David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 5 and 6

December 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Numbers 5 and 6 are pivotal: David’s story changes dramatically, a huge number of important new characters are introduced, and Dickens pushes the action forward with the Victorian equivalent of a Hollywood movie’s music montage.  As in previous posts, here are my favorite sentences from each chapter.

Chapter 13:

Sometimes in his rage he would take me for one of them, and come at me, mouthing as if he were going to tear me to pieces; then, remembering me, just in time, would dive into the shop, and lie upon his bed, as I thought from the sound of his voice, yelling in a frantic way, to his own windy tune, the Death of Nelson, with an Oh! before every line, and innumerable Goroos interspersed.

The first half of chapter 13 is one of Dickens’ great waking nightmares of poverty, and the nightmare in this sentence is courtesy the drunken owner of a second-hand store (not the only one in the book; Dickens was warming up for the great Krook of Bleak House).  I imagine the “Goroo” sound to be a kind of throat-clearing howl, “screwed out of him” with his eyes bugging out, as Dickens says.  His earlier ranting “Oh my eyes and limbs… oh, my lungs and liver,” etc., and his cheating of David, are of a piece with the rest of the terrifying journey to Betsey Trotwood’s house.

Chapter 14:

“Mr. Murdstone,” she said, shaking her finger at him, “you were a tyrant to the simple baby, and you broke her heart.  She was a loving baby — I know that; I knew it, years before you ever saw her — and through the best part of her weakness, you gave her the wounds she died of.  There is the truth for your comfort, however you like it.  And you and our instruments may make the most of it.”

“Allow me to inquire, Miss Trotwood,” interposed Miss Murdstone, “whom you are pleased to call, in a choice of words in which I am not experienced, my brother’s instruments?”

Still stone-deaf to the voice, and utterly unmoved by it, Miss Betsey pursued her discourse.

I’m breaking my one-paragraph rule to include part of the fist-pump-worthy verbal beatdown of the Murdstones by Aunt Betsey, in which she implacably tells them the truth as she sees it of their behavior toward David and his mother and utterly ignores Miss Murdstone’s caustically sarcastic remarks.  It’s great.  Dickens gives you these moments of readerly vindication and moral satisfaction; he loves writing comeuppance; and I suppose it is one of the major points that can be held against him from a critical point of view.  Damned if it ain’t fun to read, though.

Chapter 15:

We got out; and leaving him to hold the pony, went into a long low parlor looking towards the street, from the window of which I caught a glimpse, as I went in, of Uriah Heep breathing into the pony’s nostrils, and immediately covering them with his hand, as if he were putting some spell upon him.

An approximation of my immediate reaction, upon reading this: Aaaahhh!!!  What the hell?!  Aaaahhh!!!

As the earlier second-hand shop example already showed, Dickens contains a lot of terrifying details.  He had a real gift for horror.  This is how we meet Uriah Heep: an unsettling physical description, heavy on the color red and the attributes of a corpse, followed by this stunning, unexplained weirdness.  It might as well be David Lynch, this is so creepy and nightmarish.

Chapter 16:

He had a way of writhing when he wanted to express enthusiasm, which was very ugly; and which diverted my attention from the compliment he had paid my relation, to the snaky twistings of his throat and body.

One more courtesy of Uriah Heep.  Two things especially stand out for me in the scene of which this line is representative: first, the pacing and structure, which I cannot convey through one line, but which is really fantastic.  Between the short lines of a seemingly innocuous conversation between Uriah and David, David the narrator inserts comments on the uneasiness Uriah provokes through his appearance, his movements, his clamminess, his obsequious “‘umbleness.”  Second, Dickens’ choice of the word “writhing” to describe Uriah’s movements, which recurs in the scene and then becomes a signature for the character, in Dickens’ typical style.  It’s the perfect word, with its associations with worms and snakes; its connotation of futile struggle and striving, which seems to be Uriah’s basic state; and the echo in writhe of wraith, and the touches of the supernatural, deathly, and satanic that have already been connected to Uriah.  It’s what he is and what he does.  He writhes.

