Thursday, December 15, 2016

White-eyed and poisonous-finned, shark-toothed and serpentine-curled - the best books of 1866

The best book of 1866 is so obvious that it is barely worth disagreeing, but as Raskolnikov says himself, “The wrong form, you mean – the aesthetics aren’t right!” (VI.7, tr. Oliver Ready).  My favorite book of 1866 is not Crime and Punishment but Victor Hugo’s staggering and preposterous man-against-nature – man-against-hurricane – man-against-octopus – epic The Toilers of the Sea, illustrated above.  The steamboat pictured is about to get stuck on a strange rock formation, and the hero will spend most of the novel fighting everything Hugo can throw at him to get it moving again.  “Then, taking up in the hollow of his hand a little water from a pool of rainwater, he drank it and cried to the clouds: ‘Fooled you!’”  That’s right, he is insulting the clouds, defying the cosmos, as one does in a Victor Hugo book.

Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler this year, too, alongside Crime and Punishment, under contractual conditions that would have crushed most writers.  Now there is some kind of heroism.  I would like to read a Victor Hugo novel about Dostoevsky writing Crime and Punishment and The Gambler.

Henrik Ibsen’s Brand is from 1866, as well, about another defier of the cosmos.  Brand, Raskolnikov, and Hugo’s hero – big characters in big stories.

I do not believe I have read any English-language novels from the year.  Wilkie Collins’s Armadale, George Eliot’s Felix Holt, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, just barely unfinished, would be likely candidates for the Booker Prize, if there had been such a thing.  Gaskell had never won the prize, beat by Thackeray, Dickens, and Trollope, so I think she picks this one up posthumously.  I am just making this up.  Like I care about prizes.

It was a broadly interesting year for poetry.  Paul Verlaine published his first book, Poèmes saturniens, which I have only read in part, and of course in English.  The French looks like this, from “Chansons d’automne,” one of Verlaine’s best-known poems:

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
     De l'automne
Blessent mon cœur
D'une langueur

Lip-smacking French verse.  Those first three lines, those vowels, those nasalizations.  Maybe the poem also means something.

Algernon’s first books of lyrics, Poems and Ballads, appeared, ruining English poetry for decades until austere, brutal Modernists dynamited and carted off his lush, sweet gibberish:

from Hymn to Proserpine

Where beyond the extreme sea-wall, and between the remote sea-gates,
Waste water washes, and tall ships founder, and deep death waits:
Where, mighty with deepening sides, clad about with the seas as with wings,
And impelled of invisible tides, and fulfilled of unspeakable things,
White-eyed and poisonous-finned, shark-toothed and serpentine-curled,
Rolls, under the whitening wind of the future, the wave of the world.

It is like The Toilers of the Sea turned into English verse.  Swinburne was Hugo’s greatest English champion.

Christina Rossetti’s second book, The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems seemed like a paler version of her brilliant first book, but I’ll note it, at least.

In the United States, Herman Melville published Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, his debut as a poet and his first book in a decade, the first of all too few volumes of poetry.  Even more surprising somehow is James Greenleaf Whittier’s nostalgic, ironic “Snow-Bound,” surprising because Whittier was generally such a bad poet, but one who occasionally wrote a great poem.  Whether the torments inflicted by the poem on several generations of schoolchildren are to the demerit of Whittier I leave to the conscience of the individual reader.  Those days are long past.


  1. The Gambler is one of my favourite Dostoevskys - boy, could that man write!

  2. Now that exclamation of yours could be taken in more than one way. He sure could!

    I like The Gambler a lot when Granny shows up and the whole thing turns into a farce.