In 2015, a German graduate student was in a Zurich basement going through the archives of Emil Oprecht, founder of the Europa publishing house, when he came across a faded carbon copy of a manuscript titled Rubaschow. Below this was the author’s name: A. Koestler.
The pages turned out to contain Arthur Koestler’s original German text of Darkness at Noon, the feted novel that went behind the scenes of the Soviet Union’s Stalinist show trials and purges. So far, the only version of the novel was the English translation by Koestler’s girlfriend, the sculptor Daphne Hardy. She had hastily carried this out in 1940, just after Koestler finished writing it. It was completed days before the couple fled Paris to escape the arrival of the Nazis. Hardy mailed her translation to Jonathan Cape in London, while Koestler sent his copy to his German publisher in Switzerland. In the chaos of war, the original text was lost, and its carbon copy was untraceable, which meant that Hardy’s English version was the only text that survived.
“Much brighter light”
The copy discovered in Zurich, in a fresh English translation by Philip Boehm, has just been published. (The earlier manuscript title was the German spelling of Rubashov, the novel’s protagonist, a figure portrayed as convicted for letting humanity come in the way of ideology.) According to Koestler’s biographer Michael Scammell, “the effect for the reader is of chancing upon a familiar painting that has had layers of varnish and dust removed to reveal images and colours in a much brighter light”.
Darkness at Noon thus joins the list of works whose manuscripts, believed to have been lost, have suddenly been brought to light again. One can only imagine the excitement of those who chance upon such misplaced treasures.
At times, these discoveries are entirely serendipitous. In 1920, Pyarelal Nair, Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary and biographer, was rummaging through a stack of papers at Sabarmati Ashram when he discovered pages that comprise what could be the first book that Gandhi ever wrote. This was his Guide to London, written in 1893, shortly after he had returned to India from University College.
It was later published as a part of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, and contains a wealth of fascinating, if sometimes quirky, advice for Indian students going to London for the first time. Mother-of-pearl collar studs, merino wool socks and Turkish caps are among the clothes suggested; the virtues of oatmeal porridge are extolled; and for the ship’s voyage, stores of jalebi, halva, and ganthia are recommended.
The year 2015 was especially productive for archivists and literary scholars of all stripes. Darkness at Noon apart, there were a number of other manuscripts unearthed. Among them were some pieces of Charlotte Bronte’s youthful writings, Dr Seuss’ What Pet Should I Get? and Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, which turned out to be a disappointment. Going further back in time, the same year saw the discovery of a four-century old Egyptian leather manuscript on the dusty back-shelves of the Cairo Museum, as well as parchment leaves in a Birmingham museum that are believed to be among the oldest fragments of the Qur'an.
This year, however, is also looking promising. A previously unknown 17th century manuscript by Enlightenment thinker John Locke promoting the virtues of religious toleration turned up in St John’s College, Annapolis, and some vellum sheets from a 15th-century Irish translation of a Persian medical text by Ibn Sina were found in a home in Cornwall. Fittingly enough for our times, both documents shun parochialism.
These found manuscripts throw into sharp relief the vast number that are lost. There are no known copies, for example, of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Won, allegedly a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost. Cardenio, another play jointly attributed to Shakespeare and John Fletcher, and based on a character in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, is similarly undiscovered.
The original Sanskrit version of the Panchatantra; the plays of Aeschylus; the writings of Aristotle; the poems of Sappho; the Sibylline Books of the Romans; the last works of Walter Benjamin and Bruno Schulz: all of these and more have vanished. Sometimes it looks like the manuscripts that have survived are but a small fraction of those that have disintegrated. Perhaps, though, they’re still out there somewhere, lying on dusty, forgotten shelves or buried in dreary desert sands, waiting to be picked up and pored over once again.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
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