Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Best Books of the Year - 1809

The year-end lists are upon us.  I love year-end lists.  I do think more humility would be helpful (although Enumerations does sound like a genuinely great book).  It's the rhetoric that's off.  Most of the books on the lists, good books, valuable books, are our books, which is far from nothing.  But.   

The Napoleonic Wars were a bad time for Western literature.  Understandably.  Still, 1809 was especially thin.  One book has survived, really survived: Elective Affinities, by the sixty year old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  It was Goethe's third novel, and umpteenth book.  Note that the Best Book of 1808 was Faust, Part I.  Note that among the Best Books of 1819 was Goethe's East West Divan (I give the 1819 laurel to Byron - Don Juan, Cantos I and II).  Goethe was a giant.

Elective Affinities is a mysterious book, not quite a novel in the English sense, intellectualized and formal in some ways, but warm and lovely in others. I recommend litlove's post for more details.  I see traces of it many later writers - in Thoreau, in Stifter and Storm, in Charlotte Brontë.

The literary event of the year in England was Lord Byron's English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, a topical literary satire, readable, but basically dead.  The Penguin Book of English Verse skips the year completely. 

The United States began to inch into literature with Washington Iriving's A History of New York from the Beginning etc.  The title just wore me out.  More satire, swell.  Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon is one of the Best Books of 1819.  I haven't read A History of New York.  Maybe it's better than it sounds.

If you like Laurence Sterne, which you do, Jean-Paul Richter's novella Army Chaplain Schmelzle's Jouney to Flatz is worth a look.  It's what it sounds like, and still fairly funny.  Schmelzle!  Flatz!

Now this is unusual - one of the few classics of 19th century Chinese literature dates from 1809, Shen Fu's Six Records of a Floating Life, a memoir of a love affair, I think. I should read it.

Anyone want to make the case for Campbell's Gertrude of Wyoming?  I mean, for the book, not the title.  What's François-René de Chateaubriand's The Martyrs like?  What I'm trying to say is, I could be wrong.  Let me know.

The other thing I'm trying to say is, yes, in Western literature, exactly one book of permanent value dates from 1809.  I'm not saying I think the same is true of 2009.  There's reason to think otherwise.  And in an important sense, which of our books are read in 200 years is not a problem of much consequence.  But.

The painting, my Favorite of 1809, is Caspar David Friedrich's The Monk by the Sea.  One might guess that the monk has something on his mind besides the dearth of immortal books.


  1. Frankly, I'm amazed at people who have read sufficient books from 2009 (or really any year) to even play at making the call. I have read...none. And I'm not even doing a 19th-century specialization project; I just don't like reading hardbacks. I feel like I've ended up with more of a "Books from 2009 I'm Most Interested In Picking Up in Paperback" list than a Best Books of 2009 list...which might be more valuable anyway, I suppose.

  2. Hmm, maybe I'll write about this tomorrow. I have read more recent books, even 2009 books, then one might think. But the idea of making a Best Of list is preposterous.

    People who do so should perhaps provide the denominator. Best 10 of - how many?

  3. Thanks for the reference to Jean Paul Richter's Army-Chaplain Schmelzle's Journey. I took you to imply a comparison to Tristam, so I took a look at Schmelzle. A comparison, certainly. And enjoyable, yes. But unless my 36-year-old recollection of Tristam is as badly reconstructed as it probably is at my age,Tristam would win any race between the two, and by more than a nose--unless you mean the nose in Slawkenbergius's Tale. (I confess I just looked at Tristam again to find the stranger with the great nose.)

    If you range into discussions of Richter again, I do hope you'll elaborate some comparisons of Schmelzle and Tristam-- meaning the books, not the characters, but then again I'd even be happy to read your comparisons of the characters.