One of the ways in which literary texts are capacious is their ability to contain, within themselves, imaginary books: books that the more literal-minded real world isn’t yet able to realise. Borges’s short fiction is teeming with them. In ‘The Library of Babel’, Borges imagines a library ‘composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries’. The library is ‘total’: it contains books composed of ‘all possible combinations’ of letters: ‘All that is able to be expressed, in every language. All.’ He gives us a sample:
The detailed history of the future … the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogues, a proof of the falsity of the true catalogue, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all books.
There is a long tradition of writing about books that do not exist, often with bibliographical exactness: it continues in the fictions of Italo Calvino, Douglas Adams, Roberto Bolaño and Mark Z. Danielewski, among many others. The Polish science fiction writer and author of Solaris, Stanisław Lem, wrote long introductions to four imaginary books in Imaginary Magnitude (1973) and a whole volume of reviews of non-existent books, A Perfect Vacuum (1971). The journal Underneath the Bunker publishes reviews of unwritten books, including ‘the latest novels by the Norwegian firebrand Edmund Ek’. ‘What tiresome and laborious folly it is to write empty tomes,’ Borges said, ‘to expound in five hundred pages on an idea that one could easily propound orally in a few minutes. Better is pretending that the books exist already and offering a summary or commentary.’ Something like this occurs in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (1940), which presents a triple layer of imaginary fictions: the book concerns an anonymous amateur scholar who reveres a sage called de Selby whose (imaginary) works – including Golden Hours and Country Album – are listed with footnotes and page numbers, alongside (invented) critical works on de Selby (including Conspectus of the de Selby Dialectic), and also a meta-commentary on these critics (Bibliographie de de Selby).
What do imaginary books do? Often they make us laugh: imaginary books are usually funny books, bibliographical punchlines that snort in the face of literary history. Many accounts of imaginary books originate in Rabelais’s Pantagruel (1532), where, between the giants and the scatology, Rabelais describes the Library of St Victor in Paris – perhaps Europe’s earliest imaginary library. Among the volumes Pantagruel finds are The Codpiece of the Law; The Testes of Theology; On the Art of Discreetly Farting in Company; Three Books on How to Chew Bacon; Martingale Breeches with Back-flaps for Turd-droppers; and The Spur of Cheese. Imaginary books get funnier when they collide with enumerative bibliography – bodiless texts meticulously pinned to a board – and Rabelais’s catalogue lists 140 titles, some of which, he tells us, ‘are even now in the presses of this noble city of Tübingen’.
The iterative wit of the phantom bibliography is at work in the best-known early English example: John Donne’s Catalogus librorum aulicorum incomparabilium et non vendibilium, or The Courtier’s Library of Rare Books Not for Sale. Unpublished until 1650, Donne wrote the text between about 1603 and 1611, and it proved popular in manuscript with his coterie readers. It is a parody of guides to courtly behaviour – a turning on its head of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528) – and lists 34 titles including Edward Hoby’s Afternoon Belchings; Martin Luther’s On Shortening the Lord’s Prayer; and The Art of copying out within the compass of a Penny all the truthful statements made to that end by John Foxe. ‘With these books at your elbow,’ Donne suggests, ‘you may in almost every branch of knowledge suddenly emerge as an authority.’
How do we talk about imaginary books? What kind of existence do they have? In Imagining Rabelais in Renaissance England (1998), Anne Lake Prescott calls his fictive titles ‘nonbooks’ or ‘promises of books’: ‘oscillating between being and nonbeing’, she writes, they are ‘the librarian’s equivalent of negative wonder’. Imaginary books come close to being real, but then swerve away at the last moment. The effect, as with Borges’s infinite library, can be vertiginous: a sudden sense of paths not taken, or not yet taken; a series of rooms lit up.
