More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #3: “A Wild Holy Band,” Mike Scott

January 30, 2011 § 11 Comments

This song was released as a demo on the CD that came with the Believer‘s 2009 music issue.  I liked it when I first listened to it, then more or less forgot about it for a year.  I generally don’t listen to this kind of compilation CD very much, but for whatever reason I put this one back in earlier this year, and promptly became totally obsessed with this song.  (Unfortunately, it’s still unreleased in any other form, so far as I can tell, so I can’t give you a link to it here.  [UPDATE, 1/25/12: Mike Scott has posted the song for one night only to http://soundcloud.com/mickpuck/long-strange-golden-road-a.  Listen there!]  You can find plenty of the Waterboys, Mike Scott’s band, to get a sense of the sound.)

The song’s ten-plus minutes: for the first nine or so, it’s just piano, acoustic guitar, and what I’m guessing is a drum machine, plugging along, workmanlike (with some quite lovely passages on the piano and guitar), under Scott’s really great Scottish lilt.  Five verses and an absolutely killer chorus.  It’s a song that cries out for interpretation, analysis, but even though it’s supposedly a demo, it forms a gestalt: it’s a song, not a poem, and you can’t get it all just by looking at the lyrics.  So much is in the delivery.  But what lyrics!

I was longing to be booed/ I was ready to be humbled/ by the words that you had written/ by the syllables you mumbled

Yeah, I was ready in my heart/ to have my heart invaded/ by the fervor of your passion/ yes, I came to be persuaded

But when I heard your ragged voice/ something switched in my perception/ and I knew I was the victim/ of a beautiful deception

All my once exact beliefs/ like tangled threads unraveled/ I walked out stunned and liberated/ and so began my travels

CHORUS: Keep the river on your right/ and the highway at your shoulder/ and the front line in your sights, Pioneer/ keep your eye on the road/ remember what you told her/ this is all in code, my dear

The only word in the whole song I’m not reasonably sure about hearing correctly is that “booed” in the very first line: it sure sounds like “booed” to me, though I always assumed it was “moved” before I started listening closely to transcribe the lyrics.  In context, “booed” makes some sense, leading to that readiness “to be humbled” — but I’m not sure.  [UPDATE, 1/25/12: Mike Scott posts to Twitter: “Mystery word in verse 1 is “wooed,” not “booed.”  Thanks to Mr. Scott for clearing it up!]  Either way, this first verse sets a great scene.  It could be some combination of a “Dear John” letter and a confrontation at the end of a relationship; it could be a teacher/student relationship, the switch in “perception” being that the teacher has nothing more to teach the student; it could be any number of more allegorical or spiritual meanings.  But I really love those last two lines of the chorus: “remember what you told her/ this is all in code, my dear.”  Is “this” the song?  Is there a code here?  And is “Pioneer” a name, a code name, a type, a la Whitman?

“You better get yourself a coat”/ said the handsome taxi driver/ and he sighed like seven bridges/ like a natural-born survivor

As we drove into the night/ I could feel the forest jangling/ all the choices laid before me/ and their consequences dangling

We came upon a stricken ship/ that must have once been splendid/ the captain as he died said/ “Boys, our revels now have ended”

I heard a wild holy band/ playing jazz that was outrageous/ that recalled the days of rapture/ when our love was still young and contagious

[CHORUS]

This is my favorite verse, and a helluva piece of poetry in its own right.  That “forest jangling” from adrenaline (or something more?), that cryptic ship, the “jazz that was outrageous”: it’s here that we start to realize that we’re in Beat territory.  “Seven bridges” is another lyric I’m not 100% sure about, but I kind of like its mystery.

In a dim-lit motel room/ two sad lovers were discoursing/ on the dignity of exile/ and the merits of divorcing

She said/ “All certainty is gone”/ but he leapt up, still denying/ cried, “I won’t believe the flame I lit/ is dead or even dying”

She left him drooling in the dust/ and with rucksack packed begun her/ bitter journey to the border/ which is where I wooed and won her

She was Aphrodite, Helen, Thetis/ Eve among the satyrs/ she was Venus in a v-neck sweater/ she was all that ever mattered

[CHORUS]

And this is probably my least favorite verse: I like “Eve among the satyrs,” not so big on “Venus in a v-neck sweater,” and the rhythm of the third quatrain is a little strained.  As the verse begins, you think this might be a flashback to the opening scene, until hearing that the narrator “wooed and won her” at the “border” after this confrontation — similar, perhaps, to his own.

Like Dean Moriarty’s ghost/ I came in quest of secret knowledge/ in the winter of my journey/ to a crumbling Druid college

There I read the books of lore/ and contemplated in seclusion/ but I took my leave embittered/ still in love with my illusions

In the drizzling Irish rain/ as a tender dawn was breaking/ in a doorway I stood spellbound by/ the ancient music they were making

I took my breakfast with the gods/ on a blushing summer morning/ a wind blew them all away/ without a moment’s warning

[CHORUS]

Quite a change in scene, here, and the song comes to seem more like a bildungsroman, or a story of the narrator’s spiritual quest.  We have here a direct allusion to On the Road, and that’s fitting, with that work’s blend of the profane and sacred, the sexual and the spiritual.  “Still in love with my illusions” seems a very important line here, and the mystery of the “breakfast with the gods” and then their sudden absence.

