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.

Life Stories

October 4, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

Life is a matter of listening as much as doing; a matter of stories as much as events.  Is this a message (a moral?) I’m imposing on the work, or is it intentionally buried in its structure?  I suspect it’s the former, but Potocki seems to have been so sensitive to his eccentric work’s effects on his readers that I’m not entirely sure.

One reason I suggest this is the recurring theme of stories that reflect upon and/or interpret the events in one or more of their framing narratives.  A straightforward example is “The Story of Thibaud de la Jacquiére,” on the tenth day.  Van Worden, wondering whether his “adorable and adoring” cousins might actually be “sprites,” “witches,” or “vampires” who are playing tricks on him, reads the story in a 17th-century collection of German tales.  A kind of erotic prodigal-son story, it involves a young man seducing a beautiful stranger, only to find her transformed into Beelzebub as they have sex.  He wakes up on top of a corpse in a garbage dump, then repents with his last breath.

This kind of correspondence between levels of narrative makes you think something’s up: is the whole thing going to end up being a dream, or some kind of farfetched plot to teach van Worden a lesson, or are there actual supernatural forces at work, or what?  In fact, even van Worden seems to sense that something’s up, since after reading he only “almost” comes to believe that his cousins are demons.  This might be a poor example for the point I set out to make, actually, since it’s a little too pat; there are other stories which seem to comment on van Worden’s couching of all virtue in honor, or on the plot developments with the haunted (?) Venta Quemada.  In fact, there’s a possible counter to the story of Thibaud: the Gypsy Chief’s adventures with the Knight of Toledo, a libertine who repents after an apparent supernatural experience, only to find it was actually an extraordinary set of coincidences that scared him so; he leaves his excessively monastic penance, instead doing good and revealing his virtuous character.

The story of Pandesowna, the Gypsy Chief, was what brought this possible moral to mind for me.  This one story is actually the bulk of the book: appearing, frequently interrupted, from the twelfth to the 62nd day, containing many further layers of story.  Pandesowna’s life story contains many incidents, to be sure, but much of it is composed of the stories of others: Pandesowna listening, in other words.  What moves his own story forward is his and others’ reactions to narratives, the stories of others and  the emotions they provoke.  And this infects the top level of the narrative’s reality: van Worden and the others await the continuation of the chief’s story just as he awaits the stories of those he hears, and many days pass in which nothing happens but the group waiting for Pandesowna to continue his tale.  (There’s more than a little of the Thousand and One Nights in this day-to-day interruption and continuation of the narrative.)  Is the work actually a moral progress whereby van Worden comes to see that virtue is not only a matter of honor, but of empathy, as well?

I think perhaps I’m not doing this aspect of the work justice: it’s a rather beautiful effect, the way it points out (in its plot- and genre-besotted way) how much it matters to think and care about the stories you read and hear, the people you meet, to weigh them judiciously without rashly judging (after all, I don’t know yet whether or not Emina and Zubeida actually are demons, and neither does van Worden).  One of the great meta-themes and justifications of literature, as many people have said, is this vicarious living of many lives, fictional or not.  But I digress.  I hope I can work this in some more in my subsequent posts on the book.

Semiautobiography: Madame Psychosis and Metempsychosis

September 29, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading:Infinite Jest.

It is both true and kind of oxymoronic that this book is intensely semiautobiographical.  While I mean by the “semi-” that the book is, of course, fiction, and full of made-up stuff and not a roman a clef in any way, I also mean that I get the feeling that DFW, the person (rather than the mind, the author, or the persona), is scattered throughout the book to a degree that, say, Pynchon is not in Gravity’s Rainbow or Joyce is not in Ulysses (or even Portrait, for that matter).  Authors are inscribed in every word they write; people aren’t, necessarily.

(Sidebar: GR and U are the two books that consistently spring to mind for me as comparables, here.  They are size- and stature- and scope- and ambition-equivalent, more or less, I think.  I haven’t read Gaddis or Gass or maybe they’d be in there too.  Nabokov doesn’t strike me as comparable, for some reason, while we’re playing this little parlor game.  I can’t quite put my finger on why.)

