Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Best Books of 1863 - how very few of these / Poor little busy poet bees / Can we expect again to hum

Ow, my eyes.  You can see the 1863 “Birth of Venus” by Alexandre Cabanel in the flesh – or in the marzipan (see the Zola quotation at the following link) –  at the Musée d’Orsay, although I do not know why you would, since that museum has so many good paintings.

The Best Books of 1863 were better than this painting.  But it was the year of the second-rate.

I would pick The Cossacks, Leo Tolstoy’s clear-eyed look at the desire to romanticize other cultures, as the best book of the year, but it is not quite first-rate Tolstoy.  Now that is an absurd standard, but the fact is that The Cossacks is dragged along behind Tolstoy’s great masterpieces.  It is read as much as it is, and will continue to be read, because of other books.

My list of surviving English novels for 1863 looks like this:

Romola, George Eliot
The Water-Babies, Charles Kingsley
Salem Chapel, Margaret Oliphant
Rachel Ray, Anthony Trollope
The Small House at Allington, Trollope, in the middle of its serialization.

Boy, there is always plenty of Trollope in the 1860s.  I have only read two of the five.  We see  some of the same phenomenon here, I think, certainly with Romola, possibly with the Trollope novels.  The exercise is to imagine that Romola were the only George Eliot novel.  Would anyone still read it?  The exercise is preposterous, so I will move on.  The English class of 1863 seems a little weak, is all I am saying.  Go to those links, though, the ones not to Wuthering Expectations.  A good case is made for every one of those books.

No idea what was going on in French literature this year (or Spanish, or Italian, or German).  American literature was almost put on hold by the Civil War.  Without a doubt, the great American work of the year is a speech, the Gettysburg Address, elegant, forceful, rhetorically brilliant, and now, in its way, one of the key  texts  of the United States.

Louisa May Alcott’s charming Hospital Sketches and Henry Longfellow’s Tales from a Wayside Inn can hardly stand that kind of competition, although both are enjoyable books.  The Longfellow book contains “The Birds of Killingworth,” a bizarre and superb poem of ecological apocalypse.

One more novel was not even second-rate artistically, but was all too significant, Nikolai Chernyshevksy’s What Is to Be Done?, a radical Utopia, written in prison, smuggled out, published illegally, eventually becoming a founding text of the Russian Revolution.  So if not such a great year for novels, 1863 was unusually well equipped with important political literature.

I wrote a bit about the Chernyshevsky novel while discussing Fathers and Sons, where I was startled to see a number of people declare that they wanted to read What Is to Be Done?  Are you all nuts?  But I will suffer along with the rest of you.  I should organize a readalong – it would be the least popular book blog event since the readalong of Herman Melville’s Clarel a few years ago.  And if it turned out a fifth  as well, that would be something.

I wonder what I am missing?  I never mean these posts to be completely comprehensive, and how could they be, but I do hope that any additional suggestions sound a bit desperate and little-read  – Walter Savage Landor’s last book of poems, how about that one?

Come to think of it, I have read that book.  Landor, eighty-eight years old in 1863, was a fine poet; it is a fine book.  But that is hardly my point here, as Landor knows:

The Poet Bees
There are a hundred now alive
Who buz about the summer hive,
Alas! how very few of these
Poor little busy poet bees
Can we expect again to hum
When the next summer shall have come.

One hundred and fifty years is a long lifespan for a book.  Seven novels, the Alcott book, the Longfellow poems, one of the greatest funeral orations, not bad, really.


  1. Manet painted two of the century's most famous paintings in 1863, but I used him last year, so you get the Marzipan Venus. Look at that water. It is like it is made of resin.

  2. I suspect the point of the painting was not the water.

    Jules Verne's "Five Weeks in a Balloon" deserves a mention. It was his first success, and started an odd, problematic, often charming career. I still don't know quite what to make of him. I devoured his books as a kid.

  3. Verne was such a narrow writer himself, but look at all the invention that has spun out of his work.

    Yes, a good omission to correct, thanks.

  4. Verne was not well served by translators; generations of English readers knew him only from stodgy abridgements. There are Verne surprises: "Doctor Ox's Experiment," for example, made into operas by both Offenbach and Gavin Bryars. And here's my translation of his sonnet in praise of morphine: http://ullagegroup.com/2011/07/31/jules-vernes-sonnet-on-morphine/

  5. I remember a push ten or maybe 15 years ago to bring out some updated translations of Verne. But it seems people mostly read the 19th century versions.

    Thanks for the poem.

  6. In 1863 for the first time a book collected some of Ricardo Palma's Tradiciones Peruanas, this book was The annals of Lima's Inquisition. Palma's Peruvian Traditions were arguably the most fun tales to come out of Latin America during the 19th. Century.

    Here's a little excerpt from this 1863 brilliant book:
    'On the morning of December the 20th, 1694 the masses of Lima came down upon the Church of Santo Domingo to witness the ceremonies of an Auto-da-fe. [Last of those sentenced was Angela Carranza].

    On her books of revelations Carranza wrote about how on one occasion the Lord said to her: 'Can you believe it, Angela, I don't know what shoe size my mother wears? On a different chat, God told her: I cannot make you perfect Angela because your confessor priest is spying on us. She also remarked how God told her that good women are few and far between, and how because Peter was hardheaded he was crucified head down. These last two jokes, which reveal wit and a funny side, confirm that Angela Carranza deserved her fate at the hands of the Inquisition.

