Wednesday, March 2, 2016

How to misplace a book.

Until about ten years ago, [Sir William] Empson’s admirers (our name is Legion, for we are many) had assumed that the only manuscript of The Face of the Buddha had vanished forever – it was often rumoured to have been destroyed in the Blitz, until the first volume of John Haffenden’s invaluable Empson biography (published in 2005) established that it was in fact the man of letters John Davenport who had left it in a taxi when very, very drunk, circa 1947.

Davenport was so embarrassed by his bungle that he did not confess to Empson until 1952. But his apology was far from accurate. Thanks to an inspired curator at the British Library (let his name be honoured: Jamie Andrews), we now know the full story. What actually happened is that Davenport, still three sheets to the wind, handed the manuscript and its photographic illustrations over to that most colourful figure of 1940s literary bohemia, the Tamil poet and editor of Poetry London, Tambimuttu. Shortly afterwards, Tambimuttu quit London and returned to his native Ceylon, leaving The Face of the Buddha in the hands of his coeditor, Edward Marsh. And shortly after the handover, Marsh took ill and died. His papers remained unexamined until they were bought by the British Library in 2003. Andrews discovered Empson’s material two years later...

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