The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure

The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, C.D. Rose, Melville House Publishing.

Aurelio Quattrochi began writing his first novel at age 17. By 21, he had finished the novel’s opening sentence. In 1973 he wrote just one word and spent the following year erasing it. At age 76, having worked tirelessly on this one book for 59 years, he had written a mere 500 words. Quattrochi is just one of the 52 failed writers profiled in C. D. Rose’s delightful compendium, “The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure” (BDLF). But is Quattrochi a failure at all? Or is he in fact one of literature’s great successes—an artist so dedicated to the power of language that he cannot abide an imprecise word? Such are the questions raised by Rose’s book.

The BDLF provides endless variations on the theme of literary failure. Often, these are writers whose uncompromising aesthetic integrity leads them into obscurity. Wendy Wenning, a writer of terse prose, who finds even Hemingway too prolix, ruthlessly edits her manuscript down to a single blank page. Felix Dodge spends his life amassing information to include in his “Gesamtkunstwerk”—a book which will contain everything that is knowable—but dies immediately after typing the title. Casimir Adamowitz-Kostrowicki is a writer of great promise whose instructions to destroy his unpublished writings upon his death is, unlike Franz Kafka’s famous directive to Max Brod, faithfully observed.

Perhaps at this point it should be noted, though it seems an insignificant point, that all of the writers profiled in the BDLF are fictional. The attentive reader may be tipped off by the fact that, despite their extreme obscurity, Rose inexplicably knows several authors’ model of typewriter, or by the strange coincidences, like a lost manuscript in one vignette popping up in a private library in another, or perhaps simply by the many unlikely-sounding names (e.g., Hartmut Trautmann, Hans Kafka, Lord Frederick Rathole).

The BDLF is a clever put-on, a brisk stroll through Borges’s Library of Babel guided by Rose’s fastidious prose and copious literary references, but it is also a clarion for the infinite possibilities of literature. As Andrew Gallix observes in his introduction, “Writing about fictitious or lost works is a means of holding literature in abeyance, of preserving its potentiality.” Rose’s failures are also potential successes, each one a small recognition that the actuality of literature will never equal its potentiality. Reading “Ulysses” will never quite match the idea of reading “Ulysses.” And in that sense, all literature, no matter how great, is a glorious failure.