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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical

The Lost Library

Walter Mehring

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To purchase The Lost Library

Title: The Lost Library
Author: Walter Mehring
Genre: Memoir
Written: 1952, rev. 1964 (Eng. 1951)
Length: 294 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Lost Library - US
The Lost Library - UK
The Lost Library - Canada
La bibliothèque perdue - France
Die verlorene Bibliothek - Deutschland
  • The Autobiography of a Culture
  • German title: Die verlorene Bibliothek
  • Translated by Richard and Clara Winston

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Our Assessment:

B : an (overly ?) impassioned literary-personal tour

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic . 1/8/1951 .
Commentary . 9/1951 Heinz Politzer
Le Monde . 6/10/2014 Roger-Pol Droit
The Nation . 19/1/1952 Felix Grendon
The NY Times . 8/8/1951 Orville Prescott

  From the Reviews:
  • "He has subtitled his volume "The Autobiography of a Culture," and strangely enough, the work emerges as such. (...) Though this book may be rough going for the casual reader, it is a beautifully conceived and beautifully executed job. The author, at a guess, is in these untutored days a highly unexpendable man." - The Atlantic

  • "It might have been stimulating to apply this idea by playing the three-time strata of present, past, and antecedent past against one another, showing the one mirrored in the other, thus achieving a triple irony. But America and the present, as a time stratum and hence as a subject of study, remain wholly unmastered. Mehring's "Epilogue on a New England Farm" is, intellectually and artistically, a flat failure; here, his exposition, which is elsewhere levelheaded and sober, is lost in a confused gibberish. (...) Walter Mehring's Lost Library consists of quotations, anecdotes, and imaginary dialogues, in which the author displays great erudition, keen observation -- although not always of essentials -- and much wit, and which are juxtaposed without any internal order. It is a causerie about a thousand things and nothing, chiefly about the author himself, who takes the greatest pains to remain invisible." - Heinz Politzer, Commentary

  • "Thus we learn that Mr. Mehring has been a prodigious reader of everything censored and uncensored in Western prose or verse, and that he has something pointed or piquant to say about all the famous authors from Goethe to Thomas Mann and. about all the infamous authors from the Marquis de Sade to James Joyce. (...) In spite of its vein of pessimism, The Lost Library is a witty, entertaining, and instructive book. The author has had the good fortune to get two excellent translators to introduce his first prose work to the American public." -

  • "(A) sad and brilliant book, and also an abstract and exasperating one. (...) Using the books he uncrated in his temporary Viennese exile as springboards for his thought, Mr. Mehring has writtena series of minute essays on books, writers and ideas. None of these is a serious critical discussion. They are too brief, too subjective, too abstract. (...) More than anything else The Lost Library seems like the nostalgic reverie of an immensely cultivated and learned writer making a private pilgrimage through his intellectual past. (...) The Lost Library has been beautifully translated by Richard and Clara Winston." - Orville Prescott, The New York Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: this review is based on the revised German edition of 1964. I have not seen the English translation, and all translations here are mine.]

