Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Embracing Dickens (on his 200th birthday)


In Nabokov's book, Lectures On Literature, Bleak House follows Mansfield Park. He introduces Dickens with an almost audible rubbing of hands:

We are now ready to tackle Dickens. We are now ready to embrace Dickens.  We are now ready to           bask in Dickens.  In our dealings with Jane Austen we had to make a certain effort to join the ladies in the drawing room.  In the case of Dickens we remain at table with our tawny port. [end of quote]

Like Nabokov's, T.S. Eliot's enthusiasm is infectious. He introduces Bleak House with the following passage, which I have sometimes used to demonstrate prose rhythm in creative writing classes:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes--gone into mourning, one might say, for the death of the sun. Dogs, indistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better, splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas, in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest. [end of quote]

There's a swatch of The Waste Land here. That one-word opening sentence reminds me of  the the first line of The Burial of the Dead, whose short, incantatory 'Unreal city' is due to Pound's surgical excision (the original wishy-washy opening was: 'Unreal city, I have sometimes seen and see...').

Another Dickens passage I love is from Little Dorrit, a marvelous description of funereal church bells tolling over thousands of houses (or 'lairs'), 'frowning as heavily on the streets they composed, as if they were every one inhabited by the ten young men of the Calender's story, who blackened their faces and bemoaned their miseries every night.':

Mr Arthur Clennam sat in the window of the coffee-house on Ludgate Hill, counting one of the neighbouring bells, making sentences and burdens of songs out of it in spite of himself, and wondering how many sick people it might be the death of in the course of the year. As the hour
approached, its changes of measure made it more and more exasperating. At the quarter, it went off into a condition of deadly-lively importunity, urging the populace in a voluble manner to Come to church,
Come to church, Come to church! At the ten minutes, it became aware that the congregation would be scanty, and slowly hammered out in low spirits, They WON'T come, they WON'T come, they WON'T come! At the five minutes, it abandoned hope, and shook every house in the neighbourhood
for three hundred seconds, with one dismal swing per second, as a groan of despair.

'Thank Heaven!' said Clennam, when the hour struck, and the bell stopped. [end of quote]

The playfulness –– those touches of grim, anthropomorphic humour –– are pure Dickens, bible-black but illuminated with what Tobias Wolff' called 'synaptic lightning.' 

My grandfather didn't offer me tawny port when he had me sit beside him each day to to read aloud large doses of David Copperfield. These sessions took place in the dining room, with its oversized oak table. The drawing room might have been preferable, as it was at the south-facing front of the house and therefore warmer. But grandmother might be there, sitting by the gas fire watching TV or in her rocking chair in the bay window. Whereas the dining room, in between meals, was grandfather's domain, his smoldering-coal-fire-cigar-scented refuge. Such dutiful readings might have put me off Dickens, though it's more likely they fed my burgeoning appetite for exhibitionism (or performance –– if I was less lazy I might have had a proper try at acting). In any case, I am grateful to grandfather, and to Dickens, so happy birthday!

NB: The picture above is one of Doré's engravings, from his book, London, A Pilgrimage (Dover Pictorial Archives)

No comments: