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.