Chapter 17:

“I suppose history never lies, does it?” said Mr. Dick, with a gleam of hope.

“Oh dear, no sir!” I replied, most decisively.  I was ingenuous and young, and I thought so.

Quite a cheeky epigram for the writer of a fictional “personal history” to include.

Chapter 18:

It is a summer evening, down in a green hollow, at the corner of a wall.  I meet the butcher by appointment.  I am attended by a select body of our boys; the butcher, by two other butchers, a young publican, and a sweep.  The preliminaries are adjusted, and the butcher and myself stand face to face.  In a moment the butcher lights ten thousand candles out of my left eyebrow.  In another moment, I don’t know where the wall is, or where I am, or where anybody is.  I hardly know which is myself and which the butcher, we are always in such a tangle and tussle, knocking about upon the trodden grass.

In this very short chapter, Dickens move David through puberty.  Much of it is standard stuff, and I suppose I like the passage above more for some of the music of language — the staccato rhythm, which persists through the entire chapter, and that lovely first sentence of scene-setting — than for the content of the teenage fight with the town-bully butcher.  I guess Dickens moves through it in this reportorial, perfunctory way because he knows it’s hackneyed.  And yet I like this chapter so much, because the form of the chapter somehow matches the experience of puberty and the way you recollect it.  It all means so much to you, but eventually those fierce crushes get crushed themselves, into just the kinds of paragraph-sized vignettes Dickens shapes here.  You can’t do anything but report; you’re a different person, walking through a fever dream.  Music montages became a cliche for a reason, I guess.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 3 and 4

December 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

My favorite passages from chapters 7 through 12, including David’s adventures at Salem House and Murdstone and Grinby’s:

Chapter 7:

An unhappy culprit, found guilty of imperfect exercise, approaches at his command.  The culprit falters excuses, and professes a determination to do better to-morrow.  Mr. Creakle cuts a joke before he beats him, and we laugh at it — miserable little dogs, we laugh, with our visages as white as ashes, and our hearts sinking into our boots.

This passage is the kind of thing you’d be hard-pressed to find in earlier Dickens: the virtuous protagonist taking part in cruelty, the author showing us a fault in the wronged.  Another good example is David’s pride he feels in the “dignity attached to [him]” among his schoolmates by the death of his mother. The shift to the first person is part of this — Dickens’ earlier third-person narrators have little heart for showing actual sin, rather than harmless foibles, in their favorites, whereas David himself can more easily admit to wrongdoing.  Of course, Dickens qualifies the wickedness by stating that the children laugh because they are afraid (and that David’s pride was nothing to his “sincere grief” at his mother’s death), but this scene of cruel laughter at others’ misfortune startled me.  It brings such a terrible, true image to the mind.  I suppose it is good and characteristic of David (and Dickens) to blame the laughter on fear and abuse rather than on genuine enjoyment of another’s misfortune.

Chapter 8:

What yawns and dozes I lapsed into, in spite of all my care; what starts I came out of concealed sleeps with; what answers I never got, to little observations that I rarely made; what a blank space I seemed, which everybody overlooked, and yet was in everybody’s way; what a heavy relief it was to hear Miss Murdstone hail the first stroke of nine at night, and order me to bed!

This, the culmination of a pageful of “what”s on the grinding anxiety, embarrassment, and boredom of David at home with his mother and the Murdstones, brilliantly done.  I do not know how large a part the Murdstones play in the later plot of the book; at the moment, after having read the first eighteen chapters, I feel that Dickens may have underestimated the evil that they convey, and could have used them more extensively than they did.  They are so malevolent.  In keeping with David’s earlier recollection of the acute sensitivity and perception of children to sensations and to emotional states, the bending of Clara and David Copperfield to the Murdstones’ fascistic, petty will makes his life a living hell, simply by his being made into a “blank space,” and by his being made to feel guilty for his mother’s love of him.

