Dickens and the Victorian Cinema

December 14, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Sweeping Assertion #27: In the entire history of literature, Dickens is the consummate scene-setter, the one to go to for a seemingly off-the-cuff evocation of a place and its people.  My favorite part of this book so far has been the beginning of chapter nine, “Town and Todgers’s.”  It’s too long for me to write out, so read the first eight paragraphs or so here.

What a piece of writing!  I love the section on the fruit-vendors, and the immediately following description of the scrubby churchyard trees.  What a brilliant metaphor, comparing these lonesome city trees to “birds in cages.”  This section reminds me an awful lot of Ambergris, the pseudo-Victorian city of City of Saints and Madmen: the grit, the soot, the commerce and mystery.  I’m going to indulge myself and write out probably my favorite sentence:

Among the narrow thoroughfares at hand, there lingered, here and there, an ancient doorway of carved oak, from which, of old, the sounds of revelry and feasting often came; but now these mansions, only used for storehouses, were dark and dull, and, being filled with wool, and cotton, and the like — such heavy merchandise as stifles sound and stops the throat of echo — had an air of palpable deadness about them which, added to their silence and desertion, made them very grim.

My god!  For those keeping score at home, that’s 14 commas, a semicolon, and one marvelous dashed aside.  Gordon Lish’s head would explode reading that thing; he’d cut it up into six to eight sentences.  But it’s sentences like this, I think, that got and still get people hooked on Dickens.  It just sounds so damn good: the commas flowing along, the punctuation so perfect that you can almost hear Dickens reading it aloud.  And the flawless word choice, the alliteration and assonance (the rich, full o‘s of wool, cotton, sound, stops, throat, echo filling up space like the “heavy merchandise” of the warehouses).

Somehow in those eight paragraphs, Dickens conjures up a world, taking you from the city to the neighborhood to the specificity of a grubby boarding house.  You’re there, lost in the labyrinth, viewing these grotesque bruised oranges and soot-covered windows and the scene from the scary roof of the Todgers’s.  And he segues effortlessly from this into the domestic comedy of the rooms in the boarding house.  Amazing.  (Some writers I love because I feel like they’re kindred spirits, and they write in ways I feel I have written or could write; with Dickens, I can’t imagine writing this way.  I’ve never lost my self-consciousness enough, my sense that I’m writing.  I literally don’t know how he does it — on tight deadlines, no less, the serial numbers coming out month after month.  He seems to feel his way into the page, into a kind of state where the words are effortless extensions of his thought.  And it comes out brilliant: something close to prose poetry.)

This section reminds me of the opening of Bleak House, another of my favorite Dickens scenes and, I have to believe, the best description and metaphoric use ever of a London fog.  That was the first Dickens scene I ever read that made me sit up and realize what strange, nearly avant-garde, modern, cinematic things Dickens was doing with words.  To say that Dickens writes cinematically is misleading, in a way, because the words were important to him, obviously, and they work so well together, and are integrally important.  (The metaphor of churchyard-tree to caged-bird, for instance, is perfectly suited to literature, not cinema, and Dickens is always pulling brilliant metaphors and turns of phrase out of thin air.)

And yet it’s there, somehow, isn’t it?  Doesn’t it seem like a camera, roving over this seedy warehouse district in London, in the opening of “Town and Todgers’s”?  The dollies and cuts, the effects of sound and his placement of objects and figures (his mise en scene, if you want) like what you would expect in the opening of a (really good) movie?  And the way he cuts to the interior from the exterior?

As it happens, there are books about this.  (And I have this nagging half-memory of a quote about Dickens being proto-cinematic by a famous director — maybe Godard — but I can’t find it right now.  Arrgh.)  Here’s one I hope to take a peek at.  Intriguing synopsis, right?

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