Under cold electric light/ I watched the scenes mutating/ like an old-time frontier ballad/ or a carousel rotating

As if in a moment from a film/ with astonishing precision/ the camera zooms in closer/ and a figure comes into vision

I’m in Tokyo; it’s dawn/ and it’s raining hallelujahs/ down the bright-lit neon canyons/ along the sidewalks of Shibuya

I’m trying to take a stance/ and rise above my contradictions/ but I’m just a bunch of words in pants/ most of those are fiction

[CHORUS x2]

[AWESOME ELECTRIC GUITAR SOLO]

This is another pretty fantastic verse, with one helluva final quatrain.  “Just a bunch of words in pants”!  Jesus, what a line.  Most of us should be so lucky to write one line so great; this song has three or four at that level.  This verse really makes me think of the song as a spiritual quest, with serious Buddhist underpinnings: its recollection of epiphany or near-epiphany (what does it mean to “rain hallelujahs”?)  in Japan, followed by the (necessary?) devastation of realizing the hollowness of existence or identity, of being mostly “fiction.

And yet there’s that inescapable, beautiful, hopeful chorus, which Scott uses with such versatility and passion throughout the song.  Somehow — and this may just be me — I connect it in my mind with that Irish blessing you see in pubs and shops and elsewhere: “May the road rise up to meet you./ May the wind be always at your back./ May the sun shine warm upon your face;/ the rains fall soft upon your fields; and until we meet again,/ may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”   Yeah, it’s a song about God, I think, or about one man’s quest for “secret knowledge” of something like a god, at any rate.  The first verse is covered in this kind of language of the spiritual.  Is that the “code” that “this is all in” — the code of the pop song that seems like it’s about sex or lust and is actually about the desire to let go of the self, to find the divine?

Either way, the kick-ass electric guitar kicking in at the end here never fails to absolutely delight me: it’s such a surprise, and it functions as a kind of wordless, wild epiphany and ecstasy after minutes of repetitive sound with little variation.

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David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Double Number 19/20

January 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

Finished: David Copperfield.

So at last, we’ve reached the end.  As Dickensian endings go, it’s not one of my favorites, though it’s certainly what you would expect from him, and I suppose it’s successful on his own terms.  Nevertheless, here are my favorite passages from the last number of DC:

Chapter 58:

I came, one evening before sunset, down into a valley, where I was to rest.  In the course of my descent to it, by the winding track along the mountain-side, from which I saw it shining far below, I think some long-unwonted sense of beauty and tranquillity, some softening influence awakened by its peace, moved faintly in my breast.  I remember pausing once, with a kind of sorrow that was not all oppressive, not quite despairing.  I remember almost hoping that some better change was possible within me.

This chapter, “Absence,” is mostly Dickens at his worst, and for being so full of emotion and despair it feels rather like he put a stamp on it and mailed it in.  Which is not to say that it’s not interesting or useful: it could function as a kind of paint-by-numbers of Victorian poses and cliches and sentimentality and unexamined truisms.  For instance, there’s this passage about Switzerland, in which David’s standard impression of the “sublimity and wonder” of his setting gives way to the moment in which “great Nature spoke to” him, though the power of mountain scenery at sunset and the sound of peasant-folk — shepherds — singing in the distance, just as if on their way to visit the baby Jesus.  You could do a lot worse for an examination of the decay of Romanticism into Victorian piety, or for a literary equivalent to the overwrought landscapes so popular at the time.  Nevertheless, there’s something insightful and true in the paragraph above, in David’s sense of the gradations of sorrow (or, as we might say now, depression) lightening, giving way to just the “possibility” that all might not be lost.  Then, of course, because this is Victorian England, “great Nature” (with capital N) speaks and David lays down on Swiss grass (who has ever done this, ever, ever, this laying down on grass overcome with emotion?) and bawls for the wife he secretly wished was dead all along.

Chapter 59:

A small sharp-looking lad, half-footboy and half-clerk, who was very much out of breath, but who looked at me as if he defied me to prove it legally, presented himself.

I’ll let this quick little sketch of Traddles’ servant stand in for the whole wonderful first part of the chapter, on David’s return to London and anxiety for the state of Traddles considering his living situation, leading to the delight of seeing him in domestic bliss (contrasted, despite its crowded and difficult nature, with the domestic squalor of David and Dora’s life — the difference, it is implied, being Traddles and Sophy not making the mistake of being too horny and getting married young, and therefore maintaining a balance of affection and dutiful service).  I love it when Dickens can’t help but invent a little character for those people he needs only to move the plot along — this footboy need not have do more than open a door, or not exist at all and just have Traddles open it in his impoverished state, but Dickens gives him this sharpness and protective reluctance and breathlessness of having (I’d guess) been playing with Sophy’s sisters.

Chapter 60:

When I returned, Mr. Wickfield had come home, from a garden he had, a couple of miles or so out of the town, where he now employed himself almost every day.  I found him as my aunt had described him.  We sat down to dinner, with some half-dozen little girls; and he seemed but the shadow of his handsome picture on the wall.

Not a terribly remarkable piece of prose, but what interested me about this passage was how much it reminded me of Tolstoy, who greatly admired Dickens.  That little detail about Wickfield, recovered from his Heep-encouraged alcoholism and dissipation, taking up gardening in the country, like Levin from Anna Karenina having his epiphany about the value of working the land.  Agnes, meanwhile, opening a girls’ school.  And the conversation that follows, in which Wickfield reflects on the wrongs he’s committed, the great love he’s received from Agnes, and the story of his own long-dead wife: all of it seems quite like something out of Tolstoy.  Actually, nearly all of this last number seems that way to me, especially in the Agnes-David plot.

