David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 7 and 8

January 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Continuing my review of favorite passages from each chapter of DC:

Chapter 19:

I know that my juvenile experiences went for little or nothing then; and that life was more like a great fairy story, which I was just about to begin to read, than anything else.

A fascinating observation by David, here, as he reflects on his departure from school for what we now refer to as “real life.”  There have been many allusions to fairy tales throughout David’s telling of his childhood: ghosts, ogres, fairies, wicked stepparents, runaway children, much more.  And yet it’s now, when that childhood is over (at least in David’s own perception, at the time), that he explicitly compares his experience of life to those childhood stories.  Not to get too theoretical, but one of the recurring themes of David’s (fictional) autobiography is just this construction of identity and the narrative of life, and its pitfalls — the perception of experience as filtered through different kinds of stories when viewed at different times.

Chapter 20:

“Really!” said Miss Dartle.  “Well, I don’t know, now, when I have been better pleased than to hear that.  It’s so consoling!  It’s such a delight to know that, when they suffer, they don’t feel!  Sometimes I have been quite uneasy for that sort of people; but now I shall just dismiss the idea of them, altogether.  Live and learn.  I had my doubts, I confess, but now they’re cleared up.  I didn’t know, and now I do know; and that shows the advantage of asking — don’t it?”

Miss Dartle, “all edge” in Steerforth’s words, with her scarred lip and habit of framing everything as a question in which she can embed her own sarcastic answers, says this after Steerforth has explained his view of lower-class “common” people as less “sensitive,” and “not easily wounded.”  It’s an uncomfortable exchange for a reader now, and I’m sure it also was for Dickens’ contemporary readers, especially as Steerforth has heretofore been presented in a positive light, and Miss Dartle initially comes off as simply abrasive and unpleasant.  (I think it’s here that Dickens begins to darken Steerforth’s portrayal, and show the space between David’s infatuation with him and his actual character.)  It’s also an interesting passage in thinking about Dickens’ own portrayal of such lower-class characters, which sometimes suffers from the same sort of criticism that Miss Dartle brings up here.  I wonder if this was a self-critique of a sort, or if Dickens really did not think of himself as harboring any of this kind of condescension.

Chapter 21:

I believe there never existed in his station a more respectable-looking man.  He was taciturn, soft-footed, very quiet in his manner, deferential, observant, always at hand when wanted, and never near when not wanted; but his great claim to consideration was his respectability.  He had not a pliant face, he had rather a stiff neck, rather a tight smooth head with short hair clinging to it at the sides, a soft way of speaking, with a peculiar habit of whispering the letter S so distinctly, that he seemed to use it oftener than any other man; but every peculiarity that he had he made respectable.

Littimer, Steerforth’s “servant,” is hereby introduced (in part).  Dickens’ excessive use of the term “respectable” telegraphs (intentionally) that he means the opposite, that Littimer is not to be trusted — though I wonder how obvious this was to the Victorians, or if its obviousness is an effect of the following century’s thorough distrust of the supposedly trustworthy.  I enjoy the mention of Littimer’s use of “the letter S”; that Satanic sibilance also puts us on our guard against this respectable servant, the sort of figure that would be ignored as a matter of course in most fiction of the time.

Chapter 22:

“If either of you saw my ankles,” she said, when she was safely elevated, “say so, and I’ll go home and destroy myself.”

This from Miss Mowcher, a dwarf-hairdresser and social butterfly of sorts, who begins as an amusing grotesque and whom Dickens reveals later as an actual character.  This line just made me laugh out loud, and it’s also representative of her public face of excessive interest in social niceties and conventions.  I also enjoyed, in this chapter, David’s evocative return to his childhood home, then occupied by “a poor lunatic gentleman,” and I wonder if anything will come of that.

Chapter 23:

Littimer touched his hat in acknowledgment of my good opinion, and I felt about eight years old.  He touched it once more, wishing us a good journey; and we left him standing on the pavement, as respectable a mystery as any pyramid in Egypt.

