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 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.

Reading at 30,000 Feet

January 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

I’ve been traveling by air quite a bit lately–home to Nebraska, on business to Minneapolis and New York. It’s funny: for all the hackneyed comic routines about air travel (“What’s the deal with those peanuts?”), examinations of the experience itself, once you’re in the air, seem rare and, when you do find them, superficial. (A notable exception: Ron Rosenbaum’s hilarious but thought-provoking analysis of SkyMall products, in Slate.)

What we’re talking about here is one of the great marvels of modern life, an utter miracle that has become so mundane that I can, without batting an eye, use the word “hackneyed” in descriptions of comedians’ complaints about the experience. Flying out from LaGuardia on Friday night, my plane was stuck in the queue to take off for half and hour and everyone on the flight was getting restless, annoyed, fidgety. And then, finally, it was our turn; we hurtled into space; and, thanks to the enormous air traffic of NYC, we were directed to circle around for a while before heading south. The night was wind-swept, clear, crisp. We were treated to a 360° view of Manhattan–this country’s nerve center, the apple of the world’s eye, radiant and golden, its entire length and breadth and height encompassed in the view from my window. The other boroughs sprawled to the horizons, the Statue of Liberty stood with ships passing on all sides, other aircraft whizzed and angled below us. I looked around: maybe ten people were looking out the window. The rest were trying to sleep, preparing iPods for the moment they could be switched on, reading printouts or magazines or books.

Don’t get me wrong: air travel is definitely a pain in the ass, and there are countless things wrong with it. A good book is a godsend for a flight, if only so you can look preoccupied to the chatterbox sitting next to you. But I wonder if we appreciate that many of us now routinely view things in a way that, only a few generations ago, a large percentage of the population would have thought reserved for the eyes of God and his angels.

But I digress. It’s a great pleasure to glance up from your book to the sight of an ephemeral cloud-continent, a sun on the horizon obscured from the ground, or a vast snow-covered plain, a quilt of roads, acreages, towns, and rivers. Dickens or Tolstoy might be the perfect reading for air travel: their all-encompassing social landscapes nicely counterbalanced with the individual, the specific, the episodic and anecdotal. You look out the window and imagine all those lives, down below: the beehive of the world, all of those individuals on their various paths, about their various tasks, bound together in ways you’d never be able to see from the ground. (Not to mention all those lives on the plane with you, with their varied destinations, motivations, inhibitions, and phobias.)

Of course, you can go the opposite direction, as well: the writers of the OuLiPo group, with their emphasis on the innumerable possibilities to be found within rigorous restraints, read very well in mid-air. Life: A User’s Manual, by Georges Perec, is recommended here, as is The Conversions, by Harry Mathews. The mixture in both of these of surrealist incident, wordplay, and human futility is especially compelling when dangling six miles above the earth in a metal tube at high speed, entirely dependent for the continuation of your life on the workings of many, many intricate machines. I’d imagine Beckett is also interesting–I mean, the absurdity of it all!–but I’ve never partaken.

In any case, a flight provides an excellent opportunity to focus, reflect, and ruminate on literature in what passes these days for a distraction-free environment. Get a window seat, rest your eyes on the landscape or the cloudscape, and think about the connections among things, the distances between things, the spaces above the earth that the gods alone used to inhabit.

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