       Walter Mehring was born into a family that highly valued, indeed downright revered (Western) culture and the arts. His father Sigmar was a writer, translator, and publisher, his mother an opera singer. The paternal library made a great impression on Walter from childhood on, but Sigmar died before Walter even reached twenty years of age - dramatically, too, keeling over from a stroke while reading to his son from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, a fact Walter repeats several times in this book (and why not ? what an anecdote !). (Apparently, no less, that copy of the Critique of Pure Reason was even a first edition: "das »Ding and sich« in seiner empirischen Urform" ('the 'thing-in-itself' in its empirically primal form').)
       If Walter no longer had his father to guide him, he still had the books, the legacy his father left him, and this quasi-memoir is a book built around that (now) 'lost library'. Twice, Mehring went into exile: first in the early 1930s, when he fled Hitler to the then-still refuge of Vienna, where he managed to reässemble much of the library (while the books he had written by then were being burnt by the Nazis), and then to the United States, where he could mostly only recreate the library in his mind's eye.
       Mehring didn't immediately embrace the library after his father's death: he notes that he did not use it much in the twenty or so years after that: he went down a different literary path -- he was part of the Dada movement -- and acknowledges that, as far as the library went: 'I did not belong to its literature. It was the death-room of an epoch'. He notes the differences in the literary world when they were in their respective youths, his father's world one where dandies, impressionists, and pre-Raphaelites were at the fore, while he sees his own as much more dynamic, embracing expressionism and futurism, among other things. (He describes his father's study as a: 'Fin-de-siècle replica of an alchemist's cell', but it still must have been quite the thing to see -- complete with framed Lyonel Feininger cartoons on the walls; old man Mehring wasn't entirely as stuck in the past and out of date as Walter sometimes suggests.)
       Mehring describes his father's world (and Weltanschauung) as shattered by the First World War, and Walter certainly went a very different way in the time after the war. (Sigmar died in 1915, so he did not even experience what the war led to.) The library is very much a legacy of the nineteenth century -- though also of the rapidly evolving fin-de-siècle world.
       Mehring's tour through the library is very much a quick browse. Though thematically somewhat organized in his chapters, he flits from book to book and author to author, throwing out quotes and comments. Many of the judgements are piercing, but that's the extent of their depth; Mehring's overview is less superficial than impatient; it's a mad, quick rush along the surfaces, but tears through many nooks and crannies as well. The tour is, if anything, impassioned -- all fervor, it can sometimes seem.
       (Mehring is aware that he gets carried away -- and at one point even has an imaginary reader of this work interject, protesting/asking, in essence, what the hell he is doing.)
       The Lost Library isn't quite a roll-call; indeed, it is very selective -- very personal, steered very much by Walter's experiences and the household he grew up in. So also, for example, his formative years, when his father was still alive, coïncided with a growing interest in sex -- which he found at least some of these books provided some insight into (though when he came to Sacher-Masoch -- his father owning a signed copy of Venus in Furs -- it proves a great disappointment).
       The book's subtitle, 'The Autobiography of a Culture', was, as Mehring notes in a Postscript, suggested to him by Jacques Barzun, and is reasonably apt, even if this culture is a very specific one -- extending, just, to the Anglosphere (Poe and Melville rate a couple of mentions, but otherwise the sampling is limited -- and, for example, it's William rather than Henry James), but otherwise essentially nothing beyond Europe. The library is French, German, and Russian-dominated, as are later influences on Mehring -- -- and true enough, it was in those places that a lot of the action was during the period covered by Mehring.
       Mehring suggests: "Libraries are the true cemeteries of ideas ..." -- suggesting also the danger of leaving them dusty on the shelves or in boxes, the ideas they contain deserving constant airing. A library is a living thing, and for all of how much of it Mehring has kept in his mind, the loss of it in its physical form is still devastating.
       Mehring recognizes that he is "erblich belastet" -- 'hereditarily burdened' as the charged German phrase has it (Mehring's family was Jewish, and he was all too aware of what the Nazis made of heredity ...) -- as far as these books go; by his best will, he can't escape them. They helped form him, and will continue to exert their influence.
       Mehring's rapid-fire approach, and his inclusion of many authors that likely mean little to readers outside Germany (Oskar Panizza and Ernst Toller, for example) can make for a somewhat challenging and frustrating read especially since about so many of the authors he is so quick with his judgements (which, in turn are often very specific, rather than more general). Still, he does also cover many well-know authors at somewhat greater length -- Zola and Dostoevsky for example.
       It makes for a curious document, not just about its (or his father's) times, but also in many ways of them. This isn't the Dadaist Mehring at work here, but there's certainly something of that spirit and speed to it.
       Overall, The Lost Library is of some, but presumably also somewhat limited, interest -- with some very worthwhile flourishes.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 November 2021

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The Lost Library: Reviews: Walter Mehring: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Walter Mehring lived 1896 to 1981.

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© 2021 the complete review

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