Over the past century a important minority of writers have turned their minds to the philosophy of literature itself, or even simply of books — Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 short story “The Library of Babel” (La biblioteca de Babel), a fascinating yet haunting evocation of an infinite library of all possible books created from random permutations and combinations of letters and punctuation marks, springs most readily to mind.
Johannesburg novelist Ivan Vladislavic’s recent collection of memoirs and anecdotes, The Loss Library (Umuzi, 2011) focuses on the notion of lost texts: of stories that were abandoned, misplaced, or forgotten by their authors. But it also deals with the limitations of the all-too-human author in grappling with mortality, uncertainty, and the half-deliberate, half-utterly-uncontrollable process of creation, as well as the writer’s role as a re-shaper of existing reality. “All fiction is the factual refracted,” he writes.
Jonathan Amid reviews the book on LitNet:
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”. 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.