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.

Poor Little Nell! Poor Little Paul!

December 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

Here’s a nice 21st-century take on Dickens: Dickens the Assassin with a Heart of Gold.  In his outline for this book, in his notes for the very first part, Dickens wrote: “Boy born, to die.”  And so he is, at the book’s beginning; and so he does, not even a quarter of the way through the work.

Dickens makes sure we know he feels bad about it: in his Preface to a later edition (sorry, this crappy Oxford edition doesn’t tell me which edition this prefaces — Dickens wrote many prefaces for new editions — but I know it’s not to the first), he writes in reference to Paul’s death, “…when I am reminded by any chance of what it was that the waves were always saying, my remembrance wanders for a whole winter night about the streets of Paris — as I restlessly did with a heavy heart, on the night when I had written the chapter in which my little friend and I had parted company.”

Fiction writers write things like this fairly often, trying to convince their readers of the reality they feel in the characters they create, until it becomes inconvenient and they condescendingly remind some dolt or critic, who has made the mistake of acting as though the world they’ve created is real, that fiction is make-believe.  No one wants to believe that writers, writers of the kind of social-pseudo-realist fiction that Dickens wrote, create characters out of convenience, out of something so unseemly as a profit motive, much less kill them off for same.  And yet the fact remains: the death of little Nell in the last part of The Old Curiosity Shop had been an absolute sensation, readers in both Britain and America feeling terrible suspense about her fate, and then expressing deep emotion at her death and Dickens’s artistry in presenting it.  And Martin Chuzzlewit, after that book, had flopped.  And Dickens, needing a hit, crafted a story around a boy born to die.  It feels more than a little unseemly.  Killing, hobbling, and imperiling saintly children was good business, in Victorian England.  It sold books, and still does.

That Dickens gets away with it, for this reader at least — not only gets away with it, but actually achieves a genuine artistic breakthrough, and makes you cry in the process — is a kind of miracle of humanity.  Little Paul is so much more a character than little Nell.  Little Nell is one of those typical boring Victorian selfless females, with all the personality of a Precious Moments figurine.  Little Paul is something of a saint, too, I suppose; but he’s a weird little saint, and we get to know him from the inside out.  Shouldn’t this make it worse, Dickens killing him off?  Why should this make me believe that Dickens really did suffer, in writing his premeditated death?

But it doesn’t: Paul becomes a real little boy, like Pinocchio.  He dies because he’s young and sickly and, to speculate on Dickens’s medical beliefs, because he never had his mother’s milk and was weaned from his first nurse far too soon — not because Dickens needs him to die for the plot to work.  I am afraid that, even if Dickens came up with the idea for Paul out of a profit motive, he wrote him into existence.  And it must have pained him to see him die.

Part of the difference between Paul and Nell is surely the Victorian obsession with angelic femininity.  Another part, I’d guess, is the stronger autobiographical impulse Dickens felt towards Paul as a boy whom he’d put into a situation very similar to one he’d been put into as a boy, and the way this connection allowed him to write his way into Paul’s childish point of view.  To Paul, Doctor Blimber’s house is a strange and magical place, where the clock’s working says to him, “‘how, is, my, lit, tle, friend? how, is, my, lit, tle, friend?’ over and over again,” and the patterns in the rugs and wallpaper come to life.  These are the sorts of details we never got for little Nell, who remains boringly angelic.

Beyond that, Paul’s main eccentricity is said to be that he is “old-fashioned,” in a mysterious way that those who call him such cannot quite identify.  He is very polite, and kind, but also very honest — to the point of being rude, such as when Mrs. Pipchin wonders what he’s thinking and he answers, “I’m thinking how old you must be.” In the end, it is implied that people sense that Paul is old-fashioned as a function of his being doomed to death; and yes, child mortality was still a giant problem in the nineteenth century, and was one of the old-fashioned problems Victorian society was most concerned with eradicating.