Rabelais’s titles are probably all fictional, but their satirical edge means they are also worldly: they serve a serious political purpose by mocking, among other things, popular superstition, lawyers, universities (Moralising Exegeses of the Academic Hoods of Denizens of the Sorbonne), the hair-splitting of scholasticism, and the Catholic Church (The Abbot’s Ass-pizzles). Books that don’t exist are particularly good at satire: unlike their embodied cousins, they make their point with precision, uncluttered by the freight of nuance. This is why in 17th-century England the fictitious booklist became a popular means to land unambiguous political blows. We might not expect, today, a politician to denigrate a rival by attributing to them a fantastic and dystopian bibliography, but they did in 1660, when Bibliotheca Fanatica: or, the Phanatique Library: Being a Catalogue of Such Books as have been lately made and by the Authors presented to the Colledge of Bedlam skewered Puritans by rolling out such titles as Lex Legum, or, A clear demonstration that there can be no better way for the security of the Saints, then by quite abolishing the Laws of England, and setting up in their stead the Canons of Beelzebub, and A Treatise written in defence of his seizing on the Boy’s Close-stool-pan, and reserving the contents for his own profit, because the Lad was so profane to carry it on a Sunday, by ‘Alderman Atkins, Shit-breeches’. The Jacobite attack on the Whigs in A Catalogue of Books, of the newest Fashion, To be sold by Auction at the Whig’s Coffee-House at the Sign of the Jackanapes in Prating Alley (1693), articulates satire through imaginary titles such as Near is my King, but nearer is my Skin (‘to be sold at the Sign of the Jack-Pudding’); A Dissertation of the No Power of a No Parliament, making a No King, that will always be doing us No Good; and A New-invented Mathematical Instrument, by the help of which one may discover, that, the higher a Jackanapes climbs, the more he shews his Arse.
Sometimes imaginary books become real books: H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a fictional text that Lovecraft alludes to in his writing, has now been written several times, and has spawned a little field of scholarship. Such instances challenge the shape of literary history: the critical reception precedes the composition of the text. This is the bibliographical paradox that animates Georges Minois’s account of an imaginary book whose infamy meant that it eventually had to be written. The Atheist’s Bible: The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed is a history of De tribus impostoribus, or the Treatise of the Three Imposters: ‘an aggressive work, a frontal attack upon religion’, according to Minois’s always exuberant prose, which labelled as imposters the heads of the three great monotheistic religions, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, and thus reduced the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran to beguiling tricks.
A book and the chatter about a book are two different things, and the latter is not dependent on the former. Between the 13th and the 17th centuries, De tribus circulated as a rumour and (in Minois’s words) ‘a sulphurous reputation’. Minois calls it a ‘virtual work’, but in the early centuries it was essentially an accusation. Imaginary books are often bad books: morally wrong, dangerous, laughable, a means to damage someone’s reputation. The first mention of De tribus came in 1239 when Pope Gregory IX accused the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II not only of being ‘a scorpion spitting out poison from the stinger of its tail’ – which sounds bad enough – but of claiming that Jesus, Moses and Muhammad were frauds. The accusation clung to Frederick like a burr, in part because his advisers were seen as a heterodox bunch with links to Arab circles, and Frederick himself had a reputation for being fond of Aristotle and of the dissolute life. At the Council of Lyon in 1245, the papal representative called Frederick a ‘new Lucifer’.
A book that exists only as a rumour can have as many authors as required, and the charge of being the originator or disseminator of De tribus – or of being somehow murkily linked to its thesis – was levelled at a who’s who of Renaissance Europe: the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), collector of jokes (mostly about monks) and the man responsible for the rediscovery of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura; Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75); Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), author of the risqué Sonetti Lussuriosi; Machiavelli (1469-1527), whose Prince outlines an instrumental conception of religion as a useful theatre for the new ruler that chimed with a sense of De tribus’s (non-existent) thesis; Michael Servetus (1511-53), burned at the stake; and Bernardino Ochino, author of Disputa intorno (Basel, 1561), and ‘that villain and secretary of hell’ (according to Thomas Browne) who converted to all three religions in turn, before becoming (in Kenelm Digby’s words) a ‘developed and manifest atheist’. De tribus didn’t need to exist to do its work: attribution alone was a slander.
