Taking stock of absent friends

MICHAEL FALLOW
Last updated 16:45 24/06/2013

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REVIEW: Lost, Stolen or Shredded: Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature

By Rick Gekoski (Allen&Unwin RRP $37)

Reviewed by Michael Fallow

To what extent can we appreciate what's not there?

By way of answer, rare book dealer, writer and broadcaster Rick Gekoski puts forward an entertaining collection of stories and reflections on creative works that to varying degrees can be enjoyed in their absence.

Sounds goofy, but consider the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911. They got it back, as you might have gathered, but in the meantime the crowds showed up at the Louvre in even greater-than-usual numbers to see the "shadowy band of grime"' on the wall, marking what the author calls its absent presence.

It's not like people didn't have a pretty fair idea what the blessed thing looked like anyway, so they were projecting that knowledge into the Mona Lisa-shaped void. "For a moment," he suggests, "it almost made artists of them."

Gekoski suggests we can sometimes learn as much, even more, by an informed awareness of missing creations, even lost opportunities, than by their presence or realisation.

He writes approvingly of Tuhoe activists protest-driven theft of New Zealand artist Colin McCahon's Urewera mural. Impressed though he is by the way it was recovered he believes the work itself would have resonated longer in the collective memory if it had stayed where they buried it. Tacked back on the wall it is just another painting, however fine. Lost, it was a potent symbol of the dispossession of an entire people.

Gekoski doesn't always prefer the void. Much as he regrets the posthumous release of Vladimir Nabokov's The Original of Love against the writer's wishes, he can't bring himself to take issue with Max Brod's decision to go against the wishes of his friend Franz Kafka to "burn unread" his unpublished writings.

And he extends his thinking to lament, quite touchingly, the loss of magnificent buildings by Scottish architect Charles Rennie McIntosh. Lost, why? Because dumbass people didn't appreciate his genius and commission him to build them.

Make what you will of Gekoski's take on these and many other cases, but he's a cracking good storyteller and on those grounds alone the book is an agreeable read. And near its conclusion there's the perfect, almost shimmering quotation to illuminate the book's entire approach.

It says . . .

Ah, but if I were to tell you, then wouldn't that mean I haven't understood the book at all?

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