The way he will stare at Mrs. Pipchin for hours in front of the fire, wondering how old she is, seems to me to be a key to Dickens’s creation of Paul.  Paul knows he is not well; knows he cannot be long for the world; is fascinated by age, by people who have lived ten times as long as he has and seem to get no enjoyment from it; is always asking questions about death, about the voices that seem to live in those waves of life and death.  I think Paul’s old-fashionedness is actually a matter of his being nostalgic for the present, always seeing his own life as if it is already ended; he is always rolling the few scenes and incidents of his short life over and over in his mind, savoring or longing for them, asking to hear about his mother whom he never knew.  Dickens imbues him with an implied, but never stated, self-awareness of his own condition, and he looks upon the world with a ghost’s eyes.  You could dismiss all this as corny Victorian spirituality, I suppose, but I think that reaction is basically a product of years of ham-fisted attempts to replicate the kinds of effects Dickens achieves when he expresses his mysticism.

He definitely does have this mystical streak, and when it works, it seems to produce some of the most beautiful language in literary history.  Chapter 16, the aforementioned “What the Waves were always saying,” really does seem to me to be a point at which Dickens reached a new artistic plateau.  From the beginning of D&S he feels more in control, more sure of his plot, his characters, and his language, than in previous books.  And then comes this, which I know you can read for yourself at that link above, but which I want to write in full just for the glory of it; this must be one of the most beautiful paragraphs in the English language:

When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on, and that the sky was red and beautiful.  As the reflection died away, and a gloom went creeping up the wall, he watched it deepen, deepen, deepen, into night.  Then he thought how the long streets were dotted with lamps, and how the peaceful stars were shining overhead.  His fancy had a strange tendency to wander to the river, which he knew was flowing through the great city; and now he thought how black it was, and how deep it would look, reflecting the hosts of stars — and more than all, how steadily it rolled away to meet the sea.

After the first half of this chapter, I will forgive Dickens nearly anything.   The second half of the chapter, at Paul’s deathbed, can be somewhat maudlin in the little Nell style, but even though Nell’s death came very near the end of a very long book, this scene seems to me so much more moving, simply because we’ve seen through the eyes of the sick little boy.  Even at the very end, Paul is “old-fashioned,” using his last words to his father to encourage him to “Remember Walter,” a kid that Paul barely knew but who had helped Florence once — nostalgic for things that happened once upon a time, before he escapes from time forever.

Time’s Malcontents

December 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens.

Dombey and Son was Dickens’ comeback book: H.W. Garrod tells me in the introduction to my Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition that 70,000 people read the weekly serial parts of The Old Curiosity Shop, while “not a third of that number” bought the monthly parts of Martin Chuzzlewit, the book prior to this one.  The first few parts of D&S (full title Dealings with the Firm Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation, in case you were wondering) brought Dickens’s readership back in full force.

None of this really makes much sense to me.  If I had to bet, based on the first 100 or so pages, I would’ve bet that Chuzzlewit was the success and D&S the flop.  Chuzzlewit at least has some action, some forward momentum.  The first seven chapters of D&S are full of light comedy, characters intentionally defined by their lack of personality, and a central plot focused on a baby.  (Not a talking baby or a dancing baby or a baby genius, either: just a baby.  Little Paul Dombey.)  It’s not really gripping stuff.  But the Victorians did love their comedic busybodies, their precocious tiny tots, their colorful servant-folk, and their little bits of scenery and sketches of personality.  (This stuff is what Dickens cut his teeth on, after all.)  I have to admit that I, too, am loving Major Joe Bagstock, who is constantly referring to himself in the third person as “Joey B.,” “Old Joe,” “J. Bagstock,” etc. — maybe the earliest example of this now-omnipresent phenomenon.