Chapter 61:

After some conversation among these gentlemen, from which I might have supposed that there was nothing in the world to be legitimately taken into account but the supreme comfort of prisoners, at any expense, and nothing on the wide earth to be done outside prison-doors, we began our inspection.  It being then just dinner-time, we went, first into the great kitchen, where every prisoner’s dinner was in course being set out separately (to be handed to him in his cell), with the regularity and precision of clock-work.  I said aside, to Traddles, that I wondered whether it occurred to anybody, that there was a striking contrast between these plentiful repasts of choice quality, and the dinners, not to say of paupers, but of soldiers, sailors, laborers, the great bulk of the honest, working community; of whom not one man in five hundred ever dined half so well.  But I learned that the “system” required high living…

A fascinating set piece, this chapter, entitled “I Am Shown Two Interesting Penitents.”  It is one of Dickens’ standard curtain-call chapters, in which loose ends are wrapped up and popular secondary characters are given one last scene in which to take a bow.  But in this case, the chapter is almost completely detachable from the larger narrative, and concerns David and Traddles visiting a prison.  There are all sorts of interesting features here, but what’s most interesting to me is how Dickens, whose own father was in debtors’ prison for a while, clearly had not given much consideration to criminal incarceration, or the purposes of imprisonment, or the means of making prisons places for rehabilitation rather than holding pens of punishment and misery.  These were all hot topics in Victorian society, but Dickens, in this chapter, displays a kind of knee-jerk distaste for the whole subject that’s rather unlike him — insisting, instead, that too much effort is being expended on the behalf of criminals, when more should be spent on the poor and needy who have not committed crimes.  It is a punishment-based view of prison, in other words.  All the same, his eye does catch some of the absurdities and hypocrisies of the nascent prison industry.

Chapter 62:

We stood together in the same old-fashioned window at night, when the moon was shining; Agnes with her quiet eyes raised up to it; I following her glance.  Long miles of road then opened out before my mind; and, toiling on, I saw a ragged way-worn boy, forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the heart now beating against mine, his own.

This is, in essence, The End.  Dickens always seems to end his plots before the end, then either gives more curtain calls or telescopes his vision to encapsulate a view of the rest of a life — like those synopses of what happened to characters at the end of movies.  Here, you can tell it’s the end by the use of three intra-chapter breaks — quite unusual in Dickens.  And it’s quite a fine “last” line, too, David viewing in the moon’s glow his own remarkable journey from hopeless orphan to winner of his true love’s heart.

Chapter 63:

“For Em’ly,” he said, as he put it in his breast.  “I promised, Mas’r Davy.”

A happily-ever-after chapter, with a clever little fairy-tale allusion at its beginning, and this sweetly sorrowful fairy-tale ending of eternal fidelity and redemption.  A reminder that Dickens could, occasionally, be understated.

Chapter 64:

Traddles’s house is one of the very houses — or it easily may have been — which he and Sophy used to parcel out, in their evening walks.  It is a large house; but Traddles keeps his papers in his dressing-room, and his boots with his papers; and he and Sophy squeeze themselves into upper rooms, reserving the best bed-rooms for the Beauty and the girls.

I love that turn of phrase, “his papers in his dressing-room, and his boots with his papers.”  In this last chapter, Dickens mixes the dark with the light, as always, giving us brief cautionary tales to go along with the happinesses of the main characters.  It’s interesting to me that he grew so fond of Traddles and his family that he gets nearly the last mention, and much longer than the brief sentences at the end about Agnes.  I would’ve sworn, upon first meeting him and reading about his strange habit of drawing skeletons everywhere, that he was just a tertiary comic character, invented to take abuse from Creakle and little else, perhaps showing up now and again later as a happy-go-lucky sad sack.  Shows what I know.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 17 and 18

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished: David Copperfield.

Approaching the end now.  There have been spoilers all along — and no one can be totally surprised by the end of a Dickens novel — so I’m not going to bother to warn you.  But I guess I just did anyway.

Favorite passages:

Chapter 51:

With a slight wave of his hand, as though to explain to me that he could not enter the old place, he turned away.  As I looked after his figure, crossing the waste in the moonlight, I saw him turn his face towards a strip of silvery light upon the sea, and pass on, looking at it, until he was a shadow in the distance.

There’s a melancholy air to this chapter that seems to me to overcome its more celebratory passages.  But melancholy isn’t even the word I’m looking for, exactly; more like elegiac, or a kind of contemplative, lovely nostalgic tone.  Whatever the case, this portrait of Ham comes after the message he passes to Emily through David; it may be standard-issue Victorian romance stuff, but it got to me in this chapter.

Chapter 52:

Uriah, more blue than white at these words, made a dart at the letter as if to tear it in pieces.  Mr. Micawber, with a perfect miracle of dexterity or luck, caught his advancing knuckles with the ruler, and disabled his right hand.  It dropped at the wrist, as if it were broken.  The blow sounded as if it had fallen on wood.

Master stroke, those knuckles of wood.  Herky-jerky Heep always had something of the malevolent marionette about him, but I’d never realized it until reading this line, when he, the scheming puppet-master, is turned into the puppet, like Pinocchio in reverse: the poor, wicked boy revealed never to have been human after all.

