Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Best Books of the Year - 1808

1808 was an unusual year for literature. I have not been able to find many enduring books from this year, but one of them happens to be among the greatest masterpieces ever written.

Goethe had been working on his version of the Faust story for thirty years before he published Faust, Part I, in 1808. Goethe was 59. He would finish Part II in 1832, 24 years later. Unbelievable.

Faust was immediately considered, in the German-speaking world, a masterpiece. It would have topped the Top 10 lists in Germany, if there had been such things. I don't know much about it's reception elsewhere. My impression is that German-readers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge were just as enthusiastic. It would still be a consensus candidate for greatest German work of all time, like Hamlet in English.

That should be enough for one year. What else was there? A lot of Heinrich von Kleist, the plays Penthesilea and The Broken Jug, as well as the ethically disturbing novella The Marquise of O. I remember nothing about Penthesilea, but The Broken Jug is a favorite, still quite funny.

The big literary news in England seems to have been Walter Scott's Marmion, a big drop from Kleist, much less Faust. A lot of major Wordsworth poems date from the previous year, which doesn't mean there was nothing this year. Coleridge, Crabbe, Landor, a young Byron - maybe there was something. The Penguin Book of English Verse covers the year with a single Thomas Moore poem.

The polyglot, pan-European literateur of 1808, making bets about what would survive, would probably have picked Marmion as a more significant work than The Marquise of O. Well, he would have gotten Faust, Part I right. That was an easy one.

In a way, I'm amazed anything was published in 1808. Not anything of value, anything at all. I put my favorite portrait of Napoleon, the only one I really like, up at the top, the 1808 Antoine-Jean Gros painting "Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau", now in the Louvre. That's what was going on in 1808.


  1. Insightful post. Interesting that Faust came out in an otherwise largely barren year. It's almost as if everyone else made way, knowing that it was Goethe's year. But you are certainly correct that Napoleon was overshadowing everything. Any connections to be made between Faust and Napoleon as the literary and historical giants of the year?

  2. I have no idea why Goethe finally decided that the first part of Faust was finally ready to publish in 1808. He had been working on it, off and on for 34 years. I need the third volume of Nicholas Boyle's Goethe biography to fill me in.