December 24, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: David Copperfield.
My favorite passages from chapters 7 through 12, including David’s adventures at Salem House and Murdstone and Grinby’s:
An unhappy culprit, found guilty of imperfect exercise, approaches at his command. The culprit falters excuses, and professes a determination to do better to-morrow. Mr. Creakle cuts a joke before he beats him, and we laugh at it — miserable little dogs, we laugh, with our visages as white as ashes, and our hearts sinking into our boots.
This passage is the kind of thing you’d be hard-pressed to find in earlier Dickens: the virtuous protagonist taking part in cruelty, the author showing us a fault in the wronged. Another good example is David’s pride he feels in the “dignity attached to [him]” among his schoolmates by the death of his mother. The shift to the first person is part of this — Dickens’ earlier third-person narrators have little heart for showing actual sin, rather than harmless foibles, in their favorites, whereas David himself can more easily admit to wrongdoing. Of course, Dickens qualifies the wickedness by stating that the children laugh because they are afraid (and that David’s pride was nothing to his “sincere grief” at his mother’s death), but this scene of cruel laughter at others’ misfortune startled me. It brings such a terrible, true image to the mind. I suppose it is good and characteristic of David (and Dickens) to blame the laughter on fear and abuse rather than on genuine enjoyment of another’s misfortune.
What yawns and dozes I lapsed into, in spite of all my care; what starts I came out of concealed sleeps with; what answers I never got, to little observations that I rarely made; what a blank space I seemed, which everybody overlooked, and yet was in everybody’s way; what a heavy relief it was to hear Miss Murdstone hail the first stroke of nine at night, and order me to bed!
This, the culmination of a pageful of “what”s on the grinding anxiety, embarrassment, and boredom of David at home with his mother and the Murdstones, brilliantly done. I do not know how large a part the Murdstones play in the later plot of the book; at the moment, after having read the first eighteen chapters, I feel that Dickens may have underestimated the evil that they convey, and could have used them more extensively than they did. They are so malevolent. In keeping with David’s earlier recollection of the acute sensitivity and perception of children to sensations and to emotional states, the bending of Clara and David Copperfield to the Murdstones’ fascistic, petty will makes his life a living hell, simply by his being made into a “blank space,” and by his being made to feel guilty for his mother’s love of him.
The work being now finished, the two girls, whose names I had not heard, brushed the shreds and threads from their dresses, and went into the shop to put that to rights, and wait for customers. Minnie stayed behind to fold up what they had made, and pack it in two baskets. This she did upon her knees, humming lively little tune the while. Joram, who I had no doubt was her lover, came in and stole a kiss from her while she was busy (he didn’t appear to mind me, at all), and said her father was gone for the chaise, and he must make haste and get himself ready. Then he went out again; and then she put her thimble and scissors in her pocket, and stuck a needle and threaded with black thread neatly in the bosom of her gown, and put on her outer clothing smartly, at a little glass behind the door, in which I saw the reflection of her pleased face.
The entire scene at Omer’s funerary shop is utterly remarkable. The three “young women,” the Fates, at work on “black cloth”; the “RAT — tat-tat, RAT — tat-tat, RAT — tat-tat” of hammering outside, eventually revealed to be the hammer of Joram making David’s mother’s coffin; David’s observations of being among these happy, lively “creatures” at work upon death; it’s a work of genius, playing on all of the senses, resonant as mythology, and one of the most remarkable blends of memento mori and dolce vita I’ve ever read.
These offerings of affection were of a most various and eccentric description. Among them I remember a double set of pig’s trotters, a huge pin-cushion, half a bushel or so of apples, a pair of jet earrings, some Spanish onions, a box of dominoes, a canary bird and cage, and a leg of pickled pork.
This list of gifts that Barkis gives in wooing Peggotty displays again Dickens’ gift for lists. Part of it is a delight in everyday things from another time; part of it is the joy in his choice of objects; most of it, I think, is his utter gift for the musicality of language, the flow of vowels and words.
Mr. Micawber had a few books on a little chiffonier, which he called the library; and those went first. I carried them, one after another, to a bookstall in the City Road — one part of which, near our house, was almost all bookstalls and bird-shops then — and sold them for whatever they would bring. The keeper of this bookstall, who lived in a little house behind it, used to get tipsy every night, and to be violently scolded by his wife every morning. More than once, when I went there early, I had audience of him in a turn-up bedstead, with a cut in his forehead or a black eye, bearing witness to his excesses over night (I am afraid he was quarrelsome in his drink), and he, with a shaking hand, endeavouring to find the needful shillings in one or other of the pockets of his clothes, which lay on the floor, while his wife, with a baby in her arms and her shoes down at heel, never left off rating him.
Ah, the book trade. Really, this should probably be the passage in which David shows us one of Mr. Micawber’s creditors yelling at his window from the street, or the description of rat-infested Murdstone and Grinby’s, or the introduction of Micawber’s prison quarters, or just the simple fact of the sublime name “Mealy Potatoes” — but who can resist this scene of the debauched, disreputable bookseller?
“He is the parent of my children! He is the father of my twins! He is the husband of my affections,” cried Mrs. Micawber, struggling; “and I ne — ver — will — desert Mr. Micawber!”
The Micawbers are fascinating, like a trainwreck. Their histrionics, their violent swings from threats of suicide to irresponsible overspending, their insistence of respectability in the worst state of squalor: it’s fascinating, especially when you factor in their basis in Dickens’ own parents. Mrs. Micawber’s fanatical vows of loyalty to Micawber after listing all of the reasons she should leave him smacks of protesting too much, and perhaps of Stockholm Syndrome.
December 12, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens.
Dombey and Son was Dickens’ comeback book: H.W. Garrod tells me in the introduction to my Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition that 70,000 people read the weekly serial parts of The Old Curiosity Shop, while “not a third of that number” bought the monthly parts of Martin Chuzzlewit, the book prior to this one. The first few parts of D&S (full title Dealings with the Firm Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation, in case you were wondering) brought Dickens’s readership back in full force.
None of this really makes much sense to me. If I had to bet, based on the first 100 or so pages, I would’ve bet that Chuzzlewit was the success and D&S the flop. Chuzzlewit at least has some action, some forward momentum. The first seven chapters of D&S are full of light comedy, characters intentionally defined by their lack of personality, and a central plot focused on a baby. (Not a talking baby or a dancing baby or a baby genius, either: just a baby