The premise of the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic's genre-blending collection The Loss Library sounds fairly simple at first - to write a personal book about the stories he could not write, with thoughts on what prevented him.
In theory, this book would be perhaps 50 per cent creative non-fiction, an autobiographical look back through old notebooks that form, among other things, a chronicle of the writer's past ambitions. Fiction could be included by giving readers snippets of the unfinished stories, which Vladislavic does, and if the book sheds new light on the modern writer's craft and avoids looking like a bunch of old fragments published for fun or profit, it might yield good results.
It's a task only a seasoned writer could manage without boring readers, and Vladislavic's success with it makes this short book rather remarkable. His work to date includes novels, The Restless Supermarket (2001), The Exploded View (2004), and The Folly (1993), several short story collections, including Missing Persons (1989), and a celebrated work of nonfiction, Portrait With Keys (2006).
His reputation has been growing steadily and The Loss Library, filled with choice aphorisms about the writing life, is more than a charming account of artistic failure. It's worldly, erudite and funny as it liberally gathers in tropes from the magazine essay, the writer's diary, and the academic thesis to create a philosophical fiction of hope about literature. In its way, it even overlaps at the edges with the abstract, experimental fiction of the Australian writer Gerald Murnane.
Technically playful, Vladislavic employs formal devices like a foreword, afterword, footnotes, and epilogues to append humour or strange facts to each chapter. This adds to the curatorial tone, which is apt since he says he's tried to create a delicate "leporello" from a mountain of raw material. "There were hundreds of failed stories to choose from," he says, then adds humbly that this doesn't make him unique. "Presumably most writers have many more ideas than they are able to act on, and the number of stillborn schemes and incomplete drafts in my files is not unusual."
There's diversity among the failed story ideas, or "unsettled accounts", he's chosen to present: a married couple on a herpetological expedition to the Lesser Sunda Islands, an Oulipo-inspired novella based on the number 12 with 12 chapters of 12 paragraphs and 12-word sentences, "a story built around a series of friezes", a woman who's too distracted by the Cartoon Network to finish her novel, and a story about "the menagerie of creatures seen only in the dictionary". Each piece is also accompanied by one of Sunandini Banerjee's fine illustrations that parallels the gloom or whimsy of the topic.
The topics serve as entry points to more serious digressions that slowly and carefully twine around the themes of loss and absence in art. In the introduction, Vladislavic recounts a few key historical events that took place during the years he failed to write these eleven pieces. For a time, he says he imagined himself to be "some sort of historian". But violent incidents in history seem to act upon him like an enervating force. Rather than inspiring, they cause despondency. He notes for instance that among other major political upheavals that have taken place during his lifetime, "the four years between February 1990 and April 1994, when the historic first democratic elections took place (in South Africa), some fifteen thousand people died in political conflict". He later addresses genocide, colonialism and racism in different forms through history as they affect the course of human life and art.