Chekhov once wrote that you need to be a god to distinguish success from failure in life without making a mistake. While none of the 52 writers in C.D. Rose’s invaluable book is a household name, to read of how much Lysva Vilikhe, Edward Nash and so many others sacrificed for their art is to come away wishing they could be as famous as Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. Nonetheless, because of personal misfortune or the vicissitudes of publishing, little — if any — of their work remains extant; in some cases, their poetic or novelistic visions were never even set down on paper. No matter. As Keats reminded us, heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter still.

That we know of these writers at all is due almost entirely to the efforts of C.D. Rose. In fact, some querulous readers might even ask, “Are these people real?” Rest assured, they are as real as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; they just aren’t as famous. “Long preoccupied with the question of literary failure,” Rose recalls in his acknowledgments, he “began to find tantalizing traces of untold stories and hidden histories in his long searches of dusty secondhand bookstores, junk shops and flea markets.” Even now, he adds, the work continues “with the discovery of abandoned manuscripts in house clearances, trawls through the rotting slush piles of minor literary agents, overheard literary gossip and tales from the failing memories of librarians, bo dealers, academics and fellow writers across the world.”

After a scholarly introduction that touches on such topics as blankness, the whiteness of the page and the ontology of fiction, Rose opens “The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure” with an account of the life of Casimir Adamowitz-Kostrowicki.

First, though, he asks us to recall how Max Brod saved Kafka for the world by ignoring the mortally ill writer’s injunction that all his manuscripts be destroyed. Unfortunately, Rose sighs, “Casimir Adamowitz-Kostrowicki had a friend faithless enough to obey his dying wishes.” Thus, when the writer failed to return from the front during World War I, Eric Levallois obediently burned the only copy of “L’homme avec les mains fleuries.” To gauge our loss, Rose notes that “this, it is said, was a work which would have . . . made ‘The Man Without Qualities’ look as dull as its title, dwarf ‘Ulysses’ in its range and scope, render ‘To the Lighthouse’ small and parochial.”

And so the plangent litany of loss and disappointment begins. En route to London to discuss the publication of “Here Are the Young Men,” Stanhope Barnes accidentally leaves the only manuscript of this modernist epic on the train. Ernst Bellmer, suffering a strange oral compulsion that attracted the attention of Freud himself, literally consumed page after page of his writing, including the entirety of his bildungsroman “Der Mann mit den blühenden Händen.”

“The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure” edited by C. D. Rose. (Melville House)

To bring attention to his verse, Pasquale Frunzio resolved to commit suicide and be found with the typescript of his collected poems, “Lo Specchio Segreto,” at his side. By accident, a spark ignited the gas-filled apartment, and its entire contents was incinerated. Even more pitiable may be the case of Hans Kafka, who found that everything he wrote — including “the grotesque story of a beetle who is transformed into a man” — was completely overshadowed by the work of his neighbor Franz (no relation).

Female authors suffer perhaps even more from marginalization. Otha Orkkut, for instance, was the last surviving speaker of Cimbrian, a Bothno-Ugaric language. Every one of her works — of poetry, history and translation — was composed in that language, which no one can now read. The case of Veronica Vass is similar: While working as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park during World War II, “she wrote five novels, all of them in a code so complex, so treacherous, so arcane that [Alan] Turing himself couldn’t get past the first few words.” In her turn, Wendy Wenning, enraptured by minimalism, tirelessly, obsessively refined the huge first draft of her novel “An Empty Chair”: “She removed every adjective from her book. Once that task was completed, she turned back to the beginning and started again. Relative clauses went next, then the passive voice. Metaphor, simile, symbol. All felt the knife. None were spared.” In the end, she was left with a blank page.

Perhaps the saddest figure of all is Sara Zeelen-Levallois. “No one knows with any certainty where she was born, grew up, studied, or even less what ever happened to her. None of her works have survived, or have ever been seen. They exist purely in the domain of hearsay and rumor.”

While it would be churlish to question this book’s scholarly rigor, the alert reader will nonetheless remark certain, mostly harmless, peculiarities. Rose, for instance, invariably identifies the typewriter or word processor favored by each writer: Hermes Rocket, Remington No. 5, Canon Typestar, IBM Wheelwriter 3500. Occasionally, too, he relieves these chronicles of disaster by lingering over the raffishness of a J.D. “Jack” Ffrench or the luxurious early life of Elise La Rue, who “wrote in longhand, naked, voluptuously, lying on her divan, usually covered by the fur of a snow leopard which she claimed she had herself skinned from the back of the animal (this story, improbable as it may seem, may be true: records that have recently come to light show she assisted the young Stalin on a hunting trip through the central Asian wilds.).”

Some elements, however, are distinctly disturbing: Is it by chance that LaMotte Fouquet — not to be confused with the German romantic of almost the same name — seems to have possessed the lost manuscript of “Here Are the Young Men”? Or that Charles Hébé’s “Oncle Cauchemère” closely resembles Alfred Jarry’s Pere Ubu? How is it that notorious forger Eric Quayne is said to have written “The Man With the Flowering Hands,” a title that could be the English translation of Adamowitz-Kostrowicki’s burnt French manuscript and Bellmer’s German-language masterwork? For that matter, what accounts for the strange parallels between the Victorian novelists Belmont Rossiter and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, both of whom seem to have produced works titled “The Coming Race” and “Ernest Maltravers”?

Not least, why is Italian poet and performance artist Fausto Squattrinato mentioned several times, yet we are never given his biography? All we learn is that he is a known liar.

Even if you are never likely to read any of the authors in “A Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure,” you should, at least, take this opportunity to learn about them.

After all, Rose writes with wit, playfulness and an impressive knowledge of the byways of modern literature, even noting, for instance, Hugh Rafferty’s friendship with the arch-decadent Count Eric Stenbock (author of “Studies of Death”). In fact, Rose himself is an author to reckon with, one whom Borges and Max Beerbohm would have admired. We may, alas, never hear any more of Ellen Sparrow, Aurelio Quattrochi or even Jürgen Kittler.

But I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of C.D. Rose.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.


Edited by C.D. Rose

Melville House. 175 pp. $18.95