Augustus Young       light verse, poetry and prose
a webzine of new and unpublished work


A ‘lost’ story by Raymond Queneau

MG had difficulty getting an entry card to the National Library. He had no letters after his name, or letters of introduction. But he saw it as his last resort to make something of his writing, having tried everything else with no success. His application had not been even acknowledged. All summer he waited for the post and, just as he was becoming resigned to dogging on alone, an official letter arrived offering him a place if he registered for a course on the classification of burial inscriptions.

He presented himself at the reading room, and found a seat where he could observe the workings of this vast assembly line for learning. He saw that everything revolved around the catalogues. Readers made a beeline for them, thumbed through the cards, scribbled something, handed it in at the desk, sat down and the books arrived. He decided to get to know the system.

The index of author names drew him to his own. He was amazement to find it in file 48, not only his name but also the titles of his three published pamphlets. Seeing the World Without Newton, Lyon (1841), The Sky Is the Limit, Lyon (1843), and The Newtonian Dark Age and the Void of Truth, Caen (1859). Hitherto his searches in dictionaries and learned journals had come up with nothing.

He requested copies and in less than an hour the library assistant brought three tracts black with dust. The pages were uncut.  His joy fell to earth. He remembered their creation: burning the midnight oil on his holidays in Lyon and Caen, inspired by moments of genius, the rage for expression, the ardour of enthusiasm oblivious to the outside world. Then the pride of publication, and afterwards the deadly silence, not a word from anyone. And now the one record of their external life confirmed the worst. Nobody had troubled to read them.

His first reaction was to wish he was as dead as his writings. But since they hadn’t an existence in the minds of others, his death wouldn’t mean anything. It couldn’t even be a literary suicide, as without a reputation it wasn’t in his gift to commit one. He left the library in despair, and wandered the streets all night thinking of what was to be done. The cul-de-sacs of Paris all echoed the same counsel. Nothing.

Next morning he returned to the library to watch and wait. Over several weeks he became expert at knowing what everybody was reading. He learned to be unobtrusive, and read upside down and backwards what was tabled. Soon he was intimate with the intellectual life of, say, that one-legged gentleman with the beard, or the pretty blond girl. Their respective delvings into the death of Louis XVI and Jansenism gained his complicity but did nothing for his case, until he fixed his interest on an erudite scholar whose investigation into nineteenth century French writers was informed by a relentless determination. The scope and depth of his researches lacked a perceptible purpose. It seemed to him like a random plunge into the unknown.   

MG’s spying became personal. The erudite didn’t seem to have any other life. Even the way he dressed accommodated to his reading. A short sleeved jacket to facilitate turning pages, gloves to keep his hands clean. He had no friends amongst the readers, and lodged in rooms with service where the lights went out exactly at midnight.

One evening as the library closed they exchanged nods and MG was emboldened to talk to him. The erudite divulged that the object of his excavations was to compile a compendium of unsung French writers of the nineteenth century. His probings in dark corners had already filled a quarto of over five hundred sheets.     

‘Do you know MG?’, MG said, and rolled off the titles of the pamphlets. The erudite murmured an interest. So he wrote them down, spelling out his name in block capitals. For the next few days he was walking on air, and avoided the library to give the erudite a chance to read his work. On their next encounter, the erudite asked for the name again. ‘I lost the slip of paper’, he explained.

MG returned a few days later and the erudite waved to him. ‘I’ve consecrated four pages to your man. I’m indebted to you.’ Renewed joy took hold of MG. He was not going to be merely a citation in the National Library. He would have an afterlife, inscribed in a magisterial tome. And live forever. Or as long as books exist. He was carried away by the prospect of surviving hundreds, even thousands of years like the Greeks. It made him feel part of a civilisation that could possibly outlive others. Those, for instance, imprinted on poorer quality parchment than a prestigious folio. It was conceivable that his would end up the only written record extant. Why not? After all we are only paper. His joy knew no bounds.

They spoke from time to time and the book’s progress was assured. ‘Just a few more touches.’ However, one day his erudite did not turn up, and MG called at his lodging house to be told he had retired to the country in the environs of Paris. The concierge confided that on the way to the printers the manuscript had been lost and in disgust the erudite had given up all further work.

MG paid him a visit. But there was no way that he could be encouraged to start again. As the possibility of living on in the minds of men receded, MG’s joy was replaced by a terrible rage at the inevitability of the total extinction of his life and work. The rage gripped him with such a force that it could only be appeased by strangling the erudite. His last hope dead, the dissipation of MG commenced, a scattering into the air, which evaporated drop by drop until nothing remained. Phantoms don’t have phantoms. (That’s for sure.)