Chapter 9:

The work being now finished, the two girls, whose names I had not heard, brushed the shreds and threads from their dresses, and went into the shop to put that to rights, and wait for customers.  Minnie stayed behind to fold up what they had made, and pack it in two baskets.  This she did upon her knees, humming lively little tune the while.  Joram, who I had no doubt was her lover, came in and stole a kiss from her while she was busy (he didn’t appear to mind me, at all), and said her father was gone for the chaise, and he must make haste and get himself ready.  Then he went out again; and then she put her thimble and scissors in her pocket, and stuck a needle and threaded with black thread neatly in the bosom of her gown, and put on her outer clothing smartly, at a little glass behind the door, in which I saw the reflection of her pleased face.

The entire scene at Omer’s funerary shop is utterly remarkable.  The three “young women,” the Fates, at work on “black cloth”; the “RAT — tat-tat, RAT — tat-tat, RAT — tat-tat” of hammering outside, eventually revealed to be the hammer of Joram making David’s mother’s coffin; David’s observations of being among these happy, lively “creatures” at work upon death; it’s a work of genius, playing on all of the senses, resonant as mythology, and one of the most remarkable blends of memento mori and dolce vita I’ve ever read.

Chapter 10:

These offerings of affection were of a most various and eccentric description.  Among them I remember a double set of pig’s trotters, a huge pin-cushion, half a bushel or so of apples, a pair of jet earrings, some Spanish onions, a box of dominoes, a canary bird and cage, and a leg of pickled pork.

This list of gifts that Barkis gives in wooing Peggotty displays again Dickens’ gift for lists.  Part of it is a delight in everyday things from another time; part of it is the joy in his choice of objects; most of it, I think, is his utter gift for the musicality of language, the flow of vowels and words.

Chapter 11:

Mr. Micawber had a few books on a little chiffonier, which he called the library; and those went first.  I carried them, one after another, to a bookstall in the City Road — one part of which, near our house, was almost all bookstalls and bird-shops then — and sold them for whatever they would bring.  The keeper of this bookstall, who lived in a little house behind it, used to get tipsy every night, and to be violently scolded by his wife every morning.  More than once, when I went there early, I had audience of him in a turn-up bedstead, with a cut in his forehead or a black eye, bearing witness to his excesses over night (I am afraid he was quarrelsome in his drink), and he, with a shaking hand, endeavouring to find the needful shillings in one or other of the pockets of his clothes, which lay on the floor, while his wife, with a baby in her arms and her shoes down at heel, never left off rating him.

Ah, the book trade.  Really, this should probably be the passage in which David shows us one of Mr. Micawber’s creditors yelling at his window from the street, or the description of rat-infested Murdstone and Grinby’s, or the introduction of Micawber’s prison quarters, or just the simple fact of the sublime name “Mealy Potatoes” — but who can resist this scene of the debauched, disreputable bookseller?

Chapter 12:

“He is the parent of my children!  He is the father of my twins!  He is the husband of my affections,” cried Mrs. Micawber, struggling; “and I ne — ver — will — desert Mr. Micawber!”

The Micawbers are fascinating, like a trainwreck.  Their histrionics, their violent swings from threats of suicide to irresponsible overspending, their insistence of respectability in the worst state of squalor: it’s fascinating, especially when you factor in their basis in Dickens’ own parents.  Mrs. Micawber’s fanatical vows of loyalty to Micawber after listing all of the reasons she should leave him smacks of protesting too much, and perhaps of Stockholm Syndrome.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 1 and 2

December 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens.

Reading this book is a remarkable experience in a number of ways, and for a number of reasons — one of the foremost being that it’s Dickens in first person, which seems such a radical experiment for him after all of his previous books employ that roving eye and range of angles made so much easier by the third person, but also because it is such a feeling work: you can feel the emotion, Dickens’ emotion, on every page, and yet it is so masterfully controlled.

It is an exquisite book, at least so far: the prose is just astoundingly, incredibly beautiful.  And so I wanted to choose my favorite passages — from a single sentence to as long as a paragraph — from each chapter.  Herewith, my favorites from the first six chapters, comprising the first two original serial numbers.

