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.

A Nabokovian Reading of Ishmael

May 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Moby-Dick.

Everyone who’s read or even read about Moby-Dick knows that Ishmael is a weird entity, a hybrid of character, limited and omniscient narrator, and authorial representative.  He shows and tells us things he, as a character, could not possibly have seen or heard.  But he came across as even weirder than I remember on this reading, if only because I was able to pick up more of the details than on previous readings, my attention focused on the bigger picture of understanding the novel.

The possibility of reading Ishmael as a Nabokovian trickster-narrator occurred to me on this reading — the possibility of Ishmael as a deliberately duplicitous narrator, a figure who indicates the fictional nature of his own composition and implicates the real-life author, as well.  It’s a half-facetious argument: some of the explanation for Ishmael’s weirdness lies, I’m convinced, in Melville’s being carried away by his passionate composition and his insistence that his text say what he wanted to express, whether or not it meant betraying the verisimilitude of the narrative and the character.  And so his character is given some of Melville’s own backstory and some elaborate incidents of his own, is thrown into situations to move the story along whenever convenient, etc.  But some of this does seem, if not deliberate, at least playfully possible as a legitimate reading, thanks to Melville’s gift for compelling detail, instructive incident, and frequent allusion.

Along with the first line of the book, the famously ambiguous “Call me Ishmael” (“call” you that because it’s not your real name, and you want to protect your identity, or “call” you that because you’re really the author and are assuming a persona?), the linchpin for an argument like this is probably the mention of a Captain D’Wolf in chapter 45, “The Affadavit.”  Ishmael has “the honor of being a nephew of his,” we’re told, and has confirmed with D’Wolf the truth of the whaling incident just described.  Interesting, this sidelight into Ishmael’s family (one of two, the other being the incident in which Ishmael’s stepmother sends him to bed in the middle of the afternoon described in an earlier post), especially considering his self-image as an “orphan” and “outcast.”  But more interesting is the fact that this Captain D’Wolf really was Melville’s uncle: “Nor’west” John D’Wolf.  (See here: as you can see, this message is part of a website about the film Traces of the Trade, about the slave trade, in which the D’Wolf family was heavily involved.  Also interesting, if not quite on topic.)

And so, if you knew Melville personally, or knew the D’Wolfs — and they were a famous family, and America was a much smaller place, so this was not unlikely — this punches a hole right through the mask of the character Ishmael to reveal the face of the author Melville.  This historical, verifiable D’Wolf is not the uncle of any Ishmael: he’s Melville’s.  And we’re suddenly on the unstable ground of nonfiction v. “realist” fiction v. self-consciously unreliable fiction.  And it’s utterly delightful that this mention occurs in “The Affadavit” — this half-serious, half-joking document attesting to the truth of Ishmael’s assertions, in which he relates whaling incidents he’s read about and those he’s “personally known.”

The trickster nature of Ishmael pops up often, of course, in his relation of incidents in Ahab’s cabin, of thoughts and private soliloquies he could not have heard — his apparent transformation into a spirit or god, until his reincarnation as the survivor Ishmael in the Epilogue.  But charting the course of his life after the novel’s close through mentions in the book also destabilizes his characterization.  Mentions of Ishmael’s working as a “schoolmaster” (in the very first chapter) and of his obsessive research into whales and whaling (throughout the heart of the book) lead one to look back on the prefaces to the “Etymology” and “Extracts” and wonder if that “late consumptive usher” and “sub-sub-librarian” are not, in fact, Ishmael himself: if his painting them in such pathetic colors is not a sign of self-loathing or remorse for his wasted life.  But then there are also frequent allusions to the many other voyages he’s made on whalers and other ships, the ports he’s stopped at, the adventures he’s had, the wisdom he’s found.  “The Town-Ho’s Story” is but the most famous example: Ishmael recounting the story he heard during the Town-Ho‘s gam with the Pequod to his Spanish friends in Lima some years later.  There’s also the utterly remarkable incident chapter 102, “A Bower in the Arsacides,” as Ishmael is able to measure a whale’s skeleton which has been converted into an idol.  Here’s the astonishing passage I’d forgotten:

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.  But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing — at least, what untattooed parts might remain — I did not trouble myself with the odd inches…

I mean… wow.  Ishmael, so astounded by Queequeg’s cosmological tribal tattoos at the book’s onset, has become an illustrated man himself.  That he did not mention it earlier surely means that this occurred after the Pequod‘s voyage.