Chapter 53:

I have no favorite line in this, the creepiest chapter in the book, a truly disturbing piece of what certainly feels an awful lot like a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which Dickens/Copperfield get rid of a wife that was a “mistake.”  Not only that, Dickens transforms the wife from a silly young girl to a saintly portrait of calm death, not only accepting that her existence is over after 20-some years, but also confessing that she’s glad David won’t have to deal with her anymore.  It’s even creepier and more cloying than it sounds.

And then he fucking kills off the dog.

Chapter 54:

“My dear,” said Mr. Micawber, with some heat, “it may be better for me to state distinctly, at once, that if I were to develop my views to that assembled group, they would possibly be found of an offensive nature: my impression being that your family are, in the aggregate, impertinent Snobs; and, in detail, unmitigated Ruffians.”

I am really looking forward to seeing the 1935 film version in which W.C. Fields plays Micawber.  He’s not really the kind of figure I had in mind while reading the book, but darned if I’m not looking forward to some of his line readings.

Chapter 55:

There was a bell on board; and as the ship rolled and dashed, like a desperate creature driven mad, now showing us the whole sweep of her deck, as she turned on her beam-ends towards the shore, now nothing but her keel, as she sprung wildly over and turned towards the sea, the bell rang; and its sound, the knell of those unhappy men, was borne towards us on the wind.  Again we lost her, and again she rose.  Two men were gone.  The agony on shore increased.  Men groaned, and clasped their hands; women shrieked and turned away their faces.  Some ran wildly up and down along the beach, crying for help where no help could be.  I found myself one of these, frantically imploring a knot of sailors whom I knew, not to let those two lost creatures perish before our eyes.

This chapter, “Tempest,” is, as the title would indicate, high-Shakespearean Dickens.  It’s nuts, in a good way, with a Lear-grade storm making manifest the grief/guilt of David in a welter of jarring, confused, hyperbolic sensory experiences, followed by this nearly hallucinogenic shipwreck, its shocking cargo, and the apotheosis of Ham Peggotty.

Chapter 56:

I went through the dreary house, and darkened the windows.  The windows of the chamber where he lay, I darkened last.  I lifted up the leaden hand, and held it to my heart; and all the world seemed death and silence, broken only by his mother’s moaning.

Sentences like these are what make Dickens seems so cinematic before the cinema: you can see the sequence of shots here, of David walking through the house, the light changing to darkness, holding the hand of his friend, with otherworldly moans in the background, as we fade to black.  Another spectacular chapter for the unrivaled, long-repressed id of Rosa Dartle.

Chapter 57:

Among the great beams, bulks, and ringbolts of the ship, and the emigrant-berths, and chests, and bundles, and barrels, and heaps of miscellaneous baggage — lighted up, here and there, by dangling lanterns, and elsewhere by the yellow day-light straying down a windsail or hatchway — were crowded groups of people, making new friendships, taking leave of one another, talking, laughing, crying, eating and drinking; some, already settled down into the possession of their few feet of space, with their little households arranged, and tiny children established on stools, or in dwarf elbow-chairs; others, despairing of a resting-place, and wandering disconsolately.  From babies who had but a week or two of life behind them, to crooked old men and women who seemed to have but a week or two of life before them; and from ploughmen bodily carrying out soil of England on their boots, to smiths taking away samples of its soot and smoke upon their skins; every age and occupation appeared to be crammed into the narrow compass of the ‘tween decks.

An excellent description of an emigrant-ship to Australia, and what a bloody nightmare that trip must’ve been in the Victorian age.  Like months and months of the screaming-baby-one-row-behind-you-on-a-long-flight treatment.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 15 and 16

January 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Just finished: David Copperfield.

Reading next: Anton Chekhov’s short stories (Norton Critical Edition).

Onward with my review of favorite passages in each chapter of David Copperfield:

Chapter 44:

It seemed such an extraordinary thing to have Dora always there.  It was so unaccountable not to be obliged to go out and see her, not to have any occasion to be tormenting myself about her, not to have to write to her, not to be scheming and devising opportunities of being alone with her.  Sometimes of an evening, when I looked up from my writing, and saw her seated opposite, I would lean back in my chair, and think how queer it was that there we were, alone together as a matter of course — nobody’s business any more — all the romance of our engagement put away upon a shelf, to rust — no one to please but one another — one another to please, for life.

I mean, “to rust”!  What an extraordinary thing for a man to say about his life with his wife, from the vantage of many years later.  And that wearying repetition of “one another” at the end.  The beginning of a remarkably ambivalent story of a marriage.

Chapter 45:

I pondered on these words, even while I was studiously attending to what followed, as if they had some particular interest, or some strange application that I could not divine.  “There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose” — “no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.”

In this passage, and again at the end of the chapter, David rethinks certain statements in Annie Strong’s confession to her husband, implicitly applying them to his own situation.  I particularly like this for the way that the repetition, shortening each time like an echo, puts me in mind of the cinematic device — something you’d see in Hitchcock or a film noir, and now in endless parodies — of a character hearing a bothersome or puzzling phrase again and again, nagging at them from their subconscious, as the speaker’s head floats around their own.  (And a question: is this device, in fact, native to cinema, or borrowed from drama or literature?  Did Dickens actually have something like this in mind?)

Chapter 46:

“And theer’s one curious thing — that, though he is so pleasant, I wouldn’t fare to feel comfortable to try and get his mind upon ‘t.  He never said a wured to me as warn’t as dootiful as dootiful could be, and it ain’t likely as he’d begin to speak any other ways now; but it’s fur from being fleet water in his mind, where them thowts lays.  It’s deep, sir, and I can’t see down.”