Then comes the eighth chapter, “Paul’s further Progress, Growth, and Character,” and the book comes to life.  Dickens is never a waste of time, even when he’s merely trying to entertain or lecturing.  But he can sometimes seem much flatter, even disinterested in his own work.  That’s how the first seven chapters felt, in part because Paul Dombey Sr. is an intentionally flat, cold, mostly uninteresting character: Scrooge without Scrooge’s fire.  We hate him for ignoring little Florence, his unwanted daughter, but even there Dickens’ narration distances us from our fury.  In chapter eight, however, Dickens is fully engaged, and personally invested, and seems to know he’s working on something great.  And it is personal: this chapter is grounded in autobiography.  In a letter to his biographer, John Forster, Dickens said that “It is from the life, and I was there — I don’t suppose I was eight years old…”

The “there” there is Mrs. Pipchin’s, near the sea, where “nearly five years old” Paul is sent in hopes of improving his health in the fresher air.  Pipchin is a typical Dickens grotesque, an ancient widow known for her expertise on “infancy” who lives in a strange, dank house.  Little Paul really becomes the center of the show here, but I think I will reserve my thoughts on him for my next post.  The foreshadowing in this chapter is deep and dark.

There are any number of fascinating aspects to this chapter, but I’m interested in how it got me thinking about time, and about the arc of a life.  The first paragraph is the beginning of one of Dickens’ smart, compact, and lyrical fast-forwards:

Beneath the watching and attentive eyes of Time — so far another Major — Paul’s slumbers gradually changed.  More and more light broke in upon them; distincter and distincter dreams disturbed them; an accumulating crowd of objects and impressions swarmed about his rest; and so he passed from babyhood to childhood, and became a talking, walking, wondering Dombey.

Dickens is one of the best at this: knowing when it’s time to pull back, take out the wide view, and switch from incident to exposition.  He knows his pace; he knows how to stretch minutes (the agony of Jonas Chuzzlewit comes to mind) or speed years.  In this chapter, he manages to balance his summaries with his scenes, and somehow gives the texture of lived life and the experience of a sick young boy.

As Paul’s innocent questions about money and death endear him throughout the chapter — and really, I suppose dear little dying Paul is the reason the book was so popular — time crystallizes as a major theme.  Paul Dombey Sr. wants time to fast-forward to his son’s adulthood in a way that Dickens will not permit (at least not yet); and his dissatisfaction with day-to-day life is one of the sad subtexts which Dickens has handled beautifully, without explicit moralizing (again, at least not yet).  This is one of the best ways that Dickens uses his typically protean and ambiguous narrator: often seeming to chronicle events in a way consistent with the book’s full title, as a kind of business/family history, and therefore often facetiously arguing from Dombey’s perspective, he lets the reader’s own sense of morality and humanity work against the grain of the words.  This usually only lasts so long before Dickens can no longer resist laying into his villain.

Little Paul and Florence want their mother back; Mrs. Pipchin feels better about her age by sucking the childhood out of children; even Solomon Gills, in the primary subplot, longs for the days when his nautical instruments were in demand.  Future perfect, past perfect: who’s living today, here?  When is a life’s living overtaken by a life’s waiting?

Teaching the Seventh Grade

August 2, 2009 § 2 Comments

Just finished: Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.

Reading next: White-Jacket, by Herman Melville.

If I were to become a teacher, I’d want to teach the middle-school grades.  Kids then are old enough to learn about and understand some pretty complex material, but are also still kids, often interested in and involved with childish things: imaginative worlds, toys, made-up games, sleepovers.  They’re also on the verge of going to terrifying high school, and becoming adolescent: raging hormones, insecurities, mood swings, and cliques.  It’s the perfect time to be opened up to the right book, the right band, the right friend.  And maybe it’s just me, but I was most invested in my teacher in the seventh and eighth grades.  I wanted guidance, I thought he was cool, I craved his approval.

Ms. Hempel Chronicles is the best book I’ve ever read about teaching, about being a teacher; but then, I’ve never been a teacher, so that doesn’t really say much.  However, it’s also a great book about working in your twenties and trying to figure out what you’re meant to do and who you’re meant to be and how to do your job all at once.  This I have experience with.

