narrator that no books may be loaned. To do so would be to collapse a wave function, converting possibilities into fixed instances. But in writing The Loss Library, has Vladislavić broken his own rule of silence? To recount an ‘unsettled account’ is surely to settle it, and writing about the unwritten risks cutting untold stories short. But writing is a double movement. Placing ‘The Loss Library’ inside its namesake posits a place within the work where unfinished works are preserved. Thus The Loss Library performs its own preservation, reshelving its unwritten stories by means of the very same motion that makes them appear. Here every removal is a return, every loss a retrieval. Writing uncovers its own condition, but leaves it undamaged, untouched. We arrive at and depart from a scene which remains on display, as if under glass: ‘the icy death of the author and the frozen life of the book.’


David Winters is a literary critic and a co-editor at 3:AM. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Radical Philosophy, The New Inquiry, The Millions and others. Links to his work are at Why Not Burn Books?

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 18th, 2012.