Friday, December 18, 2009

The Wuthering Expectations Best of 2009

Three extra-large Humiliations were crossed off my list: Walden, The Scarlet Letter, and The Flowers of Evil, all highly rewarding.  Let's set those aside, though. 

Some fleeting highlights:

1. Thoreau recommends the "rich sweet cider" of the frozen-thawed apple.  "Your jaws are the cider-press."  ("Wild Apples").

2.  Charles Baudelaire smashes an itinerant glass saleman's backback of samples with a flower pot, just to hear the smash ("as of lightning striking a crystal palace"), to introduce some beauty into this ugly world of ours. "Make life beautiful! Make life beautiful!"  (Paris Spleen, "The Bad Glazier").

3. We spend eighteen hours or so sitting next to Judge Pyncheon.  Hawthorne tells us about the Judge's big day.  They're going to nominate him for Governor!  Why won't Judge Pyncheon move?  "Rise up, Judge Pyncheon!" (Chapter 18 of Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables).

4. A Kazakh railroad worker battles his prize bull camel.  We gaze upon a sturgeon; the sturgeon gazes upon us.  (Chingiz Aitmatov, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years).

5.  All that Yiddish literature, so much, so good.  The futile attempt of I. L. Peretz's poor student to come up with a story that's not about the blood libel. ("Stories").  Hodl's farewell to her father, Tevye the Dairyman.  "Let's talk about something more cheerful.  Have you heard any news of the cholera in Odessa?" (Sholem Aleichem, "Hodl," Tevye the Dairyman).

6.  Arthur Hugh Clough can't get milk for his coffee.   ("Amours de Voyage").

7.  Cranford, Silas Marner, Villette.  Three perfect novels, allowing for some variety in one's standards of perfection.  The methods varied, too: Eliot compressed, Gaskell tied up loose ends, and Brontë pushed, hard.  If I end up marvelling more at Villette, it's because it is so complex, and because after just a bit of looking at secondary souces I have developed the crackpot notion that I possess an original idea about the novel.  Forthcoming in 2010, if I can bring myself to do the work, which I mightn't.

8.  The moment in Flaubert's "A Simple Heart" when they put the stuffed parrot - no, you'll have to go see for yourself.  Is this story the best thing Flaubert ever wrote?  Talk about perfection.

I just want to keep going.  The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan.  Edouard Mörike's  Mozart's Journey to Prague.  Gérard de Nerval's Sylvie.  "The benediction of the air."  John Galt!

I should skip this last part.  No, it's eating at me, since I just read it.  Worst of the year:  the second half of A Study in Scarlet (1887), the first Sherlock Holmes novel.  The Holmes-free Utah section is so, so bad, an undramatic jangle of clichés.  It's not only terribly written on its own, but once we return to Holmes, its dreadfulness has somehow even soaked into Watson's journal, tainting the rest of the novel.  The first half was all right!


  1. Great post. Superb highlight reel. Admirable work all year long, presented with discrimination and panache, and now this fine conclusion.

  2. I was very happy to see you mention the Flaubert Story "The Simple Heart"-this and the other two works in "Three Tales" will radically alter the perception of Flaubert one has if you read only MB-I read Walden and The Scarlett letter a long time ago

    thanks for the very inspiring post-I will read Villete in the next month or so

  3. What a cool way to do a best-of list! Best moments. I like it.

  4. You must write whatever you have in mind for Villette, even if you don't have time or inclination to elaborate. It's one of my all-time favorites.
    And I want to add my bit of praise--since I found this blog it's consistently been fun and informative and has pointed me in a lot of promising directions. Thank you and keep up the great work!

  5. I, too, am eager to read what you have to say about Villette, as you hinted at an interesting take of the anti-Catholicism; perhaps Bronte did not mean it as straightforwardly as I took it. I wouldn't mind a good excuse to re-read as I found it fairly wearying the first time. (And people think Jane Eyre has the melodrama...)

    But Silas Marner! The Best! So much better than Adam Bede -- I consider that one to be the red-headed step-child. I believe there's another Eliot I ought to try before I take on Middlemarch, just to heighten anticipation. Not Mill on the Floss (love!) but that other bit...Scenes of a Clerical Life.

  6. I haven't read "Cranford", but I really liked both "Villette" and "Silas Marner" (though Eliot won the round because Eliot always wins for me, and "Villette" needs a built-in French/English dictionary...). I should really get around to reading something by Gaskell; this is getting a bit embarrassing...

    I tried reading Sherlock Holmes stories at the beginning of sixth grade (or maybe it was a novel? The first part of a "Complete collection" book either way...). It might be that I was too young to actually understand anything (my excuse for just about everything), but I couldn't even make it through thirty pages...

  7. zhiv, Emily, mel - thanks for the encouragement. And Imani and horoki - thanks for the specific encouragement re: Villette. The problem there is that I can't write what I have in mind without doing the work - the work is essential. But, again, the encouragement is very helpful.

    Imani - in Villette, don't trust that narrator. I have no idea what Charlotte Brontë thought about anything, but look out for that slippery Lucy Snowe.

    I recently came across someone who dismissed Silas Marner as not just sentimental but cloying, and all I could think was, y'ain't reading it right, son.

    Biblibio - it was the sixth grade you, definitely. Now, Doyle would be a breeze, if you find that sort of thing interesting at all.

  8. Ohhhhh . . . I'm coming back when I have time to savor. I do love a list!

    Although, I confess to a prurient interest in reading the Utah parts of the Sherlock Holmes book. In my day job, I spend quite a bit of time suing the LDS church, so I am always interested in historic contemporary commentary.

  9. A prurient reason is the best reason to finish A Study in Scarlet. Did I mention that the novel is tiny? And the first half is all right? My suffering was not exactly extensive.

  10. What a fun list! Always great to look back on a year of reading.

  11. I have now done a Part 3 of my best of 2009 Reading List Post-

    The Reading Life Best of 2009 Part 3