Ms. Hempel teaches middle-school English, and the book is suffused with the perfect tone of sweet melancholy to help you connect the dots: the overlooked sadness of childhood passing away, for both the seventh- and eighth-grade students and for Ms. Hempel, their young teacher.  Passages in which Ms. Hempel, exhausted, grades papers and watches television, wishing she had the energy to do something creative instead, are spot-on: work taking over, youthful ambitions shunted aside.

And yet it’s not a sad book — or not only sad, anyway.  The first story, “Talent,” is downright joyous (and probably my favorite); and so, in its way, is the last, “Bump.”  It’s a slim little book, but it feels utterly full.  Beatrice Hempel occupies its space perfectly, a fully realized unreal person.

As Beatrice realizes a few years into the job, one of its horrors is that she is constantly repeating the seventh grade.  The students move on, while she’s left learning once again the level of history, the level of literature, that a seventh-grader can comprehend.  And it is amazing to think of career teachers doing this over and over for decades.

(Spoilers ahead.)  “Bump” is so fascinating in this respect, both because I didn’t see it coming and because it flips the whole book on its head.  While the story itself is quite happy and upbeat — since we’re occupying Ms. Hempel’s headspace, and she herself appears to be happy and upbeat — there’s a real sadness, too.  When Beatrice, now (I speculate) in her mid- to late-thirties, meets a former student, and hears how much she meant (still means) to this student and others with whom the student is still in touch, she is utterly overjoyed.  And yet it’s so heartbreaking: she’s not doing it anymore.  She’s left.  And it really does seem to be the best for her.  But I doubt, somehow, that it’s best for the kids she could’ve been teaching, could’ve been turning on to the right book, the right band, the right way to be in those difficult years of awkwardness.  The tragedy of teaching, I suppose, at least in the U.S.

“Closing Time” and the Truth of the Story

September 1, 2008 § 15 Comments

Now reading: Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman.

First off, an apology to Nosferatu in Love, by Jim Shepard. I did finish it, and it is good — an imaginative biography of F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu among many other classics (I was disappointed that Sunrise was not only not featured, it wasn’t even mentioned). However, I read a lot of it on an airplane, then finished it during a hectic week. It’s got some more interesting things to say, and I especially enjoyed its descriptions of Murnau flying his airplane in WWI, and the experience of being above the clouds targeting the earth, and how that impacted his sense of what cinema could do — but I’m going to have to skip it for now. Onward.

Because Neil Gaiman is a lot of fun to read, and a lot of fun to think about. “Closing Time,” in particular, is a doozy. There are mysteries here, and ambiguity aplenty. And ooh, Narrator Trouble.

(Allow me to digress and bitch for a minute here. The Internet is a marvelous tool, and so is Google, and blogs are marvelous tools themselves. But, see here: a Google search for [“neil gaiman””closing time”] revealed roughly a zillion reviews of one sort or another in the first 100 hits, including reviews in blogs, and zero substantial critical discussions of what’s actually going on in this or any other story. Mechanisms for selling, basically, not thought. Part of the problem is the imprecision of my search, certainly, and my laziness in going through only 100 of the 6000+ hits (although things get more or less off-topic after what I saw, from a skim of later hits). And another part is the Google algorithms, and the fact that Google just doesn’t search everything: there are some discussions of this story on the neilgaiman.com message boards, but they’re buried too deep in the site for Google to recover. (They’re not very good discussions, anyway.) But might I suggest that people move beyond “I liked this,” etc. if they’re going to the trouble of writing about literature in the first place? We have many commercial vendors compiling that sort of information for us. There are already mechanisms for communicating your likes/dislikes to your pals. They’re called e-mail, telephone, and the good ol’ interpersonal conversation. You don’t have to be useful in a pseudo-public setting, but for God’s sake, would it hurt to try?)

