An Inventory of Losses

by Judith Schalansky, translated by Jackie Smith

reviewed by Erica X Eisen

Contrary to popular belief, conservation is not the arresting of change but its careful management; the conservator’s task is to guide artworks through time. On a large enough timescale, even the most precious charges are doomed, often thanks to the well-meaning but ultimately ill-conceived interventions of those who most wish them to survive.

The subjects of Judith Schalansky’s new book, An Inventory of Losses, have already made their great passage out of this world. Extinct species, destroyed books, and buildings dismantled brick by brick are all featured in An Inventory of Losses, translated from the German by Jackie Smith. The book’s theme seems a natural development from Schalansky’s previous authorial interests. Her Atlas of Remote Islands (2009) is a striking collection of vignettes about the far-flung corners of the globe where, hidden from view, acts of cruelty and destruction take place with impunity: abuse, murders, the decimation of wildlife populations, and, above all, the loss of life and culture that inevitably follow the arrival of colonizers’ ships.

Whereas Atlas is unified in form, Inventory spans not only centuries and space but also styles, from recollections of Schalansky’s childhood in East Germany to essays on the religious teachings of Manichaeism to a fictionalized radio transmission from Swiss outsider artist Armand Schulthess. It’s a blend that emulates (perhaps deliberately) the Kunstkammern that once graced the homes of distinguished Central European gentry: nautilus shells, geodes, tarnished Roman coins, brain coral bleached by the sun, stuffed storks peeking out at their curious viewers with eyes of amber glass.

The nature of the text allows Schalansky to luxuriate in ekphrasis. Her book is tinged with an exquisite melancholy: the beauties she describes will never again be seen by the human eye. She’s a keen chronicler, too, of the gendered dimensions of remembrance and forgetting. In Inventory’s final story, which imagines the Moon as an exhaustive archive of the things lost on Earth, the male narrator ends his lengthy recounting of the wonders around him by noting in passing that there are also “a remarkable number of works by women, whose titles alas I can no longer recall.” Mere survival, Schalansky suggests, is not enough in a world where attention and care are unequally apportioned.

Many of Inventory’s most successful entries take the form of essays; a few of the places where the book leans closer to fiction, by contrast, are less successful. The chapter devoted to the lost film The Boy in Blue imagines the interior monologue of Greta Garbo as she traverses the length of Manhattan, largely reducing the actress to a petulant faded beauty for whom loss means merely the fading of her own Hollywood stardom.

It’s to Schalansky’s credit that she is able to steer clear of sentimentality and romanticization while treating the theme of loss at such great length. Preservation and remembrance are to her no acts of heroism. On the contrary, she argues that “knowledge can only be gained by forgetting,” and attempts to resist the pull of oblivion are “just as totalitarian and doomed to failure as the re-creation of paradise.” Paradoxically, the inclusion of works in her inventory means they aren’t losses at all. Fragments of Sappho’s poetry, after all, do survive, even if some of them consist of no more than a single word. Photographs do immortalize the demolished Palace of the Republic that once housed the East German parliament, even if its steel beams were stripped out and sold to capitalists.

“We can only mourn what is absent or missing if some vestige of it, some whisper, perhaps little more than a rumor, a semiobliterated trace, an echo of an echo has found its way to us,” Schalansky writes in the book’s introduction. There have existed an infinite number of objects and beings that have left no trace; it is these true losses that Schalansky’s work invites us to contemplate after the last of its entries has come to an end.

Published on March 8, 2021