Sebald’s “Winter Poem”

December 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished: Hard Times.

Now reading: Misfortune, by Wesley Stace; Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, by W. G. Sebald.

I finished Hard Times deeply sad to see it go.  In a lot of ways, it’s the book that best displays the genius of Dickens, by being non-Dickensian: the salient features are there, but in their compressed state it’s hardly the same thing at all.  I was most sad that there wasn’t more of Sleary’s Circus, precisely the kind of secondary feature that Dickens would’ve explored in more depth and delight if this were a longer novel in monthly parts, as he did the Crummles troupe in Nicholas Nickleby, or the entertainers in The Old Curiosity Shop.  

Because it was so short, I’m reading the Victorian pastiche of Wesley Stace’s Misfortune, which is off to a fine start.  We have already had a preternaturally gifted, homeless balladeer named Pharaoh; a foundling; and a haunted “Gothick” manse called Love Hall (inhabited by the Loveall, no s in the plural, thank you very much).  Oh, and there’s a governess-turned-librarian named Anonyma, who is building a fine collection of bibliographical literature in Love Hall’s Octagonal Library.  (This private-librarian-to-the-rich-and-famous gig happens to be my partner’s dream career path for me.)  She’s already explained the making of parchment and the process of manuscript illumination to her young charges much more accurately than you normally see in contemporary novels.  This makes me happy.

Finally, I’m reading Sebald’s poems (translated by Iain Galbraith), which are ambiguous, melancholy, and beautiful.  The short poem below is not as simple as it seems, not as comforting; nothing ever is with Sebald.  He had in mind, I think, Herod’s massacre of innocents, and those Jewish children hidden in Flanders and elsewhere to avoid a much later massacre.  Nevertheless, as we deal with our own massacre of innocents here in the U.S., this poem did present itself as a worthy site for meditation, and a balm.

Winter Poem

The valley resounds
With the sound of the stars
With the vast stillness
Over snow and forest.

The cows are in their byre.
God is in his heaven.
Child Jesus in Flanders.
Believe and be saved.
The Three Wise Men
Are walking the earth.

Mrs. Sparsit’s Wet and Wild Adventure

December 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.

There’s a depth of emotion to the second half of the second book — the climax of the affair between Louisa and Harthouse — that is hard to locate, exactly.  The action is filtered through the nasty little eyes of peeping Mrs. Sparsit, until Louisa returns home and the emotion all spills out in the typical Dickensian fashion.  What Dickens seems to do in the chapters preceding this is work all of his emotion into the scenery and the metaphor.

In such a short book — and really, I’m beginning to near the end, and I feel like I’m just getting my bearings; I’m poorly calibrated for short Dickens — a chapter is spent on explaining “an idea in the nature of an allegorical fancy” that Mrs. Sparsit develops:

She erected in her mind a mighty Staircase, with a dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom; and down those stairs, from day to day and hour to hour, she saw Louisa coming.

It became the business of Mrs. Sparsit’s life, to look up her staircase, and to watch Louisa coming down….

The eleventh chapter is remarkable in a number of ways.  Mrs. Sparsit tails Louisa to her tryst with Harthouse, and there is this remarkable transition from the industry and bustle of the railway journey to the country house to a garden to a dark wood:

All the journey, immovable in the air though never left behind; plain to the dark eyes of her mind, as the electric wires which ruled a colossal strip of music-paper out of the evening sky, were plain to the dark eyes of her body; Mrs. Sparsit saw her staircase, with the figure coming down.

(Amazing, that.  The plain thing, here, is an imaginary “immovable” staircase.  It is compared to the plainness of a fanciful staff on the night sky, made of electric wires.  Dickens gives the lie to Fact and Progress once again.)

An overcast September evening, just at nightfall, saw beneath its drooping eyelid Mrs. Sparsit slide out of her carriage, pass down the wooden steps of the little station into a stony road, cross it into a green lane, and become hidden in a summer-growth of leaves and branches.  One or two late birds sleepily chirping in their nests, and a bat heavily crossing and recrossing her, and the reek of her own tread in the thick dust that felt like velvet, were all Mrs. Sparsit heard or saw until she very softly closed a gate.

