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.

Ugly, But Not Irrelevant

March 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare.

Because I really know very little about this play, I’m feeling my way through it, and it’s interesting to read a play by Shakespeare where my preconceived notions and expectations are so few.  A few notes from the first three acts:

-I’ve never been a person who focused much on the cues to class and status in Elizabethan style, but Shakespeare really uses the transition between verse and prose here to great effect.  There’s a lot of prose, here, in a variety of styles and registers.  The patricians only versify with other patricians, the plebeians only speak prose amongst each other, but it’s really interesting to see how and when Coriolanus employs verse with the commoners he despises, and how the peoples’ tribunes shift between the two forms, consummate politicians speaking in the various registers depending on whether they need to sound like representatives qualified for their roles or sons of the soil.

-It’s always tempting to read Shakespeare as one great big tale, and so I can’t help but notice that this play, in some ways, picks up where King Lear leaves off.  In the last lines of Lear, Edgar exhorts his fellow survivors to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”  And so, in Coriolanus, Shakespeare gives us a protagonist who does just that.  It just so happens that he’s pretty full of himself, and loathes the common folk, and tells them about it after they’ve been given the power to object to his rise to power.  Oops.

-This is probably the ugliest Shakespeare I’ve read.  The language is not pretty, and the play’s remarkably outward-focused, with very little introspection.  The major metaphorical tropes are cannibalistic, militaristic, and body-political.  It’s not exactly a recipe for a gorgeous play.

-And yet, is this the Shakespeare play most emblematic of the 2000s?  A tragic protagonist, eager for war, sure of the propriety of his ideals and the might of his military, unwilling (or unable?) to examine his own motives, scornful of a populace he’s forced to grovel to if he wants to gain power; a populace, in turn, which gives us very little cause to doubt the protagonist’s assessment of them as a dangerous, disinterested, gullible rabble; a bunch of middle-managing representatives of people and moneyed interests, less interested in the good of the republic than the power to be grabbed and clung to at all costs.  No one to root for, really.  No one rising above their own desires.  Ugly, yes.  Irrelevant, no.  (Just for fun, and so as not to end on such a down beat, my votes for other representative plays of the last 50 years: 1960s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; 1970s, Troilus and Cressida; 1980s, The Tempest; 1990s, Romeo and Juliet.)

These Coincidences Have No Meaning

September 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Fragile Things.

Reading next: Redburn, by Herman Melville.

I mean that, that title-sentence up there: I really don’t think there’s much to this.  But it’s weird.  I like weird things.  If nothing else, it’s another manifestation of that odd phenomenon by which great discoveries, strokes of genius, etc., are made independently and nearly simultaneously.

Three stories, in succession:

-“Diseasemaker’s Croup,” a clever made-to-order piece (they’re almost all made-to-order in this collection, which is why it comes off as kind of half-assedly thrown-together, I suppose) about a disease which “can be diagnosed by the unfortunate tendency of the diseased to interrupt otherwise normal chains of thought and description with commentaries upon diseases, real or imagined, cures nonsensical, and apparently logical.”  As you can sort of tell at the end there, it becomes a soup of fragmented language, as the disease takes over the diseased’s attempt at an entry on the disease.

-“In the End,” a rather cool short-short which puts the book of Genesis in reverse and works very well as an imaginary “very last book of the Bible,” as Gaiman has it.

-“Goliath,” a story which was originally a teaser for The Matrix on the promotional website.  Gaiman seems to especially like the idea of the malleability of time in the Matrix.

Anyway, isn’t it funny how these stories put together seem like a recipe for The Raw Shark Texts?  I mean, there’s a text taken over by a kind of language-virus, a möbius-strip return-to-paradise story, and a metaphysical sci-fi freakout on the nature of reality.  It’s all there!  This collection, by the way, came out a year before TRST.  Not that that means anything.  But weird, eh?

Brautigan’s Shibboleths

July 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan.

Reading next: Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon.

“By the way,” Doc Edwards said. “How’s that book coming along?”