I’m not getting this primarily from recent events or little cues that certain characters are obvious stand-ins for certain “real people.”  And in fact, IJ has one of my favorite copyright-page notices: “The characters and events in this book are fictitious.  Any apparent similarity to real persons is not intended by the author and is either a coincidence or the product of your own troubled imagination.”  But nevertheless, I insist: DFW, the person with the lived life, is all over this book.  Which is both funny and sad, since he was always saddled with the rep of being too “cerebral” or cold or unapproachable or experimental.  He poured an awful lot of himself into this book.  I’d even say that’s what made the book one of the greats, ultimately: this semiautobiographical element, and not the language or structure or style alone (although, hell, they’re pretty damn good too).

I have a feeling that what I’m dancing around here is a kind of transmigration of souls.  Metempsychosis.  One of the most quotable and direct and self-contained sections is p. 200-205, a litany of things “you” can learn hanging around a facility like Ennet House.  It’s a characterless section, leading us to believe that it’s the narrator telling us all of this.   (Sidebar again: the narrator is an interesting problem in IJ, or rather an interesting lack of a problem, because I’m going to go ahead and commit a horrible lit-crit fallacy and say that DFW’s narrator is DFW, trying to tell us things DFW believes, and giving us scenes and voices that DFW thought worth paying attention to.  There’s some metafictional trickery, sure, in that the narrator is wildly omniscient in some ways and extremely not in others, but it’s him.  I’d swear to it.  I think that DFW thought of himself as writing this book.  DFW was a rhetorician of the first water, and I think that’s the conclusion he wants us to arrive at.  And I happen to believe it.)  But then we segue smoothly and without break into an exploration of Tiny Ewell’s obsession with other residents’ tattoos, and we’re kind of in between the narrator’s head and Tiny’s (or was it Tiny’s all along?).  And then Ewell approaches Gately and we’re a bit in Gately’s head and from his perspective, too.

And but so… metempsychosis.  Bookending this little passage I was just talking about are our introductions to Madame Psychosis, aka Joelle van Dyne.  And the section p. 219-240, of Joelle’s preparations to commit suicide by overdose, is one of the true tour-de-force sections of the novel.  The name, Madame Psychosis, is an obvious reference to metempsychosis.  To DFW, that undoubtedly means Joyce, Ulysses, where the idea and the word are major motifs in the grand modernist style.  (On the other hand, I suspect that “Dyne” might be an allusion to Yoyodyne, the company in Crying of Lot 49, in addition to being a unit of force.)  But it’s more than homage, and part of the bloody point of this book is that there’s more to life and to fiction than creating a web of allusion and referent and ambiguity, although those are cool.  He’s engaging with Joyce through this name and this idea, but there’s more.  I think he’s making a kind of argument about the nature of literature: that what it is, in a way, is a transmigration of souls, from an author to a character to a reader.  And I think he’s also indicating one of his primary methods — his own personal soul, flitting from voice to voice, perspective to perspective, unlike Joyce’s use of the term to allude to the constant reenactment and reembodiment of archetype in modern times — and through that method two of his primary concerns.  And those are empathy, and heredity.  Less-sexy varieties of transmigration of souls.

I mean, this is one of the best books about sports ever written, and it reeks of lived experience.  It’s horribly authentic on depression and drug abuse and grad school.  (Yes, they seem to belong together.)  It’s got grammar riots and cast-off scenes of peoples’ interactions with entertainment.  Hal and Joelle and Don and others: you can see glimpses of DFW’s life and his experience in them.  But of course I doubt DFW ever killed a Quebecois terrorist in a botched robbery; I think he could feel what it would feel like to be that desperate, though.  That’s where empathy comes in.  I also doubt his father or grandfather ever took his son out and treated him to an excruciating drunken self-involved monologue, exactly.  That’s where heredity comes in.

And I haven’t even mentioned death, which is kind of central to the whole thing.  We’ll talk about this later, eh?

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