She went up to the house, keeping within the shrubbery, and went round it, peeping between the leaves at the lower windows.  Most of them were open, as they usually were in such warm weather, but there were no lights yet, and all was silent.  She tried the garden with no better effect.  She thought of the wood, and stole towards it, heedless of long grass and briers: of worms, snails, and slugs, and all the creeping things that be….

She sees their interlude “by the felled tree” and Louisa’s struggle, “in the whirl of her own gratified malice, in the dread of being discovered, in the rapidly increasing noise of heavy rain among the leaves, and a thunderstorm rolling up.”  I love how this mention of the thunderstorm also comes upon the reader unsuspected, swept up like Mrs. Sparsit in the suspense of Louisa’s wooing by Harthouse.

Mrs. Sparsit saw her out of the wood, and saw her enter the house.  What to do next?  It rained now, in a sheet of water.  Mrs. Sparsit’s white stockings were of many colours, green predominating; prickly things were in her shoes; caterpillars slung themselves, in hammocks of their own making, from various parts of her dress; rills ran from her bonnet, and her Roman nose.  In such condition, Mrs. Sparsit stood hidden in the density of the shrubbery, considering what next?

The whole scene is so astonishing, and rushes so headlong, that you can miss that it’s a parody.  Dusk in the fecund forest by a tree surely felled by lightning, with a lover, as the sublime power of a thunderstorm descends?  This is Romance.  But it’s Mrs. Sparsit we experience it with, and see its ridiculousness.  (The key, perhaps, is that absurd bat that keeps crossing her path, and the strange phrasing of its introduction.  It jarred me out of the scene on my first reading.)  The passion is real, for Louisa, and yet Dickens shows how the stage is set, how the eyes are watching (including ours), how it would be a huge mistake to trade a life for a moment.  It’s ingenious.  And it manages to indulge us with the image of a sopping wet Mrs. Sparsit, to boot.

Perhaps it’s because I recently saw the new Anna Karenina film adaptation (which is wonderful), but I kept thinking of Tolstoy’s novel during these Louisa-Harthouse chapters, and wondering if they were an influence on his conception of the affair between Anna and Vronsky.

Hard Times for These Times

December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.

After my latest long hiatus from posting, I’ve decided to try to get back to what I wanted to do with this in the first place: help myself think through, and better remember, the literature I read.  This should mean shorter, more informal posts.  More like an online commonplace book than the essay collection it had become.

What inspired me to start it back up?  Dickens, of course.  Specifically, this passage, right at the beginning of “Book the Second — Reaping” (aside: I love the purposefully archaic, Biblical book titles here, fascinating in a book about industrialization, labor, education, “progress”).  This passage: I am tempted to hire a billboard on which to post it.

The wonder was, it [Coketown, the industrial city in which the book is set] was there at all.  It had been ruined so often, that it was amazing how it had borne so many shocks.  Surely there never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made.  Handle them never so lightly and they fell to pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been flawed before.  They were ruined, when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke.

In the parlance of our times: THIS.  THIS THIS THIS.  I’m only halfway through, but Hard Times strikes me as a perfect book for a One Book, One City program.  There are passages here and elsewhere directly applicable to controversies about government regulation and employers who hate them (ahem, Obamacare); to the labor movement, its complexities, and its dark side; to methods and outcomes of education; to capital-N Nature and the environment, and industrial pollution.  Plus, it is short, unlike all other Dickens novels.  And the circus is involved.

I mentioned the environment.  The chapter following the passage copied above describes an extremely hot day in Coketown.  It reads as a premonition (or, perhaps, intuition) of man-made climate change.

But the sun itself, however beneficent, generally, was less kind to Coketown than hard frost, and rarely looked intently into any of its closer regions without engendering more death than life.  So does the eye of Heaven itself become an evil eye, when incapable or sordid hands are interposed between it and the things it looks upon to bless.

It’s hard to avoid thinking that we all live in Coketown now.

