Billy Collins, former US Poet Laureate, is the author of a funny yet poignant poem (does he write any other kind?) called “On Turning Ten,” in which the narrator laments the passing of time:
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
He’s prematurely jaded, of course, but he’s not wrong. Youth is a time of limitless possibilities, and aging is a process by which options are whittled away. Maturity might be accepting that each opened door leaves others permanently closed behind you. I can’t say for sure, since I recently had a conversation with a friend that involved a good deal of rueful head-shaking on his part. How can I work more AND stay home with the kids? Can I wear a jaunty scarf and live in a Parisian garret without a sou AND have a country house with a yard that’s big enough for a Bernese Mountain Dog, a vegetable garden, and a tree fort? Clearly, I have a long way to go on the road to true adulthood. I have come to terms with the idea that I’ll never start in center field for the Mariners (or even sit on the bench), so I may get there yet.
Spending as many hours in a bookstore as I do doesn’t really help, though. Most days I’m purely delighted by the sheer volume of entertaining volumes there are to read, but every once in a while I become aware of how many of those will never make it to the top of the pile on my nightstand. Whatever time I take with a book is time taken away from a hundred others. All around me are eons worth of writing that I’ll never experience, characters I’ll never meet, stories I’ll never hear the end of. And since I’m changed a little by each book I do read, all around me are hundreds and thousands of unlived lives. In a few of those, maybe I’d be the author of my own books, which would be even more crushing—think of all the ones I’d never write.
The mature response to this existential crisis would be to shrug it off, but the artistic response would be to create something from it. Which makes Ivan Vladislavić an indisputably mature artist. He’s a South African writer who’s published several books, the most recent of which is The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories. It’s a slim (but not slight) work in which he discusses some of the many fictional projects he’ll never complete. As he puts it in his introduction, “These notes deal with unsettled accounts. They concern stories I imagined but could not write, or started to write but could not finish. Most were drafted to some point before being put aside but a few went no further than a line or two in a notebook… There were hundreds of failed stories to choose from.” He shares ten of these in discrete chapters, each of which begins with the seed that tantalized him without ever germinating. “Mrs. B,” for example, was inspired by the photographic plates in an old book recounting a 1926 expedition to the island of Komodo by the Burdens, an American naturalist and his beguiling, seemingly unflappable wife. Adventure in an exotic setting, along with the opportunity to recreate a romantic, bygone era while applying contemporary irony to its foibles—what could go wrong? This:
Probably, I should have written “Mrs. B” immediately, having glanced at the photographs and the maps to absorb an atmosphere, or dipped into the text at most, a quick plunge in a clear pool for some specimen phrase or idiom. There were clues enough for the invention of a world. But I could not leave well enough alone. I read the book.
This reading muddied the waters. It left me with a fuller sense of the Burdens and their world. I liked them less than I wanted to.
Disenchanted by the “stupid prejudices of their age,” Vladislavić abandons his couple and later writes a completely different story about a book collector who becomes obsessed with Helena, a woman who exists as nothing more than a name inscribed on a flyleaf. “You could say that Helena displaced B in my affections. In the end, real people are nearly always harder to like than fictional characters.”
Other aborted undertakings were inspired by personal experiences, politics, history, or art, but virtually all were in some way influenced by literature. Vladislavić reacts continually to a host of writers, including Laurence Sterne, Italo Calvino, Robert Walser, Don DeLillo, Georges Perec, Donald Barthelme, and Elias Canetti. We discover throughout Loss Library the myriad unexpected ways in which one artist can affect another, and one of its most notable qualities is that it demonstrates so concretely and unpretentiously the way books are built out of other books. One antecedent that’s not directly acknowledged is experimental French writer Marcel Benabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, which similarly recounts a lifetime of thwarted productivity in a more tongue-in-cheek style. Benabou was in turn influenced by proto-Surrealist literary dandy Raymond Roussel and his How I Wrote Certain of My Books, but I fear I’m taking us too far through the looking glass now. None of that information is necessary to appreciate the varied pleasures of Vladislavić’s reclamation project. Reading it is akin to listening to the commentary track while watching a favorite DVD or hearing about the origins of a hit song on VH1’s Storytellers.
Not a bad metaphor, really—call the book a tight acoustic version of what would likely have been a bloated, overproduced pop album. When properly shored up, as they are here by essay and anecdote, these fictional fragments are powerfully suggestive and as satisfying as any complete work. They’re further supported by an immaculate design scheme. Collagist Sunandini Banerjee has created and tipped in a dozen different subtly layered images to accompany the text. To the careless eye, they appear flat spills of ink, but more graded tones and figures emerge from the darkness the longer they’re examined until they seem almost bottomless. They’re exactly the right grace note for a book with an infinite center.
What does that mean? Well, at the heart of The Loss Library is the title story, the only entry that has a final form. It provides a tour of an endless Borgesian library that’s stocked with all the books never written by all the writers who’ve ever lived, and even the books never written by the ones who never lived. Some of their potential authors had their careers (and lives) cut short by war, while some simply lost faith in their talent. “Sorriest of all, in my opinion,” says the guide, “are those that were talked away by their authors. Talking is easier than writing, and that is why so many stories are frittered away in conversation.” Which I think is my cue to shut up.