We work, each one of us, in the deep dark with no notion of what lasts. With this phrase Nicholas Delbanco reveals one of his urgent concerns: Why does a writer write? How much of his work will seem meaningful to others? In The Lost Suitcase Delbanco ruminates on the life of the writer and the significance of language as art. The title novella, a stunningly crafted story that is the book's centerpiece, takes as its central conceit a famous anecdote about Ernest Hemingway's early work: Hemingway's first wife, Hadley, going by train from their apartment in Paris to visit him in Switzerland, brought along, at his request, a suitcase full of his work-in-progress. The suitcase was stolen, and the loss was devastating for both of them as well as for their marriage. Did it also cause irreparable damage to Hemingway's career? Delbanco imagines this event and its main characters in numerous extremely inventive ways that make the narrative itself a comment on creativity, fiction, and a writer's self-awareness. In the eight reflections that surround and frame the novella, Delbanco contemplates various aspects of his craft.
From the pleasure of travel writing to the travails of historical fiction, from the question of artistic judgment to that question put to the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon ("Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?")-Delbanco ranges far and wide through the literary landscape. By turns descriptive and prescriptive, he explores how literary virtuosity is achieved, how the writing of fiction can be taught, and the way literature functions for writer and reader equally. He reflects on his own history, his family, the standards of judgment and progress, and the ways we remember and revise what has happened to us. "Fiction is a web of lies that attempts to entangle the truth. And autobiography may well be the reverse: data tricked up and rearranged to invent a fictive self." In both form and content, The Lost Suitcase is a tradition-steeped meditation on literary art and an original foray into the world of words.