Mr. Peggotty, talking about Ham Peggotty and his thoughts on Emily and an ambiguous “end of it” he foretold one day.  This passage reminds me quite a bit of Melville; amazing to think that he was writing Moby-Dick as David Copperfield was being written and published.  Were the late 1840s and early 1850s actually the apex of English-language literature?  What was in the water back then?

Chapter 47:

The neighborhood was a dreary one at that time; as oppressive, sad, and solitary by night, as any about London.  There were neither wharves nor houses on the melancholy wastes of road near the great blank Prison.  A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls.  Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all the marshy land in the vicinity.  In one part, carcases of houses, inauspiciously begun and never finished, rotted away.  In another, the ground was cumbered  with rusty iron monsters of steam-boilers, wheels, cranks, pipes, furnaces, paddles, anchors, diving-bells, windmill-sails, and I know not what stranged objects, accumulated by some speculator, and grovelling in the dust, underneath which — having sunk into the soil of their own weight in wet weather — they had the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves.  The clash and glare of sundry fiery Works upon the river side, arose by night to disturb everything except the heavy and unbroken smoke that poured out of their chimneys.  Slimy gaps and causeways, winding among old wooden piles, with a sickly substance clinging to the latter, like green hair, and the rags of last year’s handbills offering rewards for drowned men fluttering above high-water mark, led down through the ooze and slush to the ebb tide.

There’s more, but that’s more than enough to give you a sense of Dickens’ phantasmagoric description of the riverside at night.  No one does it better.  “Grovelling in the dust”!  “Last year’s handbills offering rewards for drowned men”!  “Ooze and slush”!  Interestingly, this is also the second chapter in a row in which a description of the London landscape serves as a portrait for a character — in the last chapter, for Miss Dartle and Mrs. Steerforth, and here for Martha, in this case Martha herself making the connection.

Chapter 48:

He appears to me to have lived in a hail of saucepan-lids.  His whole existence was a scuffle.  He would shriek for help on the most improper occasions, — as, when we had a little dinner party, or a few friends in the evening, — and would come tumbling out of the kitchen, with iron missiles flying after him.  We wanted to get rid of him, but he was very much attached to us, and wouldn’t go.  He was a tearful boy, and broke into such deplorable lamentations, when a cessation of our connexion was hinted at, that we were obliged to keep him.  He had no mother — nor anything in the way of a relative, that I could discover, except a sister, who fled to America the moment we had taken him off her hands; and he became quartered on us like a horrible young changeling.  He had a lively perception of his own unfortunate state, and was always rubbing his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket, or stooping to blow his nose on the extreme corner of a little pocket-handkerchief, which he never would take completely out of his pocket, but always economised and secreted.

I greatly enjoy the language in this little portrait, but also find it remarkably cruel, especially coming from Dickens and his surrogate David.  He speaks in the next paragraph of his desire to “get rid of him,” and does so in the paragraph thereafter, when he steals a watch.  Speaking of the fictional narrator, it is interesting to think of this as a step in David disciplining his famous “undisciplined heart,” treating the circumstances of this unfortunate kid as a bit of light comedy and a foible to be overcome in his domestic life — never even granting him the privilege of a name; speaking of this as a fictionalized autobiography, it is interesting to note the difference between Dickens’ treatment of David before he becomes an author and after, with his famous rejection of saying anything about the books David writes (also in this chapter) and a change in tone as he becomes famous and wealthy.  The last third of the book, while still terrific, is not quite up to the standard of the rest; it’s sometimes missing David the character, as Dickens (I guess) becomes reluctant to talk too much about his adult self.

Chapter 49:

“The friendliness of this gentleman,” said Mr. Micawber to my aunt, “if you will allow me, ma’am, to cull a figure of speech from the vocabulary of our coarser national sports — floors me.”

The meeting of Mr. Micawber and Mr. Dick — Mr. Micawber: “My dear sir, you overpower me!” — is hilarious to imagine.  This chapter also contains my favorite Micawber letter, in which he writes mysteriously of “wielding the thunderbolt” and the “domestic tranquillity and peace of mind” of King’s Bench Prison.

Chapter 50:

“The miserable vanity of these earth-worms!” she said, when she had so far controlled the angry heavings of her breast, that she could trust herself to speak.  “Your home!  Do you imagine that I bestow a thought on it, or suppose you could do any harm to that low place, which money would not pay for, and handsomely?  Your home!  You were a part of the trade of your home, and were bought and sold like any other vendible thing your people dealt in.”

Ouch.  Dickens seems to take a great deal of pleasure in writing Rosa Dartle’s dialogue, expressions of class and clan warfare as they can only be waged by those who are adopted into said class and clan, and David acknowledges her appeal (though earlier, before she was transformed into a demon of rage and jealousy).  It’s like cartoon-villain dialogue.  She might as well be twirling her mustachios.  But there’s such weird and interesting sex and family stuff underneath it; Rosa and Steerforth are kind of a parallel plot to David and Agnes, if you look at the plot from a Shakespearean angle.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 13 and 14

January 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Once again, favorite lines from each chapter:

Chapter 38:

I cannot describe the state of mind into which I was thrown by this intelligence.  The shock of such an event happening so suddenly, and happening to one with whom I had been in any respect at variance — the appalling vacancy in the room he had occupied so lately, where his chair and table seemed to wait for him, and his handwriting of yesterday was like a ghost — the indefinable impossibility of separating him from the place, and feeling, when the door opened, as if he might come in — the lazy hush and rest there was in the office, and the insatiable relish with which our people talked about it, and other people came in and out all day, and gorged themselves with the subject — this is easily intelligible to any one.  What I cannot describe is, how, in the innermost recesses of my own heart, I had a lurking jealousy even of Death.