So anyway, this is a “club story.” I’m a sucker for this genre, for reasons I can’t necessarily define: I tend to love frame stories of any sort. Something about stories-within-stories gives me a shiver of pleasure. Anyway, here it’s the Diogenes Club (named after the philosopher who famously could not find an honest man), and three young men are trading ghost stories one night. We have a first-person narrator, an “I,” a “young journalist.” (The story, according to Gaiman’s introduction, includes real places, and some real or similar-to-real events, and seems semi-autobiographical.) And we have an “elderly man” drinking by himself in a corner.

When the two named characters, Paul and Martyn, have each had a go at a fairly uninteresting story, we get this: “And then one of us said, ‘I’ll tell you a true story, if you like…. I don’t know if it’s a ghost story. It probably isn’t.'”

Wait… “one of us”? We then get the entire, genuinely creepy story in first person. And when it’s over, both Paul and Martyn comment upon it. So they weren’t the teller, who’s defined as “the storyteller,” separate from our narrator’s “I.” And it becomes evident that the old man wasn’t the teller either. There was also the proprietor, Nora, but she couldn’t have been the teller either, because she doesn’t accompany the four men out at closing time (plus, the storyteller was clearly a boy).

So: what the hell? Is this just a strange affectation of Gaiman’s? Or is it a way of dividing a person as he normally is and that same person as “storyteller”? A way of pointing out the kind of magic circle that’s drawn around a person telling and the people listening, the way they step outside of normal life, even if it’s a “true story” they’re sharing?

Plus, there’s the strangeness of the story itself. It involves a nine-year-old boy (the storyteller) who meets a group of three slightly older boys. (So we have two groups of four: the four in the Diogenes, the four in the story, with similar three-and-one groupings.) These boys show their younger visitor to a “playhouse” in the woods behind “the Swallows,” a manor house. And the door to this playhouse has a “metal knocker… painted crimson… in the shape of some kind of imp, some kind of grinning pixie or demon, hanging by its hands from a hinge.”

Fair enough, and creepy enough. But we’ve been told, four pages earlier, that the storyteller had made in art class “a painting… of a little house with a red door knocker like a devil or an imp.” And yet he gives no impression that he recognized this house, or this knocker, from his own painting. He says: “I found myself wondering what kind of a person would hang something like that on a playhouse door.”

Now, my wife Jaime (who read the story a few months ago) originally suggested that the three boys in the story were ghosts. The ending makes this difficult to accept, though, at least for all three of the boys. We went back and forth a bit on it, and settled on thinking that perhaps they were a kind of ghost of the living: memories made flesh, or the essence of childhoods lost. A kind of ambiguous, indefinable, deeply interesting non-being. This seems to fit best with the chronology of the story.

But that painting; and the weird handling of the narrator; what is going on here? I suspect that what Gaiman is doing here is something like constructing a “true” ghost story: the story of a haunting. (The story right before “Closing Time” is an avowedly “true” ghost story, called “The Flints of Memory Lane,” and some of the details in it echo in strange ways in “Closing Time.”) The “true” story is of this nine-year-old boy whose school closes down and who takes his strange painting back from its abandoned halls. He’s got a melancholy air about him. He seems, in a word, haunted, as does his landscape of “old houses and estates” about to be torn down to make way for “blandly identical landscapes of desirable modern residences.” And the rest of this story, the meeting of these boys, their strange hiding place, the playhouse, and the ambiguous evil they’ve undergone: it’s a way, also but differently “true,” of giving life to the haunting the boy feels, of explaining “what kind of person,” indeed, “would hang something like that on a playhouse door.” (Some answers: an imaginative person. A cruel person. A young boy. Neil Gaiman. And maybe you could also say that we, the readers, are the kind of people who “would hang something like that.” It’s what gives the story its shiver, after all, that door-knocker. And we like our shiver, whatever it might mean for the characters in the story we’re reading.) It’s a way, I expect, of dramatizing how we’re captured by story, and by memory, in thrall to them. They can make us do, and relive, awful things, wonderful things.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with childhood at The Ambiguities.