Dickens succeeds in making David, unlike Oliver Twist or Martin Chuzzlewit or (to a lesser degree) Nicholas Nickleby, a fully formed character in his own right, rather than a virtuous cipher to whom interesting things happen.  His anxiety about his youth, for instance, which comes up in his lack of a need to shave at this time, and in his blind spot for Littimer’s respectability, which makes him feel even more like a child, and leads to his overlooking the oddity of Littimer having “business” to attend to on Steerforth’s behalf at Yarmouth — business that ends up being vague, at least as far as I’ve read so far, but definitely not respectable and seemingly akin to the activity of a pimp.

Chapter 24:

Somebody was leaning out of my bed-room window, refreshing his forehead against the cool stone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face.  It was myself.  I was addressing myself as “Copperfield,” and saying, “Why did you try to smoke?  You might have known you couldn’t do it.”  Now, somebody was unsteadily contemplating his features in the looking-glass.  That was I too.  I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair — only my hair, nothing else — looked drunk.

I love the drunken hair. This is a great chapter, showing David’s “First Dissipation” in having his own apartment, holding his first dinner with Steerforth and his friends, drinking and smoking too much, making an ass of himself at the theatre, sleeping a horrible drunken sleep, and ruing his activities the day after, wondering if he will go the way of the apartment’s previous tenant, a man who smoke and drunk himself to death.  Dickens at his best, the chapter’s a sensory feast both pleasurable and excessive, perfectly in tune with its content.

The Dreams of Montague Tigg and Jonas Chuzzlewit

January 11, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Reading next: The Question of Bruno, by Aleksandar Hemon.

Dickens gets really dark in the last third of this book: given how muddled the resolution of the supposed “main” plot of the young and old Martin Chuzzlewits is, I think he simply became more interested in the unremittingly dark, selfish, horrified and horrifying character of Jonas, and his path toward the murder of Montague.  (This seemed, by the way, to happen to Dickens a lot: e.g., Fagin and the Artful Dodger as opposed to Oliver, in Oliver Twist.)

Reading Dickens psychologically is tricky at best, downright dishonest at worst, especially for a layman like myself.  But Dickens, here, does seem to be more interested than in many of his books in the self, and its makeup.  There’s the whole question of how we come to care about other people, and value them as actual people like ourselves and not as obstacles, comforts, or other satellites of the self — one of the central questions of the book.  There’s also the explorations of identity inherent in the non-character of Mrs. Harris, the creation of Mrs. Gamp, who approves of Gamp’s every impulse, notion, and thought; the cipher-characters of Nadgett the detective and the porter of the Anglo-Bengalee Company, whose entire existences are based on being inconspicuous and conspicuous, respectively — entirely internal and external; and the social adventuring and posing and self-creating of Montague Tigg and Bailey Jr.

It somehow seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that Dickens was fascinated by his attraction to the worst aspects of his world and (perhaps) his self: the way his writing explodes to life when exploring London’s seedy underbelly, the way he seems most masterful — to me, anyway — when seeing the world through the eyes of those driven on by their basest instincts to horrible acts.  Did Dickens always see the miracle of his avoidance of that life, after the imprisonment of his father and his despair at going to work at age 12?

At any rate, nothing in this book feels as personal for Dickens as the two nightmares: Tigg’s, in chapter 42, shortly before his murder, and Jonas’s, in chapter 47, right before committing the act.  You get the feeling, reading each dream, that they were real: that Dickens had experienced nightmares very like these, that they are not created but remembered.  Tigg dreams of the door in his hotel room: there’s a “dreadful secret” about this door, and it nags at him in that he feels he both knows and does not know this secret, and this aspect of the dream is “incoherently intertwined” with another, in which the door hides “an enemy, a shadow, a phantom.”  The way this door is one thing and another, and the way it maddens him with its known/unknown secret: this smacks of truth, to me.  Although it works perfectly for the fiction, it’s also much messier than it necessarily needs to be.  This is the way real nightmares work, not fabricated nightmares.