Dickens: his motifs, his metaphors, his idiosyncratic conceits.  Time — and specifically mechanical regulation of time — is one of the great motifs in Hard Times. This motif comes to a crescendo in the last chapter of “Book the First,” in one of the lyrical paragraphs that makes Dickens a joy to read:

Meanwhile the marriage was appointed to be solemnized in eight weeks’ time, and Mr. Bounderby went every evening to Stone Lodge, as an accepted wooer.  Love was made on these occasions in the form of bracelets; and, on all occasions during the period of betrothal, took a manufacturing aspect.  Dresses were made, jewellery was made, cakes and gloves were made, settlements were made, and an extensive assortment of Facts did appropriate honour to the contract.  The business was all Fact, from first to last.  The Hours did not go through any of those rosy performances, which foolish poets have ascribed to them at such times; neither did the clocks go any faster, or any slower, than at other seasons.  The deadly statistical recorder in the Gradgrind observatory knocked every second on the head as it was born, and buried it with his accustomed regularity.

Dickens, Beckett, Domesticity, and Modernism

February 4, 2012 § 3 Comments

Finished: Malone Dies and The Unnamable, by Samuel Beckett; Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.

Reading now: A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds, by Mac Wellman.

Reading next: Dubliners, by James Joyce.

It is an exaggeration, but an interesting one, to say that modernist literature is a reaction to Dickens.  In his massive popularity (and desire to be and remain popular), his embrace of transparent plot and familiar character, his omnipresent sentimentality, and his fastidious avoidance of any mention of sex, he represents a nicely dialectical figure for the modernist authors. From Henry James to Woolf and Joyce, the modernists found Dickens ridiculous and bourgeois.

Read the Victorian fabulist/realist master Dickens in close proximity to the modernist/postmodernist master Samuel Beckett and you can feel like these two men inhabited completely different universes, completely different ways of experiencing and translating the experience of being in the world.  But as I was reading Malone Dies, I found myself thinking of Dickens, and seeing the text as a kind of unwitting reply to one of the dominant themes in his work (as in much of Victorian literature): belief in domestic bliss, in the comforts of home.

It was the story of the Lamberts, especially, that brought this to mind.  All of Malone Dies — and, to a lesser degree, all of Molloy, and to a greater and more overt degree, all of The Unnamable — is self-conscious of the creation of fictions and exposure of the mechanisms by which narrative is produced.  The Lamberts are one of the many attempts by Malone to distract himself, to tell a story, this one about a farming family for whom the young creation of Malone named Saposcat is boarding.  Malone introduces the family by saying, “There was the man, the woman, and two children, a boy and a girl.  There at least is something that admits of no controversy.”  But this quick, self-consciously “normal” nuclear family is immediately made weird: “Big Lambert” has married his “young cousin.”  Nothing all that weird about that, according to Victorian/Dickensian mores; after all, there is the bizarre (to us) engagement of Esther and Jarndyce in Bleak House.  But Lambert has also been married two or three times before, with children from these past marriages now grown.  And Lambert is a butcher, of both animals and his family, with an omnipresent threat of violence hanging over his wife and children.  Beckett also brings sex to the foreground of the domestic situation, in the crudest possible terms.

Sapo’s place in the family is as the hard-working unfortunate lad, the Copperfield of the narrative.  But Mrs. Lambert is no kind caregiver; instead, she often pauses in her hard work to give voice to “angry unanswerable questions, such as, What’s the use?”  And Sapo cannot stay with the family, but flees.  There are faint, faint echoes of Copperfield’s trek to Betsey Trotwood’s house in Saposcat’s journey.  But the quality of despair in Saposcat’s journey is so very different than in Copperfield’s irrepressible optimism:

My bed at night was under another haystack, where I rested comfortably, after having washed my blistered feet in a stream, and dressed them as well as I was able, with some cool leaves.  When I took the road again next morning, I found that it lay through a succession of hopgrounds and orchards…. I thought it all extremely beautiful, and made up my mind to sleep among the hops that night: imagining some cheerful companionship in the long perspectives of poles, with the graceful leaves twining around them.  -David Copperfield, chapter 13

But the face of Sapo as he stumbled away, now in the shadow of the venerable trees he could not name, now in the brightness of the waving meadow, so erratic was his course, the face of Sapo was always grave, or rather expressionless.  And when he halted it was not the better to think, or the closer to pore upon his dream, but simply because the voice had ceased that told him to go on.  Then with his pale eyes he stared down at the earth, blind to its beauty, and to its utility, and to the little wild many-coloured flowers happy among the crops and weeds. -Malone Dies

Beyond that, Beckett (through Malone) continually points to how “traditional” narratives are constructed, with such asides by Malone to himself as, “That’s it, reminisce” and hesitant corrections of the course of the narrative.  It does seem that Beckett and Dickens would find in each other perspectives on the world that the other could not possibly countenance.  The experience of the twentieth century makes it hard for any of us to fully participate in the Dickensian comedy, as much as we love and aspire to it.  Beckett could not write the family as a utopia any more than Dickens could imagine an irredeemably dystopian and solitary world.

