Books That Don't Exist
Posted 27 November 2008 in Books by Catriona
I’m not talking about books that seem to have existed once but have subsequently sunk without a trace, books that left some mark on the ephemera of the publishing industry—catalogues and advertisements—but don’t exist in libraries, of which Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won are perhaps the pre-eminent examples.
I’m not even talking about the fact that I sometimes have dreams in which I’m book shopping, but the books I buy then don’t exist anywhere in this world—sequels to books I love that have no sequels, or entirely imaginary volumes.
No, I’m not talking about those, though they’re closer to the truth.
I’m talking about books that have no existence except in other books.
Perhaps Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series provides the pre-eminent modern example of authors who do this.
(And, by the way, Mr Fforde? May we have another book, please? I’ve read all mine. Doesn’t have to be another Thursday Next, but another book would be grand. Ta!)
When Thursday is working as a Literary Detective for Spec Ops and, even more obviously, when she is working for Jurisfiction and moving in and out of The Well of Lost Plots, she deals regularly with books that don’t actually exist, as well as with ones that do.
Some of the ones she deals with don’t fill me with any inclination to read them, such as the unpublished manuscript “Cavendish Heights” or the fantasy novel that doubles as a menagerie, which off the top of my head I think is called Swords of Zenobia.
But some are more intriguing: I admit, I’d like to see what all the fuss is about with Daphne Farquitt’s novels (especially given how much they appeal to the lobsters)—although I suspect I’ve already read most of them in the guise of my disturbingly large number of Georgette Heyer novels.
But Fforde isn’t the only one.
I’ve recently been re-reading some Reginald Hill, specifically the inter-related Dialogues of the Dead and Death’s Jest-Book.
These two novels are intensely literary: with main characters who are academics, librarians, and novelists, they’re full of literary in-jokes and seemingly effortless quotations from obscure fiction that make me feel very poorly read indeed.
They also refer heavily to two authors whom I’ve never read: Heinrich Heine, the German Romantic, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes, the English Romantic.
Beddoes, I understand, is not terribly well read by anyone, so I don’t feel too guilty about not reading his masterpiece, Death’s Jest Book (despite completing an M.Phil. on the Romantic novel. I’m salving my conscience with the fact that Death’s Jest Book is actually a play.)
Heine, though, I probably should have read, since he’s significant to German Romanticism. Alas, I never got any further than Goethe.
But the books are also littered with fictional books, books that don’t exist: some are academic texts, like the two competing biographies of Beddoes that circulate through the sub-plots in Hill’s two novels, Dick Dee’s never-to-be-completed dictionary of dictionaries, or the translations of Heine’s poems on which novelist Charley Penn has been working for many years.
But some are fictional novels: specifically, Penn’s series of successful Harry Hacker novels, based partly on Heine. Though these have been adapted into Sunday night bodice-rippers—or what another character calls “claret and cleavage” television, which is my favourite description—the analysis of the novels themselves makes me desperate to read them: they’re described as “full of verbal wit, lots of good jokes, passages of exciting action, good but not overdone historical backgrounds, and strong plots which often include a clever puzzle element which Harry is instrumental in solving” (394). There’s also a supernatural element, through Harry’s doppelganger.
Harry is himself is said to be a blend of Heinrich Heine; Pechorin, the Byronic hero from Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero Of Our Time (1839, revised 1841); and the Scarlet Pimpernel, blended with Sherlock Holmes, Don Juan—“Byron’s rather than Mozart’s,” the woman outlining the novels insists—and Raffles, the gentleman thief (393).
Now who wouldn’t want to read those?
Except, of course, that they don’t exist. Which doesn’t seem fair, somehow.
Neither Fforde nor Hill are unique in this respect, of course. Volume four of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, for example, allows a glimpse at a shelf of never-written books in the Library of Dreams: books by Wodehouse (Psmith and Jeeves. Perhaps Jeeves has finally had enough of Wooster’s inanity?), by Dickens (The Return of Edwin Drood), by Tolkien (The Lost Road), by Conan Doyle (The Conscience of Sherlock Holmes), by Chesterton (The Man Who Was October).
Also on this shelf are two imaginary books that I am desperate to read: The Dark God’s Darling by Lord Dunsany and Alice’s Journey Behind The Moon by Lewis Carroll. The others I can take or leave, but I’m quite frustrated by the fact that those two don’t actually exist.
There’s no rhyme or reason to this post: just frustration.
Taunting your loyal readers with books that sound fascinating but that they’re never going to be able to read is too easy to be sport.
(All quotes from Dialogues of the Dead from the 2003 Avon paperback.)