The really brilliant thing about this dream, though, is the way “Nadgett, and he [Tigg], and a strange man with a bloody smear upon his head (who told him that he had been his playfellow, and told him, too, the real name of an old schoolmate, forgotten until then)” work to drive “iron plates and nails” into the door to make it secure.  But “the nails broke, or changed to soft twigs, or what was worse, to worms,” and the door crumbles, splinters, and refuses to accept nails.  A footnote tells me that one Joseph Brogunier suggests that the “strange man” is Tigg himself, and the “old schoolmate” is Tigg, too: keep in mind that he’s known at this point as Tigg Montague, and has raised himself from a begging, swindling, scrubby scoundrel into the dandified head of an insurance company (still a swindler, but on a grand scale, and therefore worthy of respect).

The nightmare works brilliantly on different levels: for in reality, the door connects to Jonas’s room, and Tigg wakes to find Jonas hovering over his bed (which is some scary shit, frankly, and would’ve made my heart explode in that situation).  Tigg has already become ambiguously afraid of Jonas, who creeps him out in hard-to-define ways.  But besides fictionally effective foreshadowing of murder, there is also the free-floating anxiety of getting found out: of Montague Tigg/Tigg Montague always afraid he’ll be found out, both as a fraud (although I think he could deal with that alone) and as a kid, a “schoolmate.”  I think Dickens — leaving things really mysterious, ambiguous, and unresolved, here, for once in his life — taps into some of that anxiety we all feel in dreams, and it makes an incredible counterpoint to the self-centered monstrousness of both Jonas and Tigg: the fear we (or at least I) often have in dreams that we are somehow not valid people, not adults, never to escape childhood or the people we once were.

Then there’s Jonas’s dream.  This whole chapter, incidentally, is a work of genius: it’s frenzied, blood-red, taut, surreal in the way you feel surreal when you’re about to do or have just done something terrifying or climactic.  Jonas, riding in a carriage to murder Tigg, dreams he’s in his own bed and is awakened by the old clerk, Chuffey (whom he abused so often).  They go into “a strange city” with the signs written in a strange language, but Jonas remembers he’s been there before.  The streets are at various levels, connected by ladders and ropes connected to bells.  There’s a huge crowd, and Jonas learns it’s Judgment Day.  His companion keeps changing from one person to another.  A head rises up from the crowd, “livid and deadly, but the same as he had known it,” and blames Jonas for “appoint[ing] that dreadful day to happen.”  Presumably, this is Tigg.  He tries to strike him down, but they struggle without a conclusion, and he awakes.

Again — in the protean companion, Jonas’s anxiety about the way he’s dressed, and the brilliant dreamscape of streets at various levels, for the social rising and falling of urban life — we see a kind of verisimilitude of dreams, I think.  We also see anxiety about the self, about identity, about being found out.  And, while it’s easy to see the “livid and deadly” head as that of Tigg, you could also see it as that of Jonas’s father, or his own.  What’s meant by “deadly,” after all?  Is it deadly as in dead, as his father is?  Is it deadly as in potentially fatal to Jonas, as he sees that Tigg could be?  Is it deadly as in having murder on its mind, as Jonas himself does, constantly, to the brink of paranoid insanity?

I’ll write a little more about Jonas and the murder in the next post.  There’s just so much that’s great about this section of the book.  It really is very reminiscent of Dostoyevsky, especially Crime and Punishment: it’s similarly claustrophobic.

The Trickster’s Exemption

August 11, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Fariña.

Reading next: The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.

Lots of questions with this book. For one: Why am I reading it? (Well, because Fariña was a good friend of Pynchon’s when both were at Cornell in the ’50s, and I’m in this hippie-lit phase now anyway, and if not now, when?)

