Ivan Vladislavić is one of South Africa's finest contemporary writers. His latest offering is a most unusual book about some of the most unusual stories: those which have never seen the light of a published page, at least not in their initially intended form.
The Loss Library comprises of eleven "case studies" of "unsettled accounts" from "three distinct periods". The first is the time of the transition between 1989 and 1992 when Vladislavić, like most authors in the country, felt more like a historian than a writer. The second and third periods, the years between 1996-99 and 2004-05, are characterised by Vladislavić's fascination with the act of documentation itself: "They feature libraries, research papers and dictionaries, and the means to read and write - or not to read and write - books."
The Loss Library is an invitation to watch a great writer at work. In the book we not only accompany Vladislavić on a trip through his notebooks but also through the vast spaces of his imagination. It is obviously impossible to tell it all, but the glimpses Vladislavić offers into the creative process are highly engaging.
At the centre of the book is the "loss library" of the titular story, one of the most evocative and beautiful accounts of writing and loss I have ever read. A writer follows a librarian into rooms filled with books which could have been. There are the "ones that would have been written had their writers not died young" like the "mature work" of John Keats or Bruno Schulz - the idea alone makes one's heart ache. Just imagine being able only to trace the spine of one of these volumes with your fingertip.
Thou still unravished bride of quietness...
Then there are the books which "authors lost faith in", or which were "lost for one reason or another", or the ones which never went beyond their existence in the dreams of their creators. The books must remain on their shelves, unopened, as the consequence of their being known or read are unpredictable. But just thinking about the possibilities makes one feel dizzy with the kind of anticipation which can never be fulfilled.
The Loss Library will appeal to any reader with a sense of adventure and eagerness to explore the craft of writing. Readers familiar with Vladislavić's oeuvre will discover an indispensible companion to his own work - I couldn't help thinking, for example, how the accounts "The Last Walk" or "Mrs B" enriched my reading of Vladislavić's last novel Double Negative (2010) as they also explore the unsettling role images play in our construction and understanding of history.
In some of the accounts Vladislavić also makes explicit references to the genesis of some of the elements in his other published novels and short stories. And throughout the book he tells the stories of the stories he never told the way he imagined he would: about an accidental drawing he discovered under his computer mouse which haunted him for days, or about a mysterious sign on the roof of a building which prodded a whole series of imaginary and real investigations, or about the search for bird names in their "linguistic habitat", the dictionary, with Vladislavić "crashing through the pages in [...his] city clothes."
Slim, beautifully produced (striking cover illustration by Sunandini Banerjee; text design by a master of his craft, William Dicey), The Loss Library is a monument to all (un)written stories. Those readers who not only delight in their reception, but are also its practitioners might sigh with deep relief for the articulation of an experience which is essential to the art, but often seems too fleeting to be captured in words.
The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories
by Ivan Vladislavić
Cape Town: Umuzi, 2011
archive - issue 14