So, to summarize.  We are to believe that Ishmael the composer of Moby-Dick, the lone lucky survivor of the Pequod disaster, is not traumatized by this experience into sticking to the land at all, but instead goes back to the sea constantly, taking many more trips not only on merchant vessels, but on whalers.  He becomes just as obsessed with whales and the white whale especially as much as Ahab ever was; he is a very old, very weathered and wizened sailor, covered in tattoos as surely startling as Queequeg’s once were to him.  The book is written on his body, perhaps, just as Queequeg’s understanding of the universe is written on his.  The book is as much an exorcism of his whaling demons as it is a chapter of his life recollected in tranquility.

All of which is not necessarily Nabokovian, except for the ending.  Provocative statement for discussion and debate: Moby-Dick has the craziest, most ludicrous ending of any great book.  As the ship sinks rapidly in its awful vortex, Tashtego, drowning, all but his arms underwater, still manages to continue hammering a red flag to the mast, and catches the wing of a “sky-hawk” in between his hammer and the mast, bringing it down with the ship.  In The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, Howard Vincent somewhat hilariously tries to defend this as “perhaps [Melville’s] masterpiece of style.”  Um, yeah.  Style does not change the fact that this scene is bat-shit insane, and always has been, even by Romantic standards.

Does the vortex scene ultimately destabilize Ishmael as a reliable narrator?  Does it convince us that he, the character who supposedly shipped on the Pequod and supposedly survived its wreck, is making it up, Pale Fire-style?  Has Ishmael the author (or, beyond him, a fictional “Melville”) been driven insane by his whale obsession and his cowardice, driven to compose an overheated narrative about a monster whale, a demonic captain, and his incredible survival of a massive shipwreck — of which he is, conveniently, the only survivor, the tale therefore unverifiable — supported by an overabundance of “evidence” from his many supposed voyages, his years of “wandering,” and his extensive research (but really from just a few printed sources)?

Well, no.  The greatness of Melville’s book does not lie in its destabilization of the author as authority or the intricate interplay between narrator and reader.  But it’s a testament to the expanse, the capacity, of this book, that it can absorb this sort of reading, too.  And it is fun to imagine the book in this alternate-universe sort of way, as a giant hoax, a massive documentation of an unstable mind.

Haleskarth, Contraband, Samsara, Samarra

July 19, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Only Revolutions.

I feel like I’ve been rather too crabby about the book in my previous posts.  It undeniably gets bogged down after the escape from St. Louis, around p. 220,  after the truly amazing and hallucinatory effect of the center of the book, when both sides of the narrative on each page mirror each other as well as mirroring the other half of the narrative retreating away into the other half of the book — it’s really wonderful, a genuine delight.  (It made me giggle.) From 224 or so to p. 312, it’s a slog.

But from then on, it’s a bloody miracle.  (You should probably stop reading this if you want to go into the book without knowing how it ends.)  The urgency and passion of the language in those last 8 sections is astonishing.  Somewhere along the line you realize you’ve been reading Romeo and Juliet again, only it’s as if Shakes had written R&J after King Lear. Just… heartbreaking.

And theoretically, at least, we’re unsure what has happened in the end, but then we’ve been bludgeoned over the head with the fact that the book is a circle — so conveniently it’s right there, on the flip-side of the final page.  And those mysterious first lines begin to make a kind of sense.

