In his recent blend of fiction, essays, and literary genealogy, The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories, South African writer Ivan Vladislavic delves into the dazzling enigmas of unwritten work. He draws from his personal notebooks over the past two decades and uses writer’s block, the writer’s ultimate pestilence, as a source for inspiration. This book is short, sweet and thought provoking, a morsel of prose that weaves around itself like a jazz melody on its way to nowhere, contemplating the craft.
The sole completed short story of the collection, “The Loss Library,” is undoubtedly the book’s crowning gem. In it, the hapless protagonist explores, as the title suggests, a library of unpublished works by both nameless writers and great icons of literature. Vladislavic’s postmodern tone stirs fantasy into history. The story’s use of double coding, pensive sarcasm, and irony slathered generously across its syntax allow his voice to be simultaneously scathing and pleasurable.
Through the voice of the Loss Library’s sexy but hard-as-nails librarian, Vladislavic pokes fun at himself and the miscellaneous explorations that hold this short story up on both sides like book ends. He writes:
“All the books in our library are lost in their own way,” she says, “but the sorriest of all, in my opinion are those that were talked away by their authors…writers have big ears and long fingers. They’ll steal the life story off the lips of a dying man.”
Indeed, many of Vladislavic’s incomplete stories suffered from exactly these fates. He talked of his inspiration until it proved less lustrous than he once imagined, and it died on the page. Or he sought inspiration from historic images of dead writers and explorers but failed to capture their lives in fiction.
The true genius of Vladislavic’s collection is his omniscient self-awareness. Whether the work is literary criticism, essay, or fiction, his dual voices, both writer and reader, come through as a layered whisper, providing significance through context. This gives the words room to drift into sheer, aimless beauty. In the text he confesses: “Not writing is always a relief and sometimes a pleasure. Writing about what cannot be written…is the devil’s own job.”
Several of Vladislavic’s essays divulge the mechanisms of writing exercises and his own lineage of influences, but he concludes that the writer should not preoccupy himself too much with either. They are merely tools because “in the thickets of language every creature is wild.”
Most notably, this blended collection casts penetrating light on the relationship between word and image. In it Vladislavic chronicles his meditation on historic photographs from all over the world. He writes that the purpose of photographs in fiction “is less to define than too disrupt, to create ripples and falls in the beguiling flow of prose.”
The images that inspire Vladislavic the most reveal racism, prejudice, cruelty and death. As a white South African writer his own personal history complicates his experience of such images. Yet Vladislavic’s contemplations of death and legacy retain their weight while being endearingly cheeky. For example, while dwelling on one image of a writer’s corpse Vladislavic notes:
But he is not standing up, he is lying there supine, with his head bared and his hat titled on its brim, and nothing expresses the fact that he is dead more coldly than the space between the two…I want to write a story about the last days of a writer but I am preoccupied with hats.
He then proceeds to contemplate hats in historic photographs of gruesome violence and genocide. Vladislavic allows himself to ask all the rhetorical questions of these accessories that would have been overwhelming to demand from the helpless corpses.
History—as viewed from the present—further unveils the depths of creativity inside Vladislavic’s writer’s block. He condemns the ignorance and racism the above-mentioned photographs reveal. But Vladislavic cannot release himself to write an incriminating narrative from their subjects. He concludes: “What could be easier than judging our predecessors for the attitudes we no longer share with them?… The past is a sitting duck. Bringing it home for the pot does the writer no credit.”
Instead Vladislavic interweaves this narration with his own experiences at Germany’s monuments to Holocaust victims. After scrutinizing his memories, Vladislavic describes his struggle to write about the present with future’s foresight during seasons of political change in South Africa. “I saw myself walking backwards into the future,” he writes, “stumbling through thickets of interpretation.”
The book then ends as it began, with an unabashed admittance of eagerness in the place a climax might have been. Yet for book lovers and prose addicts this sort of ending proves even more satisfying than a conclusion. The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories is the ace that writers have long needed to keep for their back pockets. It offers all the inspiration and camaraderie a writer craves on nights when the wind blows eloquence just out of reach.