For others: is it Beat or Hippie? Does it matter? (Not really, but fun to parse sometimes.) I think it’s mostly late-Beat, actually. As Vineland is a kind of post-hippie novel, looking back at the 60s to reclaim its ethos from the greedy 80s, BDSLILLUTM looks back at the Beat heyday, 1958, from crazy 1966. It’s ponderous and pretentious (as well as overreaching in the very special way that only first novels from those weaned on the Beats can be), with jazz, Joyce, and multiple layers of mythological allusion involved. (Actual onomatopoetic lines of jazz at some points, I guess to reinforce mood and tone, or at least that’s the excuse.) It’s also got that Beat frisson of misogyny or at least condescension to women. And everybody embarrassingly calling each other “baby.” And Gnossos, our hero, with this retarded self-aggrandizing idea about being a spiritual virgin, claiming he’s “laid” like a million women but never “surrendered” himself to any of them. (What a tool, seriously. This is the stupidest thing about this book.)

But I’m being hard on the book. There are some funny slapstick scenes, and some good writing. It’s only pretense if you’re pretending to be good, as they say, and Fariña definitely has good stuff. (He died, sadly, two days after this was published.) And it does seem to be at least in part about that anxious incessant identity-forming that was so much of the Beat project, and is so much of a part of growing up, getting out of the house and going to college and out on expeditions in hopes of receiving a vision (as Gnossos does, into the American West and the frigid North, before returning to Athene, the stand-in for Ithaca, NY, in the book). Right at the start, there’s this interesting passage, as we’re plunged into Gnossos’s thoughts:

I am invisible, he thinks often. And Exempt. Immunity has been granted to me, for I do not lose my cool. Polarity is selected at will, for I am not ionized and I possess not valence. Call me inert and featureless but Beware, I am the Shadow, free to cloud men’s minds. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? I am the Dracula, look into my eye.

Exemption, immunity: Gnossos is a trickster, or at least fancies himself such. An invisible Mercury, a wandering Odysseus (yes, he’s very self-consciously Greek), a fly in the ointment of an uptight 1950s university town. This passage does a nice job of introducing some of the main symbol-systems used in the book: the physics and chemistry of the nuclear age (we learn later that Gnossos witnessed a nuclear test in the Nevada desert), the mass media booming in the ’40s and ’50s and forming a generation both homogeneous and terrified of homogeneity, the literary and the mythical.

And yet Gnossos also obsessively worries about “the monkey-demon,” another trickster figure from Chinese Buddhist legend (and there’s a fair amount of Buddhist allusion in the book, making me think this is a Buddhist monkey-demon and not one of the flying monkeys of The Wizard of Oz. ‘Course, could be both). He reminds himself again and again to watch out for the monkey-demon. At one point, at a crazy party/orgy, a scary spider monkey actually appears; his owners get him stoned for fun, making the monkey even scarier. Needless to say, Gnossos is freaked out.

The monkey-demon seems to stand for the dark side of the trickster/outsider identity, to Gnossos: the side of chaos, of destructive rather than creative force, the side that turns evil and frightened when its mind is altered. The perspective shifts in this book in tricksy ways, too, Farina often shifting from third to stream-of-consciousness first and back within the same paragraph or sticking to one or the other for pages at a time with a few sentences sprinkled in that could either represent the thoughts of either the narrator or Gnossos. Mentions of “the monkey-demon” or “beware the monkey-demon” are often like this: we can’t be sure if it’s Gnossos saying this to himself, or the narrator telling us and his eight-years-ago hero-self that danger is afoot. (Clearly part of this shifting perspective is the semi-autobiographical nature of the book, the trickster as the author of his own fictional story and “true” identity, the web-weaver and lie-spinner. The confidence-man. Anansi.) The problem I’m having is with that mention of Dracula, which seems to show awareness, and even an embrace, of the dark side of the identity Gnossos has cultivated.

This circles back to this whole male-spiritual-virginity thing: as “Book the First” ends, Gnossos has fallen in love with a co-ed named Kristin McLeod. “Exemption” means exemption from the rules of society, but it also, apparently, has meant exemption from being required to care about the person on the other side of sex. Is this why the dark trickster figures of monkey and wolf recur here, why Gnossos’s boozy Indian neighbors interrupt the consummation with a smile and a warning, “Much caution”? Although Gnossos longs, supposedly, to truly “make love,” is this a warning that immunity and exemption are only granted to those who remain outside of love’s circle?

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