Bookworm: Those were the days
It’s the 50th anniversary of the 1963 deaths of Sylvia Plath and CS Lewis, but I’m more intrigued at how people might celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of the founder of the anarchic Dada movement, Tristan Tzara. In true style, he died on Christmas Day.
1913 was the year DH Lawrence’s Sons And Lovers and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion were published, and it is the centenary of the birth of a few great novelists no longer so much in fashion – the Canadian Robertson Davies (The Cornish Trilogy) and the English Angus Wilson (Anglo-Saxon Attitudes) – and one writer who has influenced even those who never read him: Albert Camus.
In 1863, Chernyshevsky published What Is To Be Done? – if Marx provided the theory for the Russian Revolution, this novel provided the emotional background. In Britain, Charles Kingsley wrote that weird perennial, The Water Babies, and two great genre writers were born: Arthur Machen, author of The White People and Antony Hope, author of The Prisoner Of Zenda.
In 1813, the new poet laureate, Robert Southey, wrote his Life of Nelson, confirming his days as a radical were well and truly over. It vastly outsold the book the year is best remembered for: Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice (which she sold for £110 – the equivalent of £3,735 – which is a little more than the 2011 average advance). In Denmark, the man who would become the most famous theologian, stylist, and generally unclassifiable intellect of his period was born: Søren Kierkegaard.
May 16, 1763, at Thomas Davies’s bookshop in London, the most famous literary meeting of the century takes place: the young Scot James Boswell meets the Great Cham, Samuel Johnson. Halfway round the world, the most important Chinese novelist of the century has died: Cao Xueqin, whose Story Of The Stone should be one of the books you read this year.
1713: Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, is born. Samuel Johnson makes the biggest gaffe of his critical career when he says that “nothing odd will last long – Tristram Shandy did not last”. Hopefully the Book Festival will dedicate a strand to Sterne and his legacy (which includes The Water Babies, oddly enough, and Alasdair Gray). If you read one book this year, make it Tristram Shandy.