The late German novelist Hans Reiter, who wrote under the pen name Benno von Archimboldi, is famous in part for his second novel, The Endless Rose. The story, set in Prussia in the first half of the 20th century, is loosely based on the author’s life, from his early years as a servant in the country house of the Baron von Zumpe to his final days as a foot soldier in Nazi Germany. It’s a provocative book about human nature and fragility. Only it doesn’t actually exist.
Archimboldi is a character in Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, and The Endless Rose is one of several imaginary novel titles mentioned in Bolaño’s narrative. The prevalence of allusions like these in literature led fiction writers Levi Stahl and Ed Park in 2007 to start a blog called the Invisible Library, where titles like The Endless Rose are catalogued.
The blog has grown as readers submit the titles of unwritten books they’ve discovered in their own reading. Last summer it also served as the primary inspiration behind the Invisible Library exhibition at the Tenderpixel Gallery in London.
The INK Illustration art collective collaborated with Real Fits, an online arts periodical and literary foundation, to choose from the blog 40 titles of imaginary works, which they then transformed into actual books. Some of the titles included When the Train Passes by Elisabeth Ducharme, mentioned in Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister; You Can’t Do Anything Right by Margery McIntyre Flood, mentioned in Caitlin Macy’s story “Bad Ghost” from her collection Spoiled; and Archimboldi’s The Endless Rose.
INK artists illustrated and designed the book covers, and they invited best-selling novelists, nonfiction writers, and other artists to contribute a page to each of the books. During the exhibition, the Tenderpixel Gallery, located in Cecil Court—the Victorian bookshop thoroughfare considered by many to be the heart of literary London—was transformed into a library, where attendees were encouraged to “sign out” books and write their opening or closing passages based primarily on the titles and cover illustrations.
At the close of the exhibit the once-empty pages of the books had been transformed into vivid narratives, full of various voices and shifts in perspective and style, making the library a postmodern literary experiment.
Workshops focused on collaboration and individual production were held during the monthlong exhibit. For one of these workshops, INK invited the graphic collective Europa to lead participants in making six 16-page books with hand-sewn bindings, all based on titles from the library. After the exhibition closed in mid-July, the books went on display in libraries throughout London.
At a time when book publishing, and print culture in general, are looking for more ways to go digital, INK Illustration’s Invisible Library was a successful attempt to enliven the culture’s relationship with stories, remind readers of the importance of books, real or not, and reinforce their place in our collective imagination.
Excerpted from Poets & Writers (Sept.-Oct. 2009), the magazine of Poets & Writers Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides information, support, and guidance for creative writers.www.pw.org/magazine