Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Not burning manuscripts: Patrick White

Australia, on the whole, doesn’t seem to have a particularly rich history of book burning, at least in terms of well-publicised events or dramatic losses. Indeed, recent discoveries would seem to confirm that the most infamous burning of an author’s manuscripts, when Sydney literary agent Barbara Mobbs burnt the papers of Nobel laureate Patrick White in Centennial Park, is a furphy.
White himself is known to have had a bit of a taste for literary cleansing, destroying a selection when he moved from Castle Hill to Centennial Park in the 1960s. In 1977 he cheerfully responded to a request from the National Library of Australia with the comment “I can’t let you have my papers because I don’t keep any. My manuscripts are destroyed as soon as the book is published and I put very little into notebooks, don’t keep my friends’ letters as I urge them not to keep mine.”
David Marr has been the most prominent guardian of White’s heritage, and in a 2006 article he remembered how the writer had similarly informed him not to “bother hunting for drafts and manuscripts. They’ve all gone into the pit.” As a result, it came as a bit of a shock for Marr and other keen White-fanciers, when it was revealed that an immense hoard of papers had been offered to the National Library of Australia by none other than Mobbs herself (see David Marr, ‘Patrick White’s return from the pit,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November, 2006).
Although Mobbs did reveal that she had culled the papers, there were still no fewer than 33 archive boxes left, stuffed with notebooks, annotated correspondence, even his scruffy old beret. Mobbs told reporters: “I couldn’t burn them in a blue fit.”

Friday, August 22, 2008

Burning Books: Gleebooks

On Thursday, 25 September 2008, I will be in conversation with Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, at Gleebooks in Sydney. The event kicks off at 6.30 for 7, and reservations can be made on 9660 2333 (or see the link at right).

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Louvain: Furore teutonica diruta

One of the most infamous events of the First World War was the burning of the Library of Louvain during the German advance through Belgium in August 1914. During the 1920s the Library was painstakingly rebuilt through a combination of voluntary donations and restitutions made by Germany in fulfillment of part of their responsibilities in the Versailles Treaty.
A significant figure in this rebuilding was Cardinal Mercier, who lobbied hard, particularly in the United States. It was an American architect, Whitney Warren, who was awarded the design of the new library, and it was opened with some fanfare in July 1928. Although Warren’s design was applauded, one detail became a sticking point, an ornate balustrade that spelt out ‘Furore teutonica diruta, dono americano restituta’ (something like: “destroyed by Germanic fury, restored by American generosity”).
Although part of planning for the new library since its inception, and although the script was so baroque as to be almost unreadable, floods of protests were issued, as such a partisan statement began to be criticised by international players like President Hoover, the University’s Rector and even the Pope. Although Warren was adamant, the Rector had his way, removing the ornate balustrade and replacing it with wooden blanks in time for the opening ceremony. Now counter-protests began, among them one particularly stylish one by the former foreman of the library’s construction, one Edmond Felix Morren. With great dash, he climbed up on the roof and patiently broke every blank balustrade: hailed by police, he is said to have replied, “I am doing a job, and I am not quite finished.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Burning manuscripts: Sir Everard Home

Sir Richard Owen was one of the great names in natural history in the nineteenth century. As a young man he was appointed the assistant cataloguer of the famous Hunterian Collection, a collection of more than thirteen thousand anatomical specimens, purchased by the Crown on the death of their owner, the surgeon John Hunter (not to be confused with the naval officer of the same name who sailed on the First Fleet to Botany Bay). The Crown passed the Hunterian Collection to the Royal College, stipulating that the collection be made public, founding a lecture series and a small dedicated museum.
Owen's predecessor had been the surgeon Sir Everard Home, who had worked alongside Hunter (the men were brothers-in-law), and became caretaker to the whole estate. It quickly became apparent to Owen, however, that far from preserving Hunter's careful documentation of his extensive collection, the bulk of the manuscripts had been destroyed or lost, meaning that Owen had to effectively start from scratch before he could hope to produce a catalogue.
The story goes that the Hunterian collection was delivered to Home in 1800, in expectation that he would produce his own catalogue, but by 1818 all he had produced was a limited synopsis, while, at the same time, he had published a raft of essays over his own name. Things took a turn for the worst in July 1823 when he told a colleague that he had burned all of Hunter's papers: it had been Hunter's dying wish, he claimed in a later enquiry (although it was not quite so clear why he had taken thirty years to get around to it). Those with an incendiary bent may not be surprised to learn that it is now commonly held that Home had been systematically pillaging Hunter's own notes and publishing them over his own name, and that he had burned the evidence to avoid being caught out. Very few of Hunter's papers survived the blaze.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Burning manuscripts: Henry James

Henry James was not averse to firing up some of his own papers and manuscripts, and seemed to positively enjoy burning his correspondence (he talked with distaste about the ferreting of biographers, and in 1910 he wrote to Henry James III with the comment that his “sole wish is to frustrate as utterly as possible the post-mortem exploiter - which, I know, is but so imperfectly possible”).

It was something of a theme in his fiction as well, best seen in his short story Sir Dominick Ferrand, in which an enterprising young man hopes to turn a few dollars by selling the highly indiscreet papers of a public figure to some filthy boulevard paper. A moral looms, however, as the young man finds himself haunted and frustrated in love as he wrestles with the problem, until he finally relieves himself with an old-fashioned bonfire: “Baron went at the papers with all his sincerity, and at his empty grate (where there lately had been no fire and he had only to remove a horrible ornament of tissue-paper dear to Mrs. Bundy) he burned the collection with infinite method. It made him feel happier to watch the worst pages turn to illegible ashes - if happiness be the right word to apply to his sense, in the process, of something so crisp and crackling that it suggested the death-rustle of bank-notes.”