The condemnations were accompanied by an even more frenzied hunt for the missing manuscript: rumours spread of texts circulating in Europe and De tribus was (in Minois’s phrase) ‘in the process of becoming a reality’. ‘People claimed to see the book everywhere,’ he writes. ‘They confused it with other books; they fabricated fakes, which others bought at the price of gold; and they did this while cursing the work.’ (In his Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, Robert Burton condemned ‘that pestilent booke’, ‘not to be read without shuddering’.) Minois delights in strange, Eco-esque vignettes of doomed book-hunting obsessives, like Christina, the daughter of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who criss-crossed Europe in the 1650s looking for De tribus, flinging out rewards for information. Her diplomat Salvius was rumoured to have tracked down a manuscript after a lifetime of searching but, according to his confessor, guilt overtook him and he burned his copy shortly before he died of ‘excessive sexual activity’.
De tribus had been a rumour since the 13th century, but in the early 18th century it became a reality, several times over: multiple versions were written, in print and in manuscript, in different languages. Minois’s account of the text’s history is extraordinarily complicated, and isn’t helped by a prose style, at least in translation, that yields such phrases as ‘in the mid-17th century the De tribus was a big issue in the Baltic region.’ But something like the following emerges. A Latin manuscript, De tribus impostoribus, seems to have been in circulation in late 17th-century Germany. A Protestant minister called Johan Friedrich Mayer had a copy in his library, which brought agitated requests from readers, a few of whom were permitted to make copies. After Mayer died, and after much petitioning, Leibniz was granted permission to read the text, watched over by Mayer’s son. ‘The work consisted of 14 leaves and 28 pages in a small folio,’ Leibniz wrote in 1716. ‘One could read nothing more execrable, more impious, or even dangerous … The style is full … of affected gallicisms. The fourth page of the work has been almost entirely effaced with a pen, apparently because of the blasphemies it contains.’ This manuscript, purchased in 1716 by Prince Eugen of Savoy and now in the National Library of Vienna, appeared in print in 1753 in Vienna with the false date of 1598. (Was the false date ‘an allusion to Frederick’, Minois wonders rather hopefully, ‘whose name encoded numerologically is 1599?’ – but not 1598.) Some claimed there was a copy in Italian. Responses and refutations of De tribus began to appear too, as did denials on the part of those accused of writing them, including Peter Arpe, who nevertheless admitted to having ‘held … in his hand’ De tribus. At some point between 1712 and 1716, a forged letter from Frederick II to Otto of Bavaria began to circulate, purporting to confirm the 13th-century origins of the (in fact newly composed) text. Publishers began to use the title De tribus to stimulate sales in any vaguely heterodox book. ‘Where do all the copies come from of this book,’ the librarian Mathurin Veyssière de La Croze fretted in 1718, ‘until now unknown to the learned world?’
Alongside this Latin text was a significantly different French version, the Traité des trois imposteurs. First mentioned by a lawyer from Reims in 1672, and subject to endless rumour and speculation thereafter, a text claiming this pedigree appeared in print in 1719 in The Hague under the title La Vie et l’esprit de Spinoza; four copies survive today, in Los Angeles, Brussels, Florence and Frankfurt. The account of the three imposters formed the second part of the book, after an opening biography of Spinoza by Jean-Maximilien Lucas, and was offered, the book claimed, as a ‘monstrous work’ by a disciple of Spinoza, deserving immediate and rigorous Christian refutation; it was soon published as a separate work, cut off from La Vie and known now as Traité des trois imposteurs. In one of the longest discussions of the Three Imposters, Prosper Marchand, in his Dictionnaire historique (1758), denied the existence of any ancient authentic base text beneath this ‘reprinting’: De tribus, he said, was definitively a ‘chimerical work’, a ‘noise’ rather than a book. The 1719 work was, in Minois’s words, a ‘collage of texts’, plucked from Spinoza, Gabriel Naudé, Pierre Charron and others, and ‘cobbled together’ (according to Marchand) by ‘those miserable compilers who hardly care what they put in a book … seeking only to astonish fools’ in pursuit of a quick profit. Copies were rare – particularly after the publishers’ heirs ordered the book to be burned – and were selling for fifty florins, ‘or nearly one month’s salary for a Calvinist minister’, according to Minois. ‘There is nobody more crooked than the booksellers,’ Marchand wrote in 1711.
