The allure of the uncompleted work seems to have a permanent fix on the literary imaginary, from Kafka to Borges and Calvino and beyond. What happens to stories when they go missing or remain unrecorded, seemingly lost forever? If there is something terminally tragic about the loss of stories, perhaps caught in purgatory or some lowly circle of hell, there is also the aperture that appears after their unceremonious exit. If writers can manage to lose stories, abandon them, forget them, carelessly give them away in casual conversation, could they then not evoke some kind of spectral stories that stand in their place, meditating about what went wrong, filling part of the void?
Perhaps answering this age-old call, the inventive Ivan Vladislavic offers a sensitive collection of personal “notes” that “deal with unsettled accounts”, of “stories imagined” that could not be written (7). Eleven “case studies”, “indefensibly” arranged, come from Vladislavic’s notebooks of the past twenty years, joining “ideas for stories and notes on why these stories remain incomplete” (8).
Apart from the fact that the choice of eleven stories speaks to a seeming “randomness” and lack of order, the decision to include eleven stories can be read as a sly signifier of the “organised chaos” of the collection and the writing process as a whole, while gesturing towards the doubling or palindromic quality inherent in his work here. The decision to place the short story “The Loss Library” at the centre dispels any impression of a haphazard organisation of content, and readers cannot but be aware of the sleight of hand involved in putting such a collection together.
The first story we encounter is “The Last Walk”, a most memorable prose piece where the writer cleverly chooses to introduce readers to another writer, the Swiss author Robert Walser. While giving brief but haunting details of Walser’s life and the last moments before his death, Vladislavic relates how he came across a photograph of Walser’s body and how the photograph touched him, without having read his work.
This anecdote is the off-ramp to Vladislavic’s desire to “write a story about the last days of a writer”, and how his preoccupation with hats – signifying an almost ineffable expression of charatcer, mortality and fallibility – leads him to eventually discover details that alter his perception of Walser’s dying moments.
“The Last Walk” is a canny choice to open the collection. Evocative, surefooted, questing and humane, it concretises so many of the collection’s preoccupations: the mortality of the author and limits of perception and expression that embody the author figure and the creative process; the immense power of the creative imagination and the concurrent lack of control and finality that shadows the literary; the various constraints and possibilities that history and photography offer; and the powerful influence of chronology, space and time in the way that stories are brought to life.
Following in the probing footsteps of “The Last Walk”, before we get to the collection’s eponymous centrepiece and undoubted triumph, are “Mrs B”, “Gross”, “Acrobats” and “Frieze”. Among the stories and conceits taken in by Vladislavic and then abandoned here are those of the wife and travelling companion of an American naturalist and a book-collector that falls in love with an imaginary woman (“Mrs B”); the “grand concept” of writing a novella in 144 paragraphs of 144 words and the derivations of the word “gross” (“Gross”); the question of literary influence and quotation, a writer’s necessary apprenticeship, and the sequential paradoxes of writing (“Acrobats”); and the diversion and excess of ideas difficult to circumscribe.
While I have delineated only a minute number of the thematic and formal preoccupations addressed in this first half of the book, it is impossible to miss the artful and ingenious ways in which Vladislavic goes about revealing some of the facets of his literary practice and art in general. The aforementioned stories may seem diverse, and they are, but more importantly, they speak to a collective belief in the sacrosanct characteristic of good art: the border-crossing, revelatory power that enables both introspection and intimate connections between elements, objects and life forms.
The beating heart of Vladislavic’s latest work is unquestionably “The Loss Library”. A colossal affirmation of the importance of literature and the dexterity that the short story allows (despite its formal restriction), Vladislavic’s story about stories lost and forgotten is so utterly captivating, clever and charming that we might momentarily lose sight of the loss of unmentionable great works. It is here that we encounter playful, self-reflexive references to writers ranging from Joyce to Borges and Kafka, and Vladislavic adds to the delightful literariness of “The Loss Library” by referencing unknown writers such as Schuitevoerder, the Frisian modernist.
With reasons for stories’ not being completed or published ranging from disease and death to duels and “lost faith”, Vladislavic offers a wistful, moving tribute to writers and works from the past while also knowingly offering that writers will “steal the life story off the lips of a dying man” (61). Writing is thus figured as give-and-take, where the rules of the game are often unwritten, where windows open just as quickly as doors close, where some gambles pay off and others fade into obscurity.
The remaining five pieces, “Gravity Addict”, “Mouse Drawing”, “Dictionary Birds”, “Dr T” and “The Cold Storage Club”, feature libraries, research papers and dictionaries. Along with the “means to read and write – or not read and not write – books” (9) these stories all animate and fortify the assertion that “all fiction is the factual refracted” (31), that writers such as Vladislavic take on the “responsibility” of moulding the familiar and recognisable into something more obscure or tangential.
As the mantle of authorship allows the writer to walk the domains of the real and symbolic as an “earthbound angel of history” (52), forever mindful of past, present and future, The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories is at pains to remind readers that “[i]n our world, the labyrinthine world of the flesh, actions are endless, their consequences continue to unwind long after their subjects have turned to dust” (67).
If writers are to become immortal through their work, readers must heed the implicit injunction to “breathe air into frostbitten pages”, to “pluck entombed writer[s] from beneath the ruins of a paper inheritance years after the event” (98). It is because “small miracles” do exist that “words on a page make all things possible” (98).
More than ever before, Vladislavic’s collection of beautifully crafted, gentle insights sees the writer at his most philosophical. Deliberately opaque at some points, brutally frank in others, this collection is always poignant, ever accessible, its anecdotal storytelling and phrasemaking fascinating and fully realised. It is all but unmissable.