As inexplicable and annoying as Dickens’ portrayal of Dora may be, the development of David’s relationship with her is quite well done — you know, besides there being no overt sexual impulse whatsoever — with flashes of surprising truth, such as this admission of jealousy for his beloved’s grief.  That “grasping, avaricious wish to shut out everybody from her but myself,” including the dead.  And that grotesque image of people “gorg[ing] themselves” on news of the unexpected death!

Chapter 39:

Any one of these scouts used to think nothing of politely assisting an old lady in black out of a vehicle, killing any proctor whom she inquired for, representing his employer as the lawful successor and representative of that proctor, and bearing the old lady off (sometimes greatly affected) to his employer’s office.

Really, this sentence stands in for the page-long, almost completely detachable digression (the last paragraph here) about the “kidnappers and inveiglers” who would hustle those in search of marriage licenses or management of an estate into law offices, getting into fights with each other all the while.  Quite a vivid piece of Victorian London street life, that.

Chapter 40:

“When she was a child,” he said, lifting up his head soon after we were left alone, “she used to talk to me a deal about the sea, and about them coasts where the sea got to be dark blue, and to lay a shining and a shining in the sun.  I thowt, odd times, as her father being drownded made her think on it so much.  I doen’t know, you see, but maybe she believed — or hoped — he had drifted out to them parts, where the flowers is always a blowing, and the country bright.”

This beginning to Mr. Peggotty’s tale of wandering, in a chapter entitled “The Wanderer,” comes just after a passage describing the change his travels have wrought on his appearance (but not on his “stedfastness of purpose”).  It’s a short, beautiful chapter, taking place mostly in a pub out of a “heavy, settled fall” of snow.  Something about the chain of passages here made me think of Dickens the genius of genre: how he could slip effortlessly between Gothic, Romantic, domestic, satirical, silver-fork, epistolary, picaresque, more or less all the rest that had preceded him in English literature.  Here he blends Romantic with a touch of mystery, a touch of dialect, and does it while working in these themes of death and, especially, drowning that run through the novel.

Chapter 41:

“Oh!” returned Traddles, laughing, “I assure you, it’s quite an old story, my unfortunate hair.  My uncle’s wife couldn’t bear it.  She said it exasperated her.  It stood very much in my way, too, when I first fell in love with Sophy.  Very much!”

“Did she object to it?”

She didn’t,” rejoined Traddles; “but her eldest sister — the one that’s the Beauty — quite made a game of it, I understand.  In fact, all the sisters laugh at it.”

“Agreeable!” said I.

“Yes,” returned Traddles with perfect innocence, “it’s a joke for us.  They pretend that Sophy has a lock of it in her desk, and is obliged to shut it in a clasped book, to keep it down.  We laught about it.”

Part of an excellent comic dialogue on the standing-up hair and semi-successful courtship of the irrepressible Tommy Traddles.

Chapter 42:

The man who reviews his own life, as I do mine, in going on here, from page to page, had need to have been a good man indeed, if he would be spared the sharp consciousness of many talents neglected, many opportunities wasted, many erratic and perverted feelings constantly at war within his breast, and defeating him.  I do not hold one natural gift, I dare say, that I have not abused.  My meaning simply is, that whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well; that whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely; that, in great aims and in small, I have always been thoroughly in earnest.

Given a huge enough stone, and a life lived very, very well, you could hardly hope for a better epitaph.  It’s certainly no model of efficiency or precision, but it’s so Dickensy in the profusion of commas and of feeling.

Chapter 43:

Of our kneeling down together, side by side; of Dora’s trembling less and less, but always clasping Agnes by the hand; of the service being got through, quietly and gravely; of our all looking at each other in an April state of smiles and tears, when it is over; of my young wife being hysterical in the vestry, and crying for her poor papa, her dear papa.

Between Dora crying for her father, Jip the spaniel throwing up wedding cake, and Aunt Betsey’s frequent warnings, you’d have to think things aren’t going to end so well for David and Dora.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 11 and 12

January 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Continuing the survey of my favorite passages from each chapter:

Chapter 32:

“Yes, it’s always so!” she said.  “They are all surprised, these inconsiderate young people, fairly and fully grown, to see any natural feeling in a little thing like me!  They make a plaything of me, use me for their amusement, throw me away when they are tired, and wonder that I feel more than a toy horse or a wooden soldier!  Yes, yes, that’s the way.  The old way!”

This from Miss Mowcher the dwarf, in a surprising scene with David, revealing her sorrow at Steerforth’s behavior and her not catching it beforehand.  A great example of the celebrated humanity of Dickens, his empathy for the motivations of behaviors of even his minor or comedic characters.

