Before the Age of Xerox, there was little save the infernal bother of carbon paper a prudent writer could do to protect his work in progress against calamity. He could only pray his manuscript would reach the typsetter without incident. Those who have not been so fortunate know that the loss of a work of years and years is something akin to amnesia. It is as if one's idenity has been vaporized. Worse yet, there are no credible witnesses to what was. The manuscript is like the fish that got away -- it was this long, I swear -- and all that remain are the patronizing nods of dubious friends.
Such a nightmare drives Julian Gloag's new novel. Paul Molphey, a lonely schoolmaster in a tiny hamlet in Burgundy, has endured a lifetime of loss, rejection and betrayal. He is a stoic by default, enduring his misfortune by summoning kinder memories and rehearsing familiar dreams. He is obsessed by another life -- his own -- that never seemed to happen.
Paul Molphey's wife has been gone for 27 years; her parents still live in the village, but they won't say what's become of her. Paul has raised twin daughters himself, and then seen them leave too; one to the refuge of a convent and the other to the escape of wandering. Paul's only human contact is a mostly silent companionship with the village priest, Morine, but he too flees under circumstances of horror and shame that, true to luckless form, seem to rub off on Paul.
With his peculiar walk -- an attack of infantile paralysis has left him with a bad limp -- his perfunctory manner and his mysterious past, Molphey feels an outcast in the village, "peered at all the time by hidden eyes. The watchers -- and the listeners -- were everywhere in the village, and no news, however ghastly, no tale of disaster or disgrace ever seemed to come as a surprise. The body of the [village] had some kind of preternatural sense of evil in its members and took a veiled but savage delight in their wounds. Death and infidelity, drunkenness, bestiality, improverishment, suicide, murder -- all these were its cruel food."
And all of this heaped on the original cruelty: the loss of the single manuscript of "Signals of a New World," Paul's book-length vision of hope and renewal set in a village in immediate postwar France, vanished in the checkroom of the Gare de Lyon 30 years before. He can remember only the opening sentence and a fragment of the second one. The rest has left him, and it might as well never have existed. Only his friend Morine had read it, and he is gone too. Yet even if he could find Morine again to help him reconstruct the tale, he realizes that that would be "a confession that he, Paul, had lost, not just the words, but the spirit, the particular vision, that he had lost his youth."
Gloag is known for writing novels of suspense. "Lost and Found" becomes that in due course, when Paul Molphey and "Signals of a New World" meet again. But in taking his time, Gloag whets a more singular and sophisticated appetite for revelation. He is portraying the artist as a young man, and then the artist-who-might-have-been mournfully coming to terms with a life foisted upon him.
One dimension of this portrait -- and one reward of this book -- is Gloag's keen appraisal of Frensh village life. The social conventions of peasant and bourgeois alike, the contours of eccentricity and the stings of ostracism, the tensions of family honor and patriotic pride, the rituals of hunting and courtship, the lure of Paris -- all give "Lost and Found" its color and texture. Gloag's village priests, Morine and his irreverent successor, are especially memorable figures. Much food is mouth-wateringly consumed in these pages, and a staggering amount of the local firewater called marc is guzzled to soothe troubled souls. Even Gloag's language resonates with French ("You mustn't disarrange me," for instance, or "the children who had recommenced their play"). No wonder. The book jacket tells us he writes, at least part of the time, in a farmhouse in Burgundy.
What Molphe has "lost" is Gloag's real subject matter; what Molphe has "found," however, is neither very plain nor very plausible. If Paul Molphey can endure what he has endured and still "keep some secret part untouched and still and listening -- not listening for death in the dark but for good news in the daylight," then anyone can. But the despair and obsession Gloag has worked so diligently and effectively to convey for 200 pages is not easily forgotten when he assures us that tomorrow is another day. It may just be that happy endings, even when they're whispered, are never easy to trust.