Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Best Books of 1912, as if I would know - Rest easy, little aster!

The Best Books of 1912 – you know, I usually do not push on to the 20th century.  Ignorance is the reason.  I have read most of the books I suggested as the Best (surviving) Books of 1812 and 1862, but I do not believe I have read more than three books from 1912, and more importantly I have not spent much time – what metaphor should I use – living in 1912.  I do not know what any of it means.

So I will now write pretending that I do know (but I do not).  Ideas I might develop if I knew more.

Two of the books I have read are Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Leo Tolstoy’s posthumous Hadji Murad.  What else has lasted as well as these?  George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.  Shaw’s reputation seems to be slipping now, and Johnson’s ascending.

Now I start rummaging.  Stefan Zeromski’s The Faithful River is said to be an important Polish novel.  Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier is in print.  Perhaps our economic hard times have given it new life; I do not know what is in it.  Anatole France’s Les dieux ont soif (The Gods Are Thirsty), Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington, D. H. Lawrence’s The Trespasser, Willa Cather’s Alexander’s Bridge – what kind of audience do these books have now?  Lawrence and Cather both have big fun in 1913.  Max Beerbohm still has a cult audience, of which I am a member in bad standing, so A Christmas Garland, his book of literary parodies, still has some readers.

In art history, 1912 means this:

In other words, everyone has gone innovation-crazy and is turning traditional painting inside-out.  But in fiction: Dreiser, France, Tolstoy, for pity’s sake – fiction has not yet taken the Modernist turn.  Virginia Woolf said that everything changed in 1910, but she may have been off by a couple of years.

Then again, 1912 saw the first books from Gottfried Benn, Anna Akhmatova, and Robinson Jeffers.  Something is changing in poetry:

from Gottfried Benn’s Little Asters

A drowned drayman was hoisted on to the slab.
Someone had jammed a lavender aster
between his teeth.
As I made the incision up from the chest…
[yikes, what have I done, let’s skip this part]
Drink your fill in your vase!
Rest easy,
little aster!

Five more surprising survivors from 1912:  The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock, and two Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars.  That last one I have read many times.  The Burroughs books are available in special Library of America editions, and the Leacock has a Norton Critical Edition!

Who would have guessed?  If you are lazily speculating on which of today’s books will be read a hundred years from now, do not hesitate to include your favorite massively popular fantasy novel series.

Note to self for future research:  is A Princess of Mars a descendant of Flaubert’s Salammbô?

Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” is a proud possession of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


  1. Regarding Zeromski...well... Strong Polish nationalism while recognizing what has to change. I enjoyed The Faithful River and have a couple of his novels lined up to read. I really enjoyed the movie version made from this novel.

    I found Czeslaw Milosz's comments on the author appropriate for what I found...stupendous richness mixed with kitsch and melodrama. Fortunately, though (based on his comments) the components' percentages vary by novel.

  2. Well, I've read the Saki and the Leacock: nice enough, but not the best work from either of them.

    E. Nesbit's collection "The Magic World" is also from 1912: fine mischievous stories with some savvy magic realism. Somewhat like Saki, in fact.

    I see there are two other books from 1912 that I've read. Aleister Crowley's "Book 4" is vintage 666, written with, of all people, Preston Sturges' mother. Bertrand Russell's "Problems of Philosophy" is lucid and useful; man, could he write. Quite a year!

  3. According to German Wikipedia, both 'Die Verwandlung' ('The Metamorphosis') and 'Das Urteil' ('The Judgement') were written (but not published) in 1912. Which is nice :)

  4. If you are looking for modernism it was a good year for expressionist theater, music & prose: Georg Kaiser's "From Morning to Midnight," Frank Wedekind's "Franziska" and Reinhard Sorge's "The Beggar." Schoenberg premiered his "Pierrot Lunaire." Kafka wrote "The Judgement" "The Metamorphosis" and "Amerika" (all published later).

  5. The behind-the-scenes Kafka writing is a great addition - for one thing, I have read most of it, so it boosts my false sense of confidence. And for another, it adds to the feeling that something big is about to happen, or is happening but over on the edges of fiction, while painting and music and theater, as severalfourmany says, are leading the way.

    Doug, you've got to have a talk with profs who teach Canadian literature. If Sunshine Sketches is the one in a critical edition it means that's the one they want to teach, don't ask me why.

    Saki's short fiction has trumped the novels, I suppose.

    I do my best to recognize different traditions when I write this kind of post, even if it multiplies the possibilities for error and confusion. The Zeromski book might as well not exist as far as English-language literature is concerned, but Poles still read it, and since it has been translated readers like Dwight can take a run at it. Maybe someday some American writer of genius, perhaps a child of Polish immigrants, perhaps a reader of Dwight's, will write a book that pulls Zeromski into the English tradition.

  6. There was more writing in the wings! Apollinaire wrote "Zone" in 1912; Marinetti wrote "Zang Tumb Tumb": both big works for them.

    "Sunshine Sketches" has a better reputation, but I still prefer Leacock's short comic pieces. They were an important influence on generations of humorists; Benchley, Perelman, Milligan, and Cleese, among others, all cite them. And they can still surprise you.

  7. Thosse are big!

    This kind of exercise slights anything that is not a book, or for that matter authors like Marinetti who are now mostly read chopped up in anthologies - although I see that The Pope's Airplane is from 1912.

  8. Oh, I've been wanting to read Death In Venice since I began last year's Venice in February Challenge. But, not for the challenge, but because I want to know Thomas Mann better. There was a group studying The Magic Mountain when I was at the University of Toronto this summer studying Dostoeyvsky's The Idiot. Let me set it as a goal for myself this coming year.

  9. I am not a good reader of Thomas Mann, but Death in Venice is certainly worth knowing.

    If you read it and find yourself wondering "What the deuce was that?" try to read his novella/ sketch / whatever "A Man and His Dog" which has a quite different character. It is about a man and his dog.

    The Magic Mountain is, I suppose, my #1 German-language Humiliation.

  10. "A Man and His Dog" is beautiful, some of the finest nature writing around. "Disorder and Early Sorrow" is beautiful in a different way. In 2013 at some point I'm reading Buddenbrooks.

  11. See, "A Man and His Dog"! I'm not so crazy after all!