For Sam it’s “Haloes!  Haleskarth!/ Contraband!”  “Haloes”  neatly combines circularity with death-imagery and saintliness; “Haleskarth” is an obsolete word meaning “free from injury” (thanks, OED); “Contraband” is a tricky one with an obvious meaning which doesn’t make much sense.  Since Sam’s narrative starts in the middle of the Civil War, “contraband” has a very specific slang meaning at the time: a fugitive slave was contraband.  Is Sam “contraband” in that he’s escaped from the enslavement of death, or in that he feels himself as “smuggled” out of the grave into a new life?  Or is he (also) an actual fugitive slave — is that his role at the book’s opening?

Hailey begins with “Samsara!  Samarra!/ Grand!”  (Notice each begins their narrative with the other’s initial, and that second-line cross-narrative rhyme.)  “Samsara” is, in Indian philosophy, “the endless cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound” (thanks again, OED).  “Samarra” is a kind of garment to be worn by those burned at the stake during the Inquisition, but it could also be a reference to An Appointment in Samarra: a commonplace for the inevitability of death.  “Grand!” could have some meaning of which I’m unaware, but I think it’s mostly just an exclamation of delight and surprise.

From these obscure meanings and their place at the beginning/rebeginning of the narratives, we can reread the early sections as a kind of reimmersion in life for both reborn characters: from these early indications that they know they’ve been reborn to their early characterizations as deities or earth-spirits of sorts, to their reimmersion in human life, to their conjoined lives and their love of one another, their placing another’s needs before their own.  Is it this that allows rebirth?

The Endings

August 25, 2008 § 1 Comment

Finished: The Raw Shark Texts.

I’m going to try not to completely give everything away here, but if you haven’t read the book yet (or even just might, somewhere down the road), you should probably stop reading now.  Read the book, come back, we’ll discuss.

It’s a fallacy that every book has an ending.  Every book has an end: the words stop somewhere.  But an ending, a conclusion, a summation, a kind of statement upon or structural capstone for the rest of the book: many books do not have that.  (The Broom of the System springs to mind.)

This book has an ending.  With a vengeance.  As a matter of fact, there’s an ending, and then a kind of epilogue, explanatory, documentary ending that changes everything in the book.

There’s a lot of meaning packed into the chapter titles here: for instance, the titles to chapters 30 and 32 tie together Jaws and Moby-Dick in a fairly ingenious way.  Your understanding of the first ending hinges on what you make of Hall referencing a Cure song in that chapter’s title.  And the final “chapter’s” title is “Goodbye Mr Tegmark.”  This is, from all sources I’ve seen, a reference to Max Tegmark, a cosmologist who’s done a lot of work on parallel universes, theories of everything, the potential mathematical underpinnings of an afterlife and immortality, and other such mind-fuckery.  (Why “Goodbye”?  Why drop the previously unreferenced name?  Why this chapter at all?)

On the one hand, this book was intended as an exercise in ambiguity, apparently, and is awash with hints of unreliable narration, unknown or hidden character identities, unstable textuality (like the Ludovician imagery and First Eric Sanderson letters and Light Bulb Fragments), and multivalent paratexts (like the chapter titles, “story” titles, and dust jacket).  (There’s some high-level jargon for ya!)  And I love this stuff, and I love canoodling around with Tegmarkian thoughts even though I can hardly claim to understand them at anything more than a blown-stoner’s-mind level.  Hell, I wrote a whole book’s worth of stories with a similar setup.

But on the other hand, something about these endings seems off to me.  I guess I have no other hand, really, without taking more time and space than I can right now (and revealing more than I care to) to justify this feeling.  Let’s just say it feels a little too wrapped-up, to me, even with all the possible interpretations you could bring to it.  I guess I wanted more of an anti-ending, here; an end, no ending.  Maybe I just need to read a little more about Tegmark to find if there’s some theory I’m overlooking that could ease these qualms.

PS-There is, apparently, a whole bunch of stuff about this book that one can look into, including “negatives” or “un-chapters” for each chapter in the book that are embedded in the various editions, online, etc., etc.  (See the forums at rawsharktexts.com if you’re interested.)  Dangerously tempting for the librarian in me.

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