Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Diary of a Lost Girl - an author talk and film screening

On Sunday, November 14, Thomas Gladysz will speak about his new edition of The Diary of a Lost Girl in the Koret Auditorium of the San Francisco Public Library. This author talk and film screening are sponsored by the Art, Music & Recreation Center in association with the Louise Brooks Society, an online archive and international fan club based in San Francisco. A small display with archival material relating to the 1905 book and the celebrated 1929 film are on display on the fourth floor. Gladysz wrote the following:

As anyone who knows me knows, I’m nuts about the silent film star Louise Brooks. I find her an endlessly fascinating subject – and my interest and research into her life and career extends into the books and plays which were turned into her various films. They include The Diary of a Lost Girl, a little known 1905 novel by an equally little known German writer named Margarete Böhme.

Wanting to know more about the book –– I began by doing research at the San Francisco Public Library. My 20 page introduction to a new edition of The Diary of a Lost Girl (the first in English in more than 100 years) details the book’s remarkable history and relationship to the celebrated film of the same name.

The Diary of a Lost Girl was first published in Germany as Tagebuch einer Verlonenen. It tells the story of Thymian, a teenage girl who through circumstance turns to a life of prostitution. Today, the book is accepted as a work of fiction. But when first published, it was believed to be a genuine diary. Naturally, it caused quite a scandal. Böhme claimed only to be its editor (a claim she always maintained), and controversy swirled around its authorship.

The book was also a bestseller. It was translated into 14 languages including English, and was published in the United States in 1908 as The Diary of a Lost One.

Though little known today, the book was something of a sensation in the early 20th century. Controversy over its authorship, spirited debate over its merits, and even lawsuits followed its publication – as did a popular sequel, a banned play, a parody, a score of imitators, and two silent films. The best remembered of these is certainly the celebrated G.W. Pabst film from 1929.

By the end of the Twenties, the book had sold more than 1,200,000 copies – ranking it among the bestselling works of its time. Then, it was called “one of the saddest of modern books.” Today, a literary scholar has called it “Perhaps the most notorious and certainly the commercially most successful autobiographical narrative of the early twentieth century.”

Böhme was a progressive minded writer and early feminist and the author of 40 novels. She starting publishing in German newspaper at the age of 17, and in her day, her work was compared to that of another popular and prolific author, Emile Zola. However, only two of Böhme’s books were ever translated into English, and each has been long out-of-print.

There is very little in English about either Böhme or The Diary of a Lost Girl. The only three about the author are in German. Thus, it was challenging to find out more.

However, through a series of inter-library loans and link+ requests, by delving into some of the old bound periodicals held by the library, and by exploring some of the various electronic databases (namely JSTOR and the historic New York Times), I was able to piece together a history of the book as sketched above.

I think it’s a remarkable history, and I was often amazed to learn some new fact in my research. A search through the New York Times, for example, revealed an article from 1907 which mentioned that Bram Stoker, the celebrated author of Dracula, would have wanted to ban The Diary of a Lost Girl!

Wow, that's the kettle calling the pot black.

I could not have put together my new edition of The Diary of a Lost Girl without the help of the SFPL. Both my new book and the DVD of the 1929 Louise Brooks film are available at the library.

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