There is the stuff of the past: objects, images, memories, places, writings, ruins, bones. And then there is what we do with it: sort it into archives, museums, libraries, websites; burn it, hide it away, share it or die with it, make a memorial to it, tell its stories far and wide. “In the end, all that remains is simply whatever is left,” writes Judith Schalansky in the preface to her collection An Inventory of Losses, translated from German by Jackie Smith. Of course, Schalanksy knows that what’s left is much more complicated; an object’s eternal resonance depends on whether it lands in friendly or hostile hands, on whether and how we choose to carry it forward.
An Inventory of Losses seeks to breathe new life into buildings, beings, and places that have faded from the collective consciousness, leaving only the faintest of traces behind. Schalansky opens each of the book’s 12 stories with a historical prelude outlining the knowns and, more commonly, the unknowns of the subject at hand. From there she launches into an exposition sometimes only faintly connected to the ostensible subject. Genre is the dealer’s choice; she oscillates between (possibly) personal anecdotes, historical fiction, nature writing, and more academic essaying. What results is a simmering free-association excursion through time and space, loosely following the scent of recollection or the ghosts of the archives. As in memory itself, Schalanksy fills the gaps left between data points with emotion, speculation, or pure fantasy.
A mansion built in 17th-century Rome and demolished by the mid-1800s, for example, provides an opportunity to meditate on the perpetual allure of ruins. Artists visit Rome to see the ruins, she writes, revering them “like relics” and “hoping for their resurrection, insatiably enraptured by lost splendor.” Because “something is always missing,” the process of viewing a ruin is a generative act in and of itself. “The eye sees, the mind completes: fragments become buildings, the deeds of the dead spring to life, more glorious and perfect than ever.” But the experience is not universal: “no barrier separates the ruins from the miserable working lives of their occupants, who do not stand in awe, but live as they would anywhere else.” At its heart, the story looks at a city “stuck between ages” and considers how people live with and make sense of the remnants of the past.
Such a fertile and intriguing conceit (Resurrection! The unearthing and naming of what’s vanished!) can leave something to be desired in practice. The writing is rich, well-researched, and imaginative, but often lacks the narrative thrust that gives a story momentum. Reading An Inventory cover to cover is to succumb to a sense of disorientation. But then isn’t that the very nature of lost things — to be wrenched from their contexts, their stories set adrift?
“Guericke’s Unicorn” begins with the physicist Otto von Guericke, who allegedly “discovered” a unicorn skeleton in the 1600s. The ensuing story follows the narrator’s stay at a chalet in an Alpine hamlet, where she travels with the goal of researching and writing a “guide to monsters” that would “categorize their nature, their physical features, their ancestral habitats and individual behavior.” After a few monotonous, contemplative days consisting of long walks and studying, she is disappointed to discover that mythical beasts from around the globe cease to surprise her. “The similarities were all too obvious: each new story soon turned out to be an amalgamation of old familiar set pieces.” Searching for something extraordinary in the past, she returns again and again to the mundane, finding that “real life was considerably more eccentric than fiction.” She spends the rest of her time chronicling her hiking in the woods and exploring the local town, interspersed with musings on time and dreams and magic. The closest she comes to a unicorn is a tattoo on a shopkeeper’s wrist.
In the final and most touching piece, a man becomes obsessed with the moon and travels to it to manage an exhaustive archive of human civilization housed there. But the imperfect systems of humankind follow him. Just as on Earth, squabbles erupt over methodology and power; “Periods of deliberate neglect were followed by spells of excessive concern.” Overwhelmed and dispirited, he opts to save only the artifacts that reference the moon in his “Lunarium.” Ironically, he feels even more distanced from the moon he had once admired from afar: “the object of my highest admiration had become for me one of the daily chores, and the radiant future had faded away into an inaccessible past. Only the present, the tender blossom of the moment, had always contrived to hide itself from me.” In this bittersweet conclusion we’re reminded that the present is meant to be experienced, not just cataloged.
The collection introduces us to a lineage of idealistic archivists, their projects doomed from inception. Even if recording of all history was possible, information would be obscured by sheer vastness. What is notoriety if everything is notable, what is fame if all achieve it, what is truly remembered if everything is saved? As I was reading, I kept coming back to a question of curation; why should we care about this specific set of objects, places, and things, when around the world innumerable others have been lost, are being lost this very moment, never to return? How are we to choose what is kept, what is mourned?
Fiona Bell, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, commented on the experience of reading An Inventory during COVID-19, during a moment (like many other moments in history) in which the stakes of preservation feel particularly high. “With these catastrophic losses in mind — along with the ongoing potential for even more death — it’s hard to take seriously the loss of a 1919 silent film or the demolition of a building in East Berlin,” she writes. It’s a very fair point. While I don’t think it’s the job of all literature to drown in the misery of the moment, it’s difficult to read this book and not ask “why these?” But just as the collection proves the failure to preserve, it also proves the potential of creating something new from the rubble.
An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky (2021) is published by New Directions and is available online and in bookstores.