These moments of new discovery are understandably rare (though perhaps not as rare as one might expect). Most of my early work involved putting a pen through lines on a finding aid, those lists that describe the boxes and folders of archival collections. Some were irrelevant; others were logged in one of the folders that had started to crop up on my desktop. Like the subject of a camera’s lens, they were always there; it just took some effort to see them clearly.
While I worked on research for my book, among my list of Tour ascents and bike-company catalogs were the internal documents of L’Auto, the newspaper that founded the Tour de France. These papers, which I imagined included operating budgets and advertising agreements, were obvious enough to be placed on the list without prompting by someone else. Of course L’Auto kept papers and of course I should at least look through their finding aid, on the website of whichever institution held them.
I thought it strange that few sources mentioned the papers in their endnotes, but I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. They were already on my list; I knew of databases where I could search for them. Noting their existence was the early issue to resolve.
Work continued. I spent time with the public papers of L’Auto, the daily editions of the newspaper themselves. I looked at the route the cyclists took that year, a detail that could be precisely and accurately recreated from their coverage of the race, helpfully digitized by the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I collected details of the cyclists’ lives, their military records and memories of this race and others from government documents, their standings in the races before they left for the front and those first ones after they returned.
After searches for the company’s private documents came up empty, I emailed representatives at the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) about L’Auto’s papers. ASO now runs the Tour de France, so I hoped they might have kept the papers private, which would create its own difficulty but at least not an unresolvable one. Emails went unanswered. I looked for other avenues: people who likely didn’t have the papers themselves but who might direct me to someone closer. Even then, I suppose I never considered them gone: Surely someone would have them; surely someone would have thought to keep them around.
While reading about the final years of Henri Desgrange, the Tour’s nominal founder, I learned that the editor in chief’s replacement had allegedly placed the newspaper’s private papers on a train to Marseille in 1940. The French realized they had weeks before Germans reached Paris, so the papers were loaded and sent on their way. But before the train arrived at its destination, it and everything aboard disappeared. I couldn’t find much else. I thought the train likely bombed, the papers destroyed.
What’s a writer to do with this loss? The simplest answer is nothing; the documents’ value was partly in their uniqueness; there would be no way to recreate most of their stored information. The writer either carries on without them or decides their essential nature renders the project valueless without them. I decided on the former.
Among writers who continue despite some missing knowledge they know won’t be filled in, the gap either becomes an implicit or explicit feature of the work. Narrative structures make mention of it (Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies, Natalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden), or they weave and stretch sources over the hole (Colm Tóibín’s The Master, Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives). Sometimes there’s something in between; I think of Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage. In more significant cases, or more flexible ones, the scope of the work shifts: The writer turns their gaze elsewhere, magnifies another portion of the cloth—sticks to safer ground. In any case, it’s hard to forget about the loss.
I could feel it at times: that something I wrote steered me close to the edge of the gap, that the weft was occasionally in danger of giving out underneath me. Would it have been better if I wasn’t attuned to this haunting, if I knew from the outset the documents never would have existed, that the newspaper was a haphazard endeavor, and I should forget trying to understand their inner workings?
It’s likely a complete set of L’Auto’s records would have let me know to what degree the newspaper relied on the Tour for its continued existence after the end of the war, something I was aware of in the general and historical sense. For all I know, however, those documents also included correspondence between Desgrange and reporters who described how one or another cyclist suffered an injury that otherwise went unremarked, how postwar equipment—tires, bike frames—from advertisers faltered in ways earlier models didn’t (to mention only two potential threads possibly lost with the train).
Those known and imagined losses shaped the work from an early point: They told me where to push further and when I would have to speak in more general terms, focusing on habits instead of specific moments. I reminded myself that I’d always wanted the book to focus closely on how one might have experienced the race with the devastation just beyond. I had an overabundance of papers describing the war—if it’s not scarcity then it’s abundance—and I could identify just about every road a fan could have stopped on to watch the cyclists pass. I can’t remember how much I knew before I decided that my proposed construction was the only way I wanted the book to exist; maybe I was still looking for the L’Auto papers, maybe I already knew they were gone.
Of course, you have to move beyond this moment of questioning if you find yourself reading this essay. Stories easily and comprehensively pieced together from archives are those least worth telling, remnants of an earlier time that might have been forgotten but rarely bring about entirely new understandings.
You look elsewhere or take more meager scraps: a lone data point; a photograph with a different subject, where you can still see your interest in frame. Depending on the nature of the material, you begin all those forms of research you had pushed aside (which you should do eventually, anyway). You do your best to define the edges of the gap so that you might affix scraps to its outer limit. The blank will still mostly be there in the end, but that’s okay.
After some early interest in the book, I wrote an adaptation for a producer. I shifted the story’s scope for the new medium, wanting to focus on those months in 1940 just before L’Auto’s papers left for Marseille; I knew a film would let me do so in a way a nonfiction book would not. I started researching again, found new holes, and continued.
Adin Dobkin is the author of Sprinting Through No Man's Land. His essays and reporting have been featured in New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Catapult, and The Paris Review Daily, among others. He received his MFA from Columbia University.