    She wrote that God favored Mary Magdalen more because he was attracted to her and liked her rather than because she deserved such privilege. Saint Mary of Egypt was so heavy that angels had to hoist her into heaven and when Saint John the baptist was doing her hair, God told him: Come on John, leave her alone, manly men don't know how to do a proper hairdo! She also revealed these secrets: God told her -Angela you're my mirror and I'm your reflection; I'm the blemish on your face and you're the shadow on my face. God once sent an angel to fetch her to heaven and Angela said, God will have to excuse me today because I'm very busy and I cannot go. On another occasion some angels brought a chair to her and said: on this throne God rules over the universe, Angela, please sit on it. God promised her that she'd become the patron saint of Lima. Saint Agustin once told her, Angela, despite you not being a man, I'd give you my place and my staff, but I'm afraid you'd use my staff to hit the Pope on the head until he explains what he meant by the mystery of the immaculate conception of the Virgin!'

  7. A Chernyshevsky readalong would be fun. What is to be Done? being a second-rate book might increase the fun, you know.

    That Palma stuff looks great! Is there an English translation of the Inquisitions? "These last two jokes, which reveal wit and a funny side, confirm that Angela Carranza deserved her fate at the hands of the Inquisition." Irresistible.

  8. Third-rate. Yeah, what the heck. I've had dumber ideas. Expect an announcement off in the distant future.

    I wonder if I have read Palma while studying Spanish? Those tales from Peruvian Traditions show up in Spanish readers. It doesn't sound so familiar, though.

    I like the idea that horrible tales of the Inquisition might be the "most fun." I find that plausible.

  9. I've read What is to be Done? Not that I can remember much about it, except it was pretty didactic and political - but I'm pretty sure there was some kind of romance in it too.

  10. Oh yes, What Is To Be Done? has romance, peasants, almonds - I distinctly remember a scene with almonds - agricultural practices. Everything, it has everything.

  11. Never been able to finish What Is To Be Done? Really third-rate literature with a romance awfully naive.

  12. But Romola is such a great book, one so surprising — so different from any historical novel, and so un-nineteenth century, so anti-Cabanel in its spirit.

  13. If I really do push that Chernyshevsky readalong idea, I will have to include reading strategies and alternatives. Anyone reading for romance, or story, or interesting characters, or good prose, or, surprisingly, ideas, will be disappointed. Yet there are ways into the book.

    If you click on either of the links I attached to Romola, you will find readers happy to agree with you to some degree. I wonder what you mean by "un-nineteenth century," though. The 19th century was a big place.

  14. Yes, what did I mean ?!
    Let's try. I don't see many nineteenth century novel that would bear similitudes with Romola — but maybe I'm forgeting a lot of great books just now. It doesn't enfold the story in erudition, even if erudition is there, nor does it hide it under Renaissance revival (Viollet-le-Duc style).

  15. 1863 is the year of Le Capitaine Fracasse, a book I couldn't finish due to its pompous prose.

    1. Gautier! There is an old English translation. I have to say, it looks tedious. But I see it still has life in France, with recent film, TV, and BD versions.

    2. I've yet to meet someone who's read it.

    3. How would you possibly know that?

      It is in print in editions for schoolkids. See the link below. Someone is reading it.

    4. Maybe I'll read it, just to spite you.

    5. Good - if it were easier to get a copy, I would spite myself.

    6. Actually, I meant to spite bookaroundthecorner, who scorns Gautier; but I'm willing to spite others too.

  16. You must be right that Romola does not give the feel of a facade or a 19th century restoration (which is what I take the reference to Viollet-le-Duc to mean).

    Rohan Maitzen analysis of the awkward "cheese with macaroni" line gets at this issue.

    From what I have seen of Romola, I assume that Eliot's models were the novels of Walter Scott (some of which are themselves pretty great).

  17. I don't think Le Capitaine Fracasse is still alive in France, except for some BD or films (I read it as a child in an abridged version and try to read it again forty years after and it wasn't unpleasant).
    Maybe it isn't Gautier's best book, but Gauthier was a fine writer with a beautiful style, an excentric Romantic slightly decadent, the first to adopt for a slogan the "Art for art's sake". His short stories, ghost stories mainly, are worth reading. Gautier's best novel was written far earlier than 1863, in 1835: Mademoiselle de Maupin is about a historical (?) swordswoman who went about disguised as a man.

    Viollet-le-Duc evokes not only restoration but also creation of some imaginary past : he said he restored by "interpretation", unhencing buildings, updating them, creating a state of architecture that may have never actually existed.

  18. For a 150 year old book, this is life. In print, assigned in schools, made into comic books. The Captain is alive!

    There are likely some book blogs out there with more than four posts about Gautier, but surely not too many.

  19. I've usually Gautier. I was particularly ticled by "Les Jeunes France" (pointed ridicule of the Romantics, including himself) and "Le Belle-Jenny" (a ridiculous adventure, with secret societies, thwarted marriages, and impossible coincidences). In the former, I was charmed by the debauch that fizzles because excessive drinking makes everyone sick or sleepy; in the latter, by the British hooligans who quote Shakespeare.

  20. (That should be "I've usually enjoyed" and "tickled." Apologies.)

  21. I have enjoyed him a lot, too, although I have not come across with of those stories. I was just thinking recently that I might revisit his poems, since a new translation appeared a few years ago.