French police searched for manuscript copies: in 1746 they arrested Claude Lapalu, a Latin teacher turned book salesman specialising in ‘infamous books full of obscenities’, when a search of his home revealed a large collection of pornography alongside a manuscript of De tribus. He said it was his wife’s. A year later a Paris innkeeper, Pierre Guillier, was imprisoned after admitting selling three manuscript copies of De tribus along with Le Jean Foutre puny (‘John Fuckoff Punished’) and Paris foutant (‘Paris Fucking’). According to Minois, the mention of De tribus next to pornographic titles is ‘rather flattering: it reveals that the work was greatly sought after in France.’ The infamy of the text even catalysed Voltaire’s play Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet le Prophète (1741), which Minois describes as ‘anything but a masterpiece’.
The pleasure, for Minois, lies in the flowering complexity of all this, the swirls of wonder and mise en abyme, and we sometimes feel this thrill: but mostly we’re left befuddled. There are ways to articulate complexity, and Minois’s isn’t generally one of them. Partly this has to do with those unfortunate attempts briefly to conjure individuals from the vast cast of rulers, publishers, authors and literary oddballs who flit through the narrative, like Gustavus Adolphus (‘military genius’), or Christopher Marlowe (‘quite troubled’), or Savonarola (‘especially erratic monk’). The glossary at the back doesn’t help much: ‘Müller, Johann Joachim. 1661-1733. German jurist’; ‘Viret, Pierre. 1511-1571. Swiss theologian’; ‘von Ahlefeld, Johann Heinrich. 1656-1720. Danish diplomat’; ‘Vroesen, Jan. 1672-1725. Dutch diplomat.’ Minois’s drive through history is necessarily high-speed, and that’s okay, but there is a difference between high-speed and cartoonish (‘the churches filled up with hypocrites’). Some statements just aren’t right: ‘British historians agree on the amazing degree of indifference to religion that characterised the reign of Elizabeth I.’
A book promises most when it is unwritten; certainly the versions of De tribus that were actually composed lacked the explosive revelations it was supposed to contain. The Latin De tribus never even made it onto the Index of Prohibited Books, though the French text did in 1783. Minois calls De tribus ‘a sort of handbook for the perfect villain’, or ‘the Bible of the unbeliever’, but in fact the book’s preoccupation with the ideological work performed by religion (particularly in the French text) would be seen today as an entirely orthodox critique. In both the Latin and French texts religion is figured as a force used by the powerful and rich to bolster their position. Moses mixes magic and brute strength ‘to become himself prince and dictator of a great people’; Mahomet ‘won [people] over to his cause, by showing off miracles’. Popular credulity is everywhere a source for lament: ‘the masses, the mob, the dregs of the populace, men of low, servile and mechanical condition … are a beast of many heads, vagabond, wandering, mad, stupefied, lacking in proper conduct, lacking spirit or judgment.’ If rationalism ‘is the only light that man should follow’, the Bible is a monument to a kind of anti-thought – ‘a book where there is neither order nor method, that nobody understands’ – which serves to preserve rank and degree: ‘The more these pieces of nonsense contradict each other and insult common sense, the more the common people venerate them.’ Moses, the ‘grandson of a great magician’, performed ‘fancy tricks’ and ‘eliminated his rivals without mercy’. Mahomet’s faith was ‘vulgar and fleshly’, its Prophet dependent on astrology and the sword, and the Quran ‘stuffed with unbelievable stupidities’ of ‘sword[s], wars, murders and captivities’. Jesus ‘demanded the submission of bodies and spirits in exchange for a false hope of eternal life without any guarantee’, his appeal to the poor and the weak a strategically brilliant means to make Christianity’s implausibility a sign of its truth. The Old Testament was ‘the result of pillaging from Plato and Greek myth: Eve and the Androgyne, original sin and Pandora’s box … the sacrifices of Isaac and Iphigenia, and so on.’ Princes use religion – its ‘miracles, prodigies, oracles, mysteries, rites, prophets, feasts’ – as a spell, or drug, ‘to uphold the credit and the reputation of their drama’. De tribus’s tirade is like listening to a post-dinner Christopher Hitchens in full flow, but without the self-doubt.
Perhaps predictably, the critical prominence of De tribus faded after the 18th century, although there were occasional reprintings. One appeared in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1904, ‘privately printed for the subscribers’, an anonymous work attributed to ‘Alcofribas Nasier the Later’ – an anagram of François Rabelais, without the cedilla, and the pseudonym Rabelais himself used to publish Pantagruel in 1532.