Today’s sheltered-in-place readers will be thrilled to encounter a writer who believes that physical attendance isn’t always necessary for true engagement ... Schalansky treats each of the 12 objects cataloged in her new book with an almost religious awe, like a believer giving herself up to be inhabited by spirits ... Throughout the book, Schalansky studies and adopts the lexicons of bygone worlds. In her translation, Jackie Smith has made similar forays into diverse English lexicons. Dozens of the words were new to me...Since my English fluency seems to end at the pavement’s edge (almost all of these words describe the natural world), it’s no wonder I found the Ryck River vignette rather tedious. My experience confirms the seriousness of recent concerns about environmental literacy: some have proposed that, as children spend less time outside, they have less occasion to learn the vocabulary of the natural world ... Given Schalansky’s interest in extinct species and forgotten landscapes, An Inventory of Losses is sure to be read as a text about the climate crisis — an archive of a vanishing natural world, as well as a primer for imagining all that’s been lost ... a project like Schalansky’s is broadly useful to a society unable to fully apprehend its losses: the true number of COVID-19 deaths, for example, or the true count of victims of racist violence ... Schalansky’s book, too, is limited. It is not a full inventory but rather a dozen selections from an imaginary, unabridged list of all the world’s losses. The impulse to catalog, rather than the cataloged items themselves, is at the center of the project ... in the final analysis, Schalansky’s core message remains true: in looking for lost things, we necessarily reorient ourselves. Remembering isn’t inherently heroic, but forgetting our own responsibility to the present is tragic. Indeed, our task is to engage in politically motivated, thoughtful memory projects.
There are a couple of starts to this collection of 12 stories. A brilliant preamble that has much in common with Henri Lefebvre’s The Missing Pieces details things that disappeared — and others that were discovered — while the author was working on this book ... What follow are stories that deal with 'the diverse phenomena of decomposition and destruction,' linking the concept of the archive with that of 'its prototype, the ark,' namely our futile compulsion to gather and preserve everything in a finite space ... Schalansky’s texts, ably translated from the German by Jackie Smith, sometimes directly animate historical accounts, using a technique like ventriloquism. This can come together to impressive effect, especially in stories that feature the narrator wandering through natural landscapes ... I found myself longing for more of a mosaic, for more connections and atmospheric frisson between the stories, fulfilling the elegiac promise of the opening essays, although there is much to admire here in the richness of historical research and the intelligence and eloquence of thought.
The book is a collection of twelve pieces, each sixteen pages long, which take as their theme something that has been irretrievably lost and survives only in legend, part, or echo. Schalansky’s gaze traverses a wide span of history, surveying subjects from the poetry of Sappho or the ruins of a once-splendid Roman villa to the dismantled debating chamber of an obsolete regime or the faded beauty of the aging Greta Garbo. In rich, evocative, precise prose—beautifully translated from the German by Jackie Smith—Schalansky recalls these lost things and meditates on their destruction, all the while interrogating the extent to which memory—or writing—can compensate for material loss ... Throughout An Inventory of Losses , Schalansky insists on the significance of personal memories, unstable as they may be, over the official historiography promulgated by the state. The political import of her work lies in her attention to the possibility of multiple narratives, fragmented by time yet cumulatively powerful. Here, private losses are interspersed with stories of large-scale environmental or societal collapse; with sensitive attention to detail, Schalansky manages to combine the micro and macro without diminishing the significance of either.
... a spell-binding meditation on the instinctive desire of humans to preserve everything despite the fact that everything will inevitably be lost ... Schalansky does not simply describe these lost things and their histories like one would in a catalog or encyclopedia. Rather, she preserves the old by creating it anew. Each chapter offers a vivid, living experience of these monuments that can no longer be experienced in the physical world. Schalansky is not shy about the full implications of death and loss ... As readers of this remembering project, we are taken on a wonderful journey through time and space, seeing with new eyes things we will never get to see ... Schalansky’s prose is reflective in places and exuberant in others; she balances the mourning of death with the commemoration of life ... The chapters in An Inventory of Losses are ghosts: wisps of their former selves, haunting the present with the faint sketch of what once was.