Chapter 33:

Taking that part of the Commons which happened to be nearest to us – for our man was unmarried by this time, and we were out of Court, and strolling past the Prerogative Office – I submitted that I thought the Prerogative Office rather a queerly managed institution. Mr. Spenlow inquired in what respect? I replied, with all due deference to his experience (but with more deference, I am afraid, to his being Dora’s father), that perhaps it was a little nonsensical that the Registry of that Court, containing the original wills of all persons leaving effects within the immense province of Canterbury, for three whole centuries, should be an accidental building, never designed for the purpose, leased by the registrars for their Own private emolument, unsafe, not even ascertained to be fire-proof, choked with the important documents it held, and positively, from the roof to the basement, a mercenary speculation of the registrars, who took great fees from the public, and crammed the public’s wills away anyhow and anywhere, having no other object than to get rid of them cheaply. That, perhaps, it was a little unreasonable that these registrars in the receipt of profits amounting to eight or nine thousand pounds a year (to say nothing of the profits of the deputy registrars, and clerks of seats), should not be obliged to spend a little of that money, in finding a reasonably safe place for the important documents which all classes of people were compelled to hand over to them, whether they would or no. That, perhaps, it was a little unjust, that all the great offices in this great office should be magnificent sinecures, while the unfortunate working-clerks in the cold dark room upstairs were the worst rewarded, and the least considered men, doing important services, in London. That perhaps it was a little indecent that the principal registrar of all, whose duty it was to find the public, constantly resorting to this place, all needful accommodation, should be an enormous sinecurist in virtue of that post (and might be, besides, a clergyman, a pluralist, the holder of a staff in a cathedral, and what not), – while the public was put to the inconvenience of which we had a specimen every afternoon when the office was busy, and which we knew to be quite monstrous. That, perhaps, in short, this Prerogative Office of the diocese of Canterbury was altogether such a pestilent job, and such a pernicious absurdity, that but for its being squeezed away in a corner of St. Paul’s Churchyard, which few people knew, it must have been turned completely inside out, and upside down, long ago.

It’s long, I know, but I do love it when Dickens gets himself worked up like this over some unjust, rectifiable absurdity of bureaucracy or government.  He developed such an effective and entertaining rhetoric of outrage.

Chapter 34:

Peggotty was glad to get it for him, and he overwhelmed her with thanks, and went his way up Tottenham Court Road, carrying the flowerpot affectionately in his arms, with one of the most delighted expressions of countenance I ever saw.

Traddles’ love affair with the two pieces of furniture for his future household with his beloved Sophy, which he bought, then pawned, then bought back, is another delightful example of the way in which Dickens creates the illusion of not just a plot or a community, but a universe: it is the accumulation of just such tertiary incidents, and the care which he put into them, which gives the impression that the characters are living, in a world very similar to (but not identical with) our own, operating on tweaked rules of logic and behavior.  Such rules lead to characters like Tommy Traddles inevitably winning back the flowerpots they’ve earned for their beloveds, and cradling them happily in their arms.

Chapter 35:

There was a beggar in the street, when I went down; and as I turned my head towards the window, thinking of her calm, seraphic eyes, he made me start by muttering, as if he were an echo of the morning:

“Blind!  Blind!  Blind!”

The fact that David is blind when it comes to Dora is indisputable.  He is an idiot about her; she is a child; that childlike selfishness, pettiness, and idleness is, of course, the reason for the attraction for him, who was deprived of most of his childhood.  The startling thing is how David (the narrator) foreshadows this fact, and gives us these hints of foreshadowing darkness in even the besotted-courtship phase of their relationship, such as this startling tableau with the beggar to close the chapter, after the revelation of his impoverishment.

Chapter 36:

I began the next day with another dive into the Roman bath, and then started for Highgate.  I was not dispirited now.  I was not afraid of the shabby coat, and had no yearnings after gallant greys.  My whole manner of thinking of our late misfortune was changed.  What I had to do, was, to show my aunt that her past goodness to me had not been thrown away on an insensible, ungrateful object.  What I had to do, was, to turn the painful discipline of my younger days to account, by going to work with a resolute and steady heart.  What I had to do, was, to take my woodman’s axe in my hand, and clear my own way through the forest of difficulty, by cutting down the trees until I came to Dora.

This is great, this bright and beautiful beginning to the chapter, following right on the pensive and deeply dark end to the previous one, its optimism so indicative of the feeling you can get on a crisp morning that anything is possible.  And oh, that “woodman’s axe”: one of the most vivid examples of David seeing and telling the fairy tale of his life.

Chapter 37:

My aunt had obtained a signal victory over Mrs. Crupp, by paying her off, throwing the first pitcher she planted on the stairs out of the window, and protecting in person, up and down the staircase, a supernumerary whom she engaged from the outer world.  These vigorous measures struck such terror to the breast of Mrs. Crupp, that she subsided into her own kitchen, under the impression that my aunt was mad.  My aunt being supremely indifferent to Mrs. Crupp’s opinion and everybody else’s, and rather favoring than discouraging the idea, Mrs. Crupp, of late the bold, became within a few days so faint-hearted, that rather than encounter my aunt upon the staircase, she would endeavour to hide her portly form behind doors — leaving visible, however, a wide margin of flannel petticoat — or would shrink into dark corners.  This gave my aunt such unspeakable satisfaction, that I believe she took a delight in prowling up and down, with her bonnet insanely perched on the top of her head, at times when Mrs. Crupp was likely to be in the way.

I love that “insanely perched” bonnet and that “wide margin of flannel petticoat.”  The third sentence would be a lot of fun to diagram — it’s one of Dickens’ twisty marvels.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 9 and 10

January 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Bringing us to the mid-point of the novel, here are my favorite lines from each chapter of the ninth and tenth parts:

Chapter 25:

“It’s a topic that I wouldn’t touch upon, to any soul but you.  Even to you I can only touch upon it, and no more.  If any one else had been in my place during the last few years, by this time he would have had Mr. Wickfield (oh, what a worthy man he is, Master Copperfield, too!) under his thumb.  Un—der — his thumb,” said Uriah, very slowly, as he stretched out his cruel-looking hand above my table, and pressed his own thumb down upon it, until it shook, and shook the room.