Horse Breath in Dickens and Chekhov

February 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Anton Chekhov’s short stories.

Reading next: The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo.

Chekhov has been one of those huge gaps in my reading, so I’m glad to start filling it in with this Norton edition of short stories.  The early stuff is clearly inferior to the later stories from 1887 onward — partly, I learn from the supplementary texts here, because the early stories were written for hire for comic literary magazines under strict space limitations — but still better than anything most writers will ever put down, and apparently these stories are still more beloved in Russia than a lot of his later work.

Anyway, a reminder of Dickens stood out in one of my favorite early stories, “Misery” (from 1886).  In “Misery,” the sleigh driver Iona carries fares through a snowy night, struggling to tell anyone of the recent death of his son.  Finally, he unburdens himself to the mare who drives his sleigh back at the stable as she eats.  The final paragraph: “The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands.  Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.”

So what is it about the breath of horses, anyway?  As I posted here, in chapter 15 of David Copperfield the villainous Uriah Heep breathes into the nostrils of a pony, “as if he were putting some spell upon him.”   Obviously horses were everywhere in nineteenth-century Europe, and the relationship between the species must have been complex and close.   But is there some traditional significance attached to the breath of the horse in particular?  In both Dickens and Chekhov a similar emotional or moral significance seems to be carried by the animal’s breath: Uriah’s apparent attempt to replace the breath of the pony with his own seems to David (and to the reader) a malevolent act; we are led to infer the sweetness and “goodness” (in one sense or another) of the pony’s breath by the uneasiness and wickedness we sense in Uriah.

In “Misery,” feeling the breath of his mare on his hands breaks the dam inside of Iona, and he unburdens himself to her.  Iona is closer to this animal than to any of the people he met that night, who cannot be bothered to hear about his troubles; she becomes a kind of therapist, patiently listening as she eats the hay which is all he can afford to feed her (not having earned enough for oats).  There’s an intimacy in feeling the breath of an animal that can be matched by very few human interactions, a willingness to touch and interact that an animal can provide that few humans would (just imagine the warmth of that breath on your hands on a cold, snowy night — the kind of astounding sensory detail that indicates the mastery of Chekhov).  And the unctuous, obsequious Uriah would never dream of breathing on another person, whereas he forces his breath on the pony when he believes he’s alone — betraying, perhaps, his repressed desire to conquer (or, past that, become intimate with) other creatures.

Apparently horse’s breath was once thought of as a cure for whooping cough, continuing the positive associations, but I find little else about it on a cursory glance.  I want to do some more digging into folklore: horses have been talismanic animals throughout the history of many of the world’s cultures, of course.  Many of us today have never interacted with a horse — have never touched or ridden one, much lest felt or smelt its breath — but horses would have generated a whole world of associations for the nineteenth-century reader that are more or less lost to us now, when horses are mostly status symbols, convenient gambling tools, or nostalgic transportation in tourist cities.  There’s something in each of these stories that points to the symbiotic relationship of horses and humans that has been dismantled in the past century, kept alive mostly by guilds and hobbyists.  Now, of course, there are our pets — our dogs and cats, our ferrets and parrots.  We unburden ourselves to them.  We react to their mistreatment in ways that surpass our insensitivity to human-on-human violence — we feel the wrongness of taking out human frustrations and acting out human desires on animals in ways that often surpass our reactions to with human-on-human crime.

There’s something in us — or some of us, at any rate — that requires interaction with animals.  And I do think that Chekhov intended the ending of “Misery” to be both comically ironic and sad — that this inarticulate, lonely, poor peasant, out of place in the cruel city, can only find sympathy and relief from an animal who cannot understand him, not from the humans who shy away when he mentions his dead son — but there is also something tender and natural in this ending, in this kind of benediction that’s felt in the breath on Iona’s hands, in the thawing of the heart to which it leads.

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.

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