The first page forms a kind of prose poem. On one side, a list of things destroyed or disappeared during the making of the book, from a space probe swallowed up by Saturn’s atmosphere to the last mosaic-tailed rat. Overleaf is another list, of discoveries made in the same period ... That loss might be generative is embodied in the book’s structure: twelve chapters that are not elegies but exercises in style. There are essays of wry wisdom, an internal monologue in the voice of Greta Garbo, the suicide note of a botanist on the moon.
Ranging from lost islands and extinct species to the lost poems of Sappho, the incinerated scribblings of an eccentric and the lost biography of an amateur astronomer, An Inventory of Losses uses the fine detail of what no longer is to explore the world of what might have been ... exquisitely rendered ... Schalansky is marvellously adept at enabling 'everything to be experienced' but most especially from the point of view of those who are lost to view. As translators are often among those lost to view this is a moment to hail the singular achievement of Jackie Smith in rendering An Inventory of Losses into English. Her translation of Griefswald Harbour, for example, is a miracle of exactness. If loss abounds in this book, translation loss is not one of them. As we deal with the consequences, emotional and material, of a pandemic, it is hard to imagine a better guide to the resources of hope than Schalansky’s deeply engaging inventory.
Personal, ironic, and self-consciously researching, Schalansky’s stories stage the author’s own process of investigation, and the fears and desires behind it. In doing so, An Inventory of Losses mingles the indulgence of curiosity with a subtle internal critique of dominant European habits of knowledge production about the world and its past ... A number of superficial misreadings of Schalansky accuse her of nostalgia. But the ironic distance between the author and her various past-hoarding subjects is as unmistakable as it is crucial to her project. Her book is less a cabinet of curiosities and more a cabinet of curiousnesses ... her book is an eruption of contingency into the alternativeless complacency of the present.
This is the author at her most magisterial; her stately prose in this case mirroring a river’s unhurried course. (The translation from the German by Jackie Smith, here as throughout, is a triumph of subtle accuracy.) But Ms. Schalansky is also a wry, laconic and occasionally self-mocking explorer who gives the disarming impression of being astonished at times by her own conclusions ... covers broader terrain, a test of the author’s agility. Yet with only a few missteps, she alights on distant lives, eras, even planets, as nimbly as she did on those forsaken islands. Comparisons with the writings of W.G. Sebald are inescapable. But Ms. Schalansky, in her quirkiness, has just as much in common with the glorious eccentrics of the 18th and 19th centuries she encounters such as Gottfried Adolf Kinau (1814-88), who spent most of his life drawing detailed maps of the moon ... Ms. Schalansky leads the astonished reader on a zigzag course through the labyrinth of human consciousness to excavate what the philosopher Francis Bacon termed those 'remnants of history which have casually escaped the shipwreck of time.' If the result is inescapably an elegy of sorts—truly An Inventory of Losses—it is a curiously moving and oddly reassuring one.
... stunning ... Schalansky illuminates these 'lost' inventoried gems with thorough research and details, making us ponder their transitory quality. Her descriptive writing of nature and botanical subjects is particularly accomplished. Indexes of persons, images, and sources are included ... In her quest to find meaning for herself, Schalansky examines life and death in a work that will inspire many hours of talk for book discussion groups. Not to be read quickly but savored and contemplated.
... a collection of beautifully constructed stories about objects that have not survived the test of time ... Tying the stories together are Schalansky’s evocative, precise descriptions and the sense of wonder in confronting the sheer immensity of what has been lost ... Schalansky’s meticulously researched stories are poignant reminders of the extent of our impact on the natural world and a call to honor the animals, objects, and places that, due to our own negligence, have ceased to exist ... An exploration of extinct animals and objects told through dazzling stories that question the bounds of memory and myth.
... inspired ... melds history, memoir, and fiction into something new and extraordinary: a museum of the extinct, the missing, and the forgotten ... the narratives are distinct, memorable, and, at their best, spellbinding. Some are highly researched, meticulously reconstructing historical places such as the the Villa Sacchetti at Castelfusano in Rome and figures such as 18th-century British explorer James Cook ... Other tales take on the flavor of impressionistic, contemporary memoirs, rooted in the narrative of a Schalansky-like writer-researcher as she explores the topic at hand. Still others have the feel of speculative fiction, so detailed in their histories that they feel like memories ... With this collection of illuminating meditations on fact and fiction, Schalansky cements her reputation as a peerless chronicler of the fabulous, the faraway, and the forgotten.