Chapter 1:

I was a posthumous child.  My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it.  There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white grave-stone in the churchyard, and of the indefinable compassion I used to feel for it lying out alone there in the dark night, when our little parlor was warm and bright with fire and candle, and the doors of our house were — almost cruelly, it seemed to me sometimes — bolted and locked against it.

This, after just beginning, and learning that David was born at midnight and local superstition held that he could therefore “see ghosts and spirits.”  These touches suffuse the first chapter with a pervasive melancholy, just below the surface of the comedy of David’s birth and his aunt’s disappointment that he is a boy.

Chapter 2:

I look from Mr. Chillip, in his Sunday neckcloth, to the pulpit; and think what a good place it would be to play in, and what a castle it would make, with another boy coming up the stairs to attack it, and having the velvet cushion with the tassels thrown down on his head.

The early chapters are such amazing representations of the experience of childhood, and of the experience of remembering childhood.  The portion of this chapter just preceding this passage, when David recalls his childhood home, is also great.  But I love this passage about being in church as a child, especially because I can remember thinking just this same thing as I dozed off during many a sermon, about how fun it would be to have the pulpit to myself, to play in.

Chapter 3:

I rambled down-stairs to find anything that was like itself, so altered it all seemed; and roamed into the yard.  I very soon started back from there, for the empty dog kennel was filled up with a great dog — deep mouthed and black-haired like Him — and he was very angry at the sight of me, and sprung out to get at me.

This is the last sentence of the first number, and as such is a kind of cliffhanger.  However, with its correspondences between the dog and Mr. Murdstone, and between the earlier loving description of the yard and this new experience of home as a place to fear and watch one’s self at all time, it is also a kind of preemptive elegy, a mourning for the childhood already beginning to be lost, and it strikes such a difficult and beautiful note, so early in the work.

Chapter 4:

They had persuaded her that I was a wicked fellow, and she was more sorry for that, than for my going away.  I felt it sorely.  I tried to eat my parting breakfast, but my tears dropped upon my bread-and-butter, and trickled into my tea.  I saw my mother look at me sometimes, and then glance at the watchful Miss Murdstone, and then look down, or look away.

This chapter is full of tear-jerking moments: David’s reminiscence of the friends he found in books, the scene of the beating itself, the masterful sentence in which he remembers his imprisonment after the beating and the lengthening of those endless days.  But this passage, his recognition of his mother’s thinking him wicked, is a killer.  An absolute murderer.

Chapter 5:

“My dear Peggotty.  I have come here safe.  Barkis is willing.  My love to mama.  Yours affectionately.  P.S.  He says he particularly wants you to know — Barkis is willing.”

I love the comedic timing here, of young David throwing in “Barkis is willing” in the middle of his letter, as if Peggotty would know what he’s talking about (and perhaps she does, at that).  Barkis is one of Dickens’ more or less interchangeable, kind-hearted, working-class buffoons, but he tickles me, for some reason.  I enjoy his courtship of Peggotty. There’s more great stuff at the end of this chapter, in the empty school, but the “Barkis is willing” line is set up so well it made me laugh out loud.

Chapter 6:

We sat in the dark for some time, breathless.

This simple, gorgeous line, after David’s idol, the older schoolboy Steerforth, has explained, illuminating his face with a match, how he would beat the schoolmaster should he ever challenge him.  The depiction of their brotherly relationship is one of the best I’ve read of big brother-little brother dynamic that does sometimes flourish in schools, for reasons mysterious at the time and maybe obvious in retrospect.

Top Five for 2010

December 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Here’s my top five for 2010, absolute no-brainer classics that everyone knows they should read excluded:

5.  The Jade Cabinet, by Rikki Ducornet.  About the (mostly male) urges to possess, consume, destroy; madnesses and neuroses; memory and Memory (our narrator) and the many ways to tell a story.  It’s much like Pynchon if Pynchon were a prose poet and not an onslaught of words and ideas.   (That’s a good thing.)  I wrote a little about it here.