Another of the touches of surreality brought to the text by Uriah Heep, in that shaking of the room by a thumb.  This little passage highlights many of Uriah’s traits that get under David’s skin: that recurring dig of calling him “Master Copperfield,” as if a child, showing Uriah’s way of finding and exploiting weaknesses and vanities in his adversaries; his praise for those he seeks to control, as if he were unworthy of them; his taking liberties he has not earned and sharing confidences his companion would rather he not.

Chapter 26:

I hazarded a bold flight, and said (not without stammering) that it was very bright to me then, though it had been very dark to me a minute before.

“Do you mean a compliment?” said Dora, “or that the weather has really changed?”

A pretty funny exchange, in context, from early on in David’s wooing of Dora Spenlow, emblematic of David’s being a “lackadaisical young spooney” for her, in his own excellent words, and also of Dora’s ditziness.  At least so far, their relationship seems to be Hollywood-romantic-comedy level stuff.

Chapter 27:

The time he had mentioned was more than out, and he lived in a little street near the Veterinary College at Camden Town, which was principally tenanted, as one of our clerks who lived in that direction informed me, by gentlemen students, who bought live donkeys, and made experiments on those quadrupeds in their private apartments.

What’s the deal with the donkeys in this book?  Aunt Betsey is obsessed with them, and then this ghoulish chestnut gets tossed into a description of the neighborhood in which Tommy Traddles is living with the Micawbers.  The image of vets-in-training dissecting donkeys in their living rooms is so bizarre it must be based in reality.  And really, what an evocative way to suggest the unsavory nature of the neighborhood.

Chapter 28:

“Sir — for I dare not say, my dear Copperfield,

“It is expedient that I should inform you that the undersigned is Crushed.  Some flickering efforts to spare you the premature knowledge of his calamitous position, you may observe in him this day; but hope has sunk beneath the horizon, and the undersigned is Crushed.”

Another of the suicide notes from Mr. Micawber sprinkled throughout the text, this with a particularly effective combination of Micawber’s “legal phraseology” and his (real or feigned?) desperation.  The contrast of Micawber’s public positivity and shameless search for funds or position worthy of his “talents,” with his private letters to David admitting (and overstating) the doomed nature of his life, makes for a fascinating motif.  This chapter’s also notable for a great culinary scene of making deviled mutton on a gridiron, and the return of Steerforth, suddenly obviously a villain — Dickens rather overstates the case here, I think, in so quickly transforming his behavior.

Chapter 29:

As she still looked fixedly at me, a twitching or throbbing, from which I could not dissociate the idea of pain, came into that cruel mark; and lifted up the corner of her lip with scorn, or with a pity that despised its object.

Rosa Dartle’s cut through her lip, from when Steerforth threw a hammer at her as a child, is an odd but effective touch of the Gothic here: a sort of mark of Cain, and the first hint we’re given that Steerforth has a rotten core, it also takes on a character of its own, revealing itself whenever she grows pale, and contorting her face as if against Rosa’s will into the expressions she feels.  Rosa’s a really interesting character; I look forward to seeing what Dickens does with her.  She reminds me a bit of both Esther and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House.

Chapter 30:

I was on the point of asking him if he knew me, when he tried to stretch out his arm, and said to me, distinctly, with a pleasant smile:

“Barkis is willin’!”

And, it being low water, he went out with the tide.

It must’ve been amazing to hear Dickens read from his work.  I suspect he could’ve made me sob like a baby with a scene like this.  The cadence is just perfect, and that last line so sweet, and sad.  Dickens could come off as cloying or contrived in some of his death scenes, especially if of a main character, when the scene could become an “event” (see Nell, Little); here, he writes a perfectly balanced scene of comedy and tragedy, life and death, culminating in this quiet moment of dignity.

Chapter 31:

“Em’ly’s run away!  Oh, Mas’r Davy, think how she’s run away, when I pray my good and gracious God to kill her (her that is so dear above all things) sooner than let her come to ruin and disgrace!”

This is actually my least favorite line of the chapter, and one of my least favorite of the book, and it can stand in for more or less all of the most queasily and quintessentially Victorian lines in Dickens.  It’s just the line that provoked the strongest reaction.  It’s not even the first time that a character has suggested that Emily would be better off murdered than having run off to have sex with a man outside of her class (David mentions that maybe Emily would’ve been better off falling into the sea and drowning as a child, early on).  I don’t know what’s going to happen to Emily, yet.  But this sort of better-off-dead-than-deflowered BS… I mean… what’s the defense for it?  Why put this line into the mouth of virtuous Ham, Emily’s constantly devoted fiance?  It’s vile.  It shows all that seems most foreign to us in the society of 150 years ago.

Did Dickens himself believe this sort of thing, given his, shall we say, complicated personal life?  Or was he just obeying convention?  Surely lines like this were seen as necessary at the time, so as not to shock refined sensibilities, just like it’s impossible to show anything but negative effects of drug use on TV now.  It’s just so over the top.  Here’s my advice: Ham, you probably should not pray to almighty God to slaughter your beloved because she may be having premarital sex.  And you probably should not wish her life had ended when she was five because she may one day have sex with a man whose family has more money than she does, David.  Just my opinion, I guess.

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