November 14, 2013

This week in 1913: Swann’s Way is published, Georg Trakl gives a bad reading of a fantastic work


Just before one of its darkest moments came the twentieth century’s most exciting year . . .

It was the year Henry Ford first put a conveyer belt in his car factory, and the year Louis Armstrong first picked up a trumpet. It was the year Charlie Chaplin signed his first movie contract, and Coco Chanel and Prada opened their first dress shops. It was the yearProust began his opus, Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring, and the first Armory Show in New York introduced the world to Picasso and the world of abstract art. It was the year the recreational drug now known as ecstasy was invented.

It was 1913, the year before the world plunged into the catastrophic darkness of World War I.


November 13: On 13 November, Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s great novel In Search of Lost Time, is published. After the book was turned down not only by the Fasquelle and Oldenbourg publishing houses and the Nouvelle Revuew Française but also by André Gide, the then editor at Gallimard, Proust had the book published by Grasset at his own expense. No sooner does he hold the first copy in his hands than his chauffer and lover Alfred Agostinelli splits up with him. Everyone else falls for the author. Rilke reads the book only a few days after its publication. It begins with the golden words “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure”—“For a long time I went to bed early”—and in saying this, Proust touched the nerve of an exhausted avant-garde who, from Kafka to Joyce, from Musil to Thomas Mann, boasted in their diaries whenever they managed to go to bed before midnight. Going to bed early—to the ever weary pioneers of the modern age it seemed like the bravest struggle against depression, drinking, senseless distraction and the advance of time.

Date unknown: Georg Trakl reads at the fourth literary soirée of Ludwig von Ficker’s magazine Der Brenner in the Innsbruck Musikvereinssaal. And the poet must have spoken as if he were still mumbling as he walked along the beach of the Lido in Venice: “Unfortunately the poet read too faintly, as if from things hidden, things past or yet to come, and only later could one discern from the monotonously prayer-like murmurings the words and phrases, then images and rhythms that form his futuristic poetry.” So wrote Josef Anton Steurer in the Allgemeiner Tiroler Anzeiger.

Between two disastrous appearances, at the Lido and before the Musikverein, one of the central chapters of twentieth-century German-language lyric poetry is produced. A total of fifty-nine poems. In fact, he produces 499 poems, or 4,999, because Trakl’s poems are never finished; there are countless versions, over-writings, rewritings, corrections and variants. Again and again he picks up his pen, changes the manuscripts; again and again he writes to the publishers of the magazines that publish his poems, that this word must be changed to that, and that to this. A “blue” can become a “black,” a “quiet” a “wise.” You can see him dragging motifs around with him, trying to capture them verse by verse and, if it still doesn’t work, crossing them out again and then carrying them on to the next poem, to the next year.