4.  Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.  If Mitchell had just published a novella entitled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After,” this would still be on this list.  (Maybe even higher.)  That brilliant dystopia is the heart of this sextet of nested stories, both structurally and emotionally: it’s the only piece here that really made me feel, but it’s fascinating how this impact was, in large part, due to the story’s connection to those less affecting tales that preceded (and followed) it.  The whole thing is ingenious and envy-inducing, if you appreciate narrative structure.  See this post.

3.  Possession, by A.S. Byatt.  As I said in this post, it’s the perfect postmodern romance.  Also the second book on this list that examines the Victorians in really productive ways that also make you marvel at how much was lost in the 20th century’s march toward replacing humanity with machinery, bureaucracy, circuitry.

2.  The Manyoshu.  (Apologies for missing macrons on the o and u.)  The great 8th-century anthology of Japanese poetry, which I read in a version translated by a committee of Japanese scholars in the 1930s.  (Some interesting social/political implications there, of course, as a presentation of Japanese culture to the world.)  Profoundly moving, seen as a whole: a window onto a culture committed to the conveying the beauty of the natural world, to creating sense-pictures in words.  I especially love the poems of Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, a “saint of poetry” in Japan.  His poems on separation from his wife and her death are Shakespearean in their grief and anger at the phenomenon of death, but indelibly Japanese in idiom and approach.

1.  At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien.  I never posted about this, which is stupid on my part, because this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.  It’s a kind of masterpiece, and part of what makes it so great is that it starts out by just baffling you, so that everything that comes after is this absurd, delightful surprise.  It’s become what the kids call a “cult classic” among lit-nerd types, mostly due to bad timing: published in 1939, in direct opposition to the prevailing mood in Europe, most of the edition was destroyed in the Blitz.  Joyce loved it; so did Gilbert Sorrentino, who paid homage to and cribbed from it in Mulligan Stew (which I, weirdly, read before At Swim-Two-Birds).  Through the power of “aesthoautogamy,” an author in an undergraduate’s story brings his characters to life, and lives with them, and chaos of all sorts ensues.  It’s linguistically anarchic and wonderful, it’s full of fantastic Dublin dialogue and parodies of academic language, it’s somehow both silly and deep.

Three Months’ Reading

December 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Finished a while ago: The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning, and The Divine Husband, by Francisco Goldman.

Reading now: David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens.

It’s been a strange few months, reading-wise: for the first time in a while, I felt a little worn out with my reading.  Basically, I overloaded my plate with long, long books.  I averaged about a book a month for most of the year.  That’s pathetic, really, but these were all doorstops.  Since March, I read seven very ambitious, self-consciously epic books, all of which I enjoyed to varying degrees.  But by the time I got around to Browning, after reading Possession, I was burnt out.

Now, exhaustion with the long form and the grand scope is no time to read a 12-book, 600-page Victorian historical poem, replete with Browning’s characteristic erudite allusions, multiple languages, and exotic vocabulary.  I should’ve just waited on it, but it seemed such a perfect follow-up to Byatt’s book that I soldiered on.  I love Browning, but I was unable to muster any sort of enthusiasm for The Ring and the Book.

And then there was The Divine Husband, a really pretty great novel about Central America.  I felt like it would be a nice palate cleanser, but it turned out to be rather grand and sweeping itself.  This is normally a good thing; however, in my state, I found myself taking breaks to read from an anthology of new fabulists stories called ParaSpheres, with no better reason that that they were short.  (Though it’s a good anthology, don’t get me wrong.)

All of this by way of some sort of explanation for the silence here.  I have not died and this is not the typing of a ghost.  Nor has The Ambiguities died.  It’s been on hiatus, placed there by the TV executives in my brain who were too dumb to muster up any energy to write.

So, by way of restart, a new look for the blog.  It’s called “Oulipo,” so I was going to pick it no matter what it looked like.  Luckily it’s pretty nice, too, I think.  Coming very soon: top fives of the year, and then a flurry of David Copperfield posts.  (Yeah, I know: “You’re reading Dickens when you’re tired of long books, idiot?”  You’re right, but it’s Dickens.  In December.  And it’s snowing.  How can I not read Dickens?)


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