Book review: Lost, Stolen Or Shredded by Rick Gekoski

RICK Gekoski – critic, rare book dealer, literary sleuth and chairman of the 2011 Man Booker International Prize – opens this beguiling and intriguing series of essays on the fragility of our culture with an inspired image.

Lost, Stolen Or Shredded: Stories Of Missing Works Of Art And Literature

By Rick Gekoski

Profile, 284pp, £14.99

In September 1911, Franz Kafka and his friend (and future executor) Max Brod went to the Louvre. Rather than standing enraptured in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Kafka was enthralled by the empty space on the wall where it used to hang – the painting in question having been stolen on 21 August that year.

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This is triply ingenious. It tells us something about the Mona Lisa, and the manner in which we fetishise great art. It tells us something about Kafka, that collector of “invisible curiosities”. And it tells us something about Gekoski and the book we are about to read – not only is Gekoski superbly well-read, but he will cunningly interrogate our often contradictory feelings towards the loss of great works of art.

The first of the 15 essays deals with the theft of the Mona Lisa by Vincenzo Peruggia. The immediate response from the authorities was not to question the staff of the Louvre, where security was notoriously lax, but to investigate artists like Picasso and writers like Guillaume Apollinaire, since this was evidently an artistic stunt. Either that, or it had been pulled off by some criminal mastermind like Fantômas or Arsène Lupin. Gekoski puts this neatly in context: not only did Picasso own objets d’art “borrowed” from the Louvre, but Apollinaire knew of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, with its call for “get rid of the innumerable museums”. Peruggia – a picture framer – eventually claimed less venal motivations for the threat: he was repatriating the picture to its native Italy, despite it having been sold to Francois I in the 1530s. Into this story Gekoski weaves reminiscences of his childhood neighbour, who made a copy of the painting he claimed was good enough to fool experts; the history of replica versions of the painting, and meditations on both the material and psychological possession of art.

From the Mona Lisa, Gekoski goes on to discuss the political theft of Colin McCahon’s Urewera Mural by Tuhoe activists and the destruction of Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston Churchill. Moving on literary losses he covers James Joyce’s first published work – his father published his son’s broadside poem, “Et Tu Healy” when Joyce was nine, and no copies have ever been discovered – Byron’s memoirs, Larkin’s diaries, the vexatious situation surrounding Kafka’s estate (he asked for his papers to be burnt, but Max Brod couldn’t bring himself to do it, and the legal wrangling is ongoing), and the Mormon forger Mark Hofmann.

He changes tack with “The Archive of the Penetralium of Mystery”, a study of literary estates more generally, and what value one should assign to early drafts that the author later discards. Gekoski begins by mentioning that the first line of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land was originally “First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place”. I’m sure he was thrilled by the publication of Eliot’s early notebook poetry as Inventions of the March Hare: I would be intrigued to know if he was as disappointed as many were. “The Great Omar” is almost the exact inverse of unpublished juvenilia: perhaps the most expensive, bejewelled book ever made, which went down with the Titanic.

Via an essay on Nazi art theft, focused on Guido Adler’s manuscript of Mahler’s song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen – which translates, ironically, as “I am Lost to the World” – Gekoski concludes with the library at Herculaneum destroyed when Vesuvius erupted, the looting of Iraqi museums and the failure of the US-led troops to protect cultural sites, the “Lost Kingdom of Benin”, how British imperialism both ransacked and erased African cultures, and finally the unrealised architectural projects of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

It’s a delightfully eclectic mix, made even more interesting by Gekoski’s willingness to countenance the idea that loss is not always a tragedy. In this respect he is particularly incisive on the Larkin diaries, and on the contentious role of museums in preserving artefacts from cultures others than the indigenous. Likewise, he is extremely cautious about assigning blame in the case of Clementine Churchill destroying the Sutherland portrait. The whole is enlivened by Geksoki’s trenchant asides. It’s not just because I agree with him that I admire his urbane turn of phrase married to outspoken judgement: “Most of Wordsworth is dross, Keats was still learning his trade, much of Shelley makes one cringe, Coleridge could be profitably condensed into twenty pages”.

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Having written about lost literature myself, I was fascinated by Gekoski’s more expansive frame of reference. It does seem, nevertheless, that there is a gap in the market for a work on lost music. By one estimate we only have one half of JS Bach’s output; there are lost operas by Handel (Nero, Daphne), Tchaikovsky (Undina), Monteverdi (Le Nozze de Titide, Andromeda) and even Scott Joplin (A Guest of Honour); and reconstructions have been made of works such as the tenth Beethoven symphony. Music is in some ways the most ephemeral form.

Whereas I used to fear loss per se, it now seems to me that a new form of loss is more palpable: loss by digital inundation. Gekoski ruminates on the idea that future biographers may have to read every tweet and text by Salman Rushdie.

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Against that backdrop, it is curious how frequently loss now figures as art. Jean Tinguely was making “auto-destructive” art in the 1960s. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is no less of a work of art for being invisible most of the time. Perhaps best of all is Robert Rauschenberg’s De Kooning Erased: Rauschenberg asked Willem de Kooning for a small work of art, which he then removed all trace of, leaving a blank sheet of paper, which was subsequently exhibited. It is now worth more than a de Kooning sketch.