I don’t think I’m the only person to be intrigued, even fascinated, by make-believe fictional books that appear in real fictional books. The kind of books that you could almost credit existed once, indeed heartily wish did exist in fact, whether or not you have any intention of reading them.
While reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising I recently did a little list of these works that I’d really like to imagine as existing and available, if not in our own then at least in some parallel universe. Various websites have selections of such fictional books — for example, Wikipedia’s is here — but I’ve deliberately not consulted these, relying instead on memories of novels I’ve read (all links are to my reviews or posts) or intend to read soon.
The sources for the fictional books are listed afterwards: the books themselves are in no particular order other than as they occurred to me.
1. Anonymous: The Book of Gramarye, no longer extant
2. Edward Casaubon: The Key to All Mythologies, unfinished manuscript
3. Julián Carax: The Shadow of the Wind
4. James Mortmain: Jacob Wrestling
5. Abdul Alhazred: Al Azif, or The Necronomicon
6. Diogenes Teufelsdröckh: Clothes, their Origin and Influence (Die Kleider, ihr Werden und Wirken) 1831
7. Hawthorne Abendsen: The Grasshopper Lies Heavy
8. Tom Dando: The King at Caerleon, London 1834-5
9. Christopher Plover: The World in the Walls, Allen & Unwin 1935
10. Jonathan Strange: The History and Practice of English Magic, John Murray 1816
1. Described in The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, The Book of Gramarye is written in an unknown language — which might be Welsh, as it references a bird from Welsh myth — composed in ages past. Once read it has to be destroyed, which seems a pity. (A review of The Dark is Rising will appear soon; the previous novel in the sequence is Over Sea, Under Stone.)
2. Edward Casaubon is a character in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (completed in 1872, though the action ends in 1832); this happens to be on my list of classics to be read by the end of 2020. Casaubon’s intention was to demonstrate ‘that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed’. Sad to say, he never got to complete it; Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which has a similar focus though comes to different conclusions, first appeared in 1890.
3. Carlos Ruiz Zafón invented this work for his novel of the same name (2001, English translation 2004), the first in a series of four interlinked books entitled The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. I’ve read the first two but not reviewed them, while the fourth novel has only recently appeared. Though I’m not entirely convinced by the individual works so far there’s little doubt Ruiz Zafón is good at atmosphere.
4. Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle included protagonist Cassandra’s father James Mortmain who, following the success of his chef d’oeuvre, unfortunately developed writer’s block. Cassandra cooked up a rather extreme plan to overcome his literary impasse.
5. H P Lovecraft’s horror stories in the so-called Cthulhu Mythos frequently referenced a book title Al Azif or The Necronomicon by the “mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred, The Picture in the House being typical. It’s been suggested that Lovecraft was part influenced by William Beckford’s Vathek, an Arabian Tale (1786).
6. Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus was published during 1833-4, and was supposedly a translation of and commentary on a work by a German Professor of Allerley-Wissenschaft (Things in General) at the University of Weissnichtwo. It may help to know that Weissnichtwo, from weiss nicht wo, translates as “one knows not where”. A work I once began and then stalled on, this is another title placed on my TBR classics list in the hopes I will find now it more conducive to my mood.
7. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick is, in part, a quest to find author Hawthorne Abendsen in his eyrie, the High Castle. Abendsen’s novel is supposed to prefigure how the Second World War really turned out, which is not as it is in our world or indeed the world of Dick’s novel.
8. Tom Dando was a character in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicle The Whispering Mountain (1968) whose life work was to compose an Arthurian epic poem. The book was eventually published under the royal patronage of the Prince of Wales.
9. Lev Grossman’s fantasy trilogy (beginning with the 2009 novel The Magicians) featured the Narnia-like world described in Christopher Plover’s children’s books. As with similar stories of the veil between fiction and the real world being torn (Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart books, for example) we soon find that being able to step into a fictional world is a dangerous situation to be in.
10. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an alternate history fantasy replete with footnotes and references to learned magical studies, faintly reminiscent of the copious notes in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. The History and Practice of English Magic is the first magical work to be referenced in Clarke’s novel, and by no means the last.
These are my initial choices, but of course I could plough on almost indefinitely: for example there are the encyclopaedias such as Asimov’s future Encyclopedia Galactica in his Foundation series of SF novels, or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (in the book of the same name by Douglas Adams) — or does a future work or comic fantasy not count in the same way? Hard to tell.
What fictional works do you recall, and which if any are your favourites?