“Oh, it’s coming along.”

“Fine. What’s it about?”

“Just what I’m writing down: one word after another.”


That’s from In Watermelon Sugar, maybe the most compellingly weird, indefinable narrative I’ve ever read. Now here’s one from Merriam-Webster:

shibboleth: a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usu. regarded by others as empty of real meaning

I’m afraid I’m going to have to more or less gloss over these two Brautigans: they deserve fuller treatment than I’m going to give them (just as Dog of the South did), and even if I’m uncertain how much I actually understand, appreciate, or should even worry about understanding or appreciating them, they are certainly interesting, and I’m glad I read them. It’s been kind of a crazy summer, and I’ve been away from the ol’ desk for two weeks straight, more or less. I’m on to Vineland and there’s too much crazy-fun shit in there for me to ignore: I need to get to Pynchon more than I need to babble about Brautigan.

But back to my point, which is that these books are in part about their language, the words that make them up. Classic metafictional tactic, I suppose, but much less cloying than many metafictional tactics, in that Brautigan is fairly loose about it, fairly comical, willing to have fun with the idea and (I think) let the reader in on the fun, too. The phrases “trout fishing in America” and “in watermelon sugar” recur throughout their respective books. The first, oddly beautiful, sentence of the latter is “In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.” And it turns out that, yes, the substance “watermelon sugar” does, in fact, make up much of the material of the world in that book. I imagine it as a kind of natural plastic, if it’s anything, which it’s not, because it’s just words. And that’s kind of the point, maybe: “watermelon sugar” is a phrase that strikes Brautigan as beautiful, and it can mean something or not, as you will.

Similarly, “trout fishing in america” is, in the first chapter, the title of the book, and subsequently becomes, additionally, an activity, an idea or mythos , an anthropomorphization (writing letters, responding to the text: maybe a deity, maybe just another facet of being an idea or mythos), a synecdoche for America itself and especially its “nature” (maybe), a name for a very strange wheelchair-bound wino, a place. A phrase, though, always. A hook to hang a little story or idea from. Maybe a shibboleth, although it can seem meaningful many times.

Brautigan spent much of his life in Japan, and it would seem that he’s studied his haiku. The sound and intonation of words is important in haiku, and the point is not telling a story, exactly, but crafting out of a moment and a setting an emotion, a reaction, a being. I think Brautigan was after something similar, perhaps. But it is tempting to see his phrases as shibboleths: all those hippies getting high, digging on his crazy riffs, his willfully naive sentences (as rhetorically complicated as anything DFW has written, these sentences that act simple), his seeming talk of nature and living in it. (But what does he actually think about nature?)

The cool thing, especially in TFiA, is how the metaphors carry so much of the weight of the book. The book seems to be all about his metaphoric juxtapositions of the pastoral or “natural” with the modern, the artificial, the urban and suburban. And IWS is built around this central mystery of what it means that things are made of watermelon sugar; that the place the townspeople live in is called iDEATH, where the sun’s color is different on each day of the week and strangely disaffected suicides shock (but do not seem to change) those townspeople; that a book has not been written for generations and books used to be burned for fuel. It’s the words themselves, to no small extent, that make the surrealism, not the images they can (or cannot) convey. Why that small “i”? Why is it important that the last word of TFiA be “mayonnaise”?

The books are now remembered as hippie books, and Brautigan is remembered as a hippie writer, so I suppose if we think of these as shibboleths for anyone, it would be for hippies. But my understanding is that Brautigan was ambivalent at best toward the hippie movement (if there was such a monolithic thing). These might be shibboleths for just strange folks, folks enamored of language, enamored of odd ways of thinking about being and the oddness of being in a world full of other beings being. (But that sounds like hippie talk. Perhaps I’ve backed into a corner. And yet there seems something intellectually substantial to Brautigan; an anecdote to overthought, bringing me back to haiku. I suppose there was something substantial to many hippies, too, before we turned them into a punchline.)

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