Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Best Books of 1913 - Loons with trumpets blowed a blare, blare, blare / On, on upward thro' the golden air!

This was a strange year for anniversaries.  It is usually the births and deaths of writers that are commemorated, but this year I noticed a lot of attention to books – two books, I mean, Pride and Prejudice and Swann’s Way (for that matter, the Gettysburg Address fits the pattern).  Perhaps this tells us something about what these books have become, how their meaning has expanded beyond their texts.  Austen and Proust both have industries around them.

Proust, or Swann’s Way, or at least the “Combray” section of Swann’s Way, deserves the honor of Best Book of 1913, I think, so I have no complaint about the attention it receives.  It is one of the great novels of the century.  Yet there is something arbitrary to its celebrity.  At least one more of the century’s greats was published in the same year, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, a novel that is innovative like Proust’s book but has a tense thriller plot, including terrorists and a ticking time bomb.  Yet it is a cult novel in English.  I have no idea why.  It is not like English readers have been averse to Russian novels.

If you polled readers or critics fifty years ago, asking them which novel would get the most attention at its centennial, Swann’s Way or D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, I wonder if Lawrence would not top the poll.  How he has fallen.  Or how Proust has risen.  Some of both.  Sons and Lovers is doing all right for itself.

Perhaps a French reader can let me know if Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes has gotten much centennial celebration in France, where it is as well-known as, I don’t know, its titular cousin The Great Gatsby.  In English, another cult book.

I am never sure if I should do a Best of 191X post.  For the 19th century, I have read more of the books I am mentioning, so I know what the books are, not just how they are known.  In 1913, I see Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, which I have not read (nor have I read the Lawrence novel).  I just started the Cather, out of a sense of shame.

1913 was a deeply interesting year for poetry.  It produced a crop of first or second books by major poets, a number of which may well not be major books themselves – see above, haven’t read them – but remind me how quickly poetry was changing.  Maybe not as quickly as painting, but close.  D. H. Lawrence, again, Georg Trakl, Osip Mandelstam, Robert Frost’s A Boy’s Will, Guilliame Apollinaire’s Alcool, William Carlos Williams.

Subscribers to the hot new magazine Poetry would read Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” alongside (more or less) Ezra Pound’s  “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition     of these faces     in the crowd   :
Petals     on a wet, black     bough    .

(for those who do not know it, that’s the entire poem) and Vachel Lindsay’s rather different “General William Booth Enters into Heaven”:

Hallelujah! It was queer to see
Bull-necked convicts with that land make free.
Loons with trumpets blowed a blare, blare, blare
On, on upward thro' the golden air!
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

You’re supposed to sing this, accompanied by bass drum and banjos.  Pound and Lindsay support Kilmer’s argument, since neither poem is as lovely as a tree, although they have other virtues.  There is another line from the Lindsay poem that I was tempted to use as my title: “But their noise played havoc with the angel-choir.”  That was the poetry of 1913.  And the music.  And the painting.  And some of the novels, too.

Giorgio de Chirico’s The Transformed Dream, picked almost at random from a superb year of paintings, can be seen free of charge at the Saint Louis Art Museum.  How interesting, André Breton owned it for a long time.


  1. Wow - I got about four paragraphs in and I'd still read all the books... The usual cluelessness kicked in at paragraph five.

  2. Unlike the earlier years, the 1913 lists are in no way meant to be comprehensive.

    Meaning, yes, killer year for fiction, these books and more. Even better year for poetry, if you like the young jittery stuff.

  3. That's a remarkably good cross-section of literature for a single year. I look forward to reading your post on O Pioneers!. And I feel somehow grateful that of the three or four poetry readings I've attended in my life, none featured bass drum and banjo.

  4. 1913 was a very good year for French readers. In addition to the already mentioned books by Proust and Fournier, 1913 was the year of Andre Gide's translation of Tagore's Gitanjali and of the French language staging and publication of Maeterlinck's play Mary Magdalene. Both works had been published earlier in English translation.

  5. Lindsay had some powerfully strange ideas. I take the instructions about instrumentation simply as lines of the poem.

    humblehappiness mentions a good, good idea, to take a year and try to figure out what books were actually newly available. I have been pretending that there is a reader who was reading or could read Cather, Proust, Trakl, and Mandelstam all at once, plus see all of the new paintings and attend the performance of The Rite of Spring, but of course there was no such person.

    it is just harder to figure out which translations were new, that is the problem.

  6. "Alcools" is definitely major! It's probably Apollinaire at his best. The first poem, "Zone," is a wonder.

    "General William Booth" should always be heard in the glorious Charles Ives setting. Ives carefully avoided most of Lindsay's directions.

  7. Now the Apollinaire, that one I have read. The Trakl is major, too. Poor guy.

    Imagine the poor reader of the January 1913 Poetry, confronting "Nicholas Vachel Lindsay" without the help of Ives. Fortunately there are some soothing H.D. translations later int he same issue.

    None of the three poems I mentioned actually appeared in the same issue. It only occurred to me after I posted that I could look this up.

  8. Scattered thoughts.
    I love these posts of yours.
    How is Apolinnaire in English?
    1913 is pre-WWI. It's still the 19th century, no?
    You know I love Proust, the publication of Un Amour de Swann has been celebrated but I didn't hear a thing about Le Grand Meaulnes.
    I'm curious to read your thought about Oh! Pioneers.
    You must read The Custom of the Country, it's tremendous. A masterpiece. I've never seen a character like Undine Spragg.

    PS: where can I subscribe to receive your new posts in my mail box?

  9. Still the 19th century, exactly!

    Little or no Alain-Fournier? Proust has really moved into a different kind of celebrity. Amazing and unlikely, really.

    In English, in the right hands, Apollinaire is good, but no one can capture the way Apollinaire was radically breaking the rules of French poetry.

    I have never seen a name like Undine Spragg. What a great name.

    It had never occurred to me to add a "Follow by Email" box. I just did - it is under the "Recent Comments" box. Thanks!

  10. You need to read the book (or my billet about it) to know more about the origins of the name Undine Spragg. Tout un poème, as we say in French.

    Thanks for the email subscription box, it'll help me keep track of what you write and pop here more often.

  11. May I mention that 2014 is the 100th anniversary of Romain Gary's birth?

  12. I have read the post about Wharton and Undine.

    You certainly may mention Gary's centennial. You should organize a party.

  13. I have begun reading a published in 1913 Yiddish classic that might be worth considering for the list, The End of Everything David Bergelson

  14. I read several Bergelson books a few years ago, but not that one. I must have run out of steam. He is awfully depressing, but I doubt that bothered me.