The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure
A signal event of literary scholarship, The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure by C.D. Rose compiles the biographies of history’s most notable cases of a complete lack of literary success. As such, it is the world’s leading authority on the subject. We offer you, gentle reader, the following extract …
No. 1: Casimir Adamowitz-Kostrowiki
Think, if you will, of Kafka asking Max Brod and Dora Diamant to burn all his papers when he eventually succumbed to the TB that had been slowly killing him for years. Think of Virgil, weak with fever and unable to put the finishing marks on his Aeneid, arriving in the harbour at Brindisi and asking that his work be destroyed rather than left unfinished. Think of Lavinia Dickinson, who did not burn her sister’s poems. And now think of Casimir Adamowitz-Kostrowicki.
You cannot, of course, because unlike Franz Kafka, Publius Vergilius Maro and Emily Dickinson, Casimir Adamowitz-Kostrowicki had a friend faithless enough to obey his dying wishes.
We cannot think of Adamowitz-Kostrowicki because we know nothing of him, but imagine if Kafka’s best friend and his lover had done what was bid of them, if Virgil’s scribes hadn’t had the emperor Augustus telling them what not to do and if Lavinia had not been so wily in inter- preting her sister’s will and burned the poems as well as the letters, which she did destroy.
This, too, is almost impossible, as you are being asked to imagine what is not, rather than what could have been. Imagine a void; imagine blankness. Imagine a literary world—or, indeed, any world—which has not in some sense been shaped by Kafka’s dark fables, Virgil’s Roman epic and Dickinson’s poetic invention. We cannot know, of course, but it is possible that Adamowitz-Kostrowicki’s work would have had a comparable influence on the way we interpret the world around us.
Casimir Adamowitz-Kostrowicki was born to a Polish father and American mother in Paris in 1880, initially trained to be a chemist but was soon distracted by the emergent technologies of film, photography and sound recording. These pursuits led him to frequent more bohemian circles and attempt to record and portray some of the people he admired most: Picassoand Apollinaire, Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis and the young T. S. Eliot.
Inspired by their example, Adamowitz-Kostrowicki be- gan to write and showed his work to many of his subjects, who all responded with enthusiasm. However, he refused to allow anything to be published, claiming his greatest work was yet to be completed. In 1914, he volunteered, joined a French artillery battalion and left a suitcase containing all of his writings with his closest friend, Eric Levallois. Adamowitz-Kostrowicki firmly instructed his friend that were he not to return, Levallois should destroy the entire contents of the case, including his magnum opus—the first great modern novel—L’homme avec les mains fleuries. This, it is said, was a work which would have overshadowed La Recherche, made The Man Without Qualities look as dull as its title, dwarf Ulysses in its range and scope, renderTo the Lighthouse small and parochial.
By 1918, Levallois had not heard a word from his friend and, desolate, built a small bonfire on the street outside his Montmartre home. Passers-by thought he was celebrating the end of the war.
(Unknown to Levallois, Adamowitz-Kostrowicki had not perished at the front but had been badly shellshocked and did indeed return to Paris that very week, and may have even been trying to visit his friend, but a horse, spooked by fireworks set off as part of the festivities, bolted and trampled him to death.)
So think again of Kafka and Virgil and Dickinson, and think of how we cannot know what has been lost, not only from an unfortunate like Adamowitz-Kostrowicki, but from those dozens or hundreds or thousands whose work has been lost to fire or flood, to early death, to loss, to theft or to the censor’s pyre. What has been lost that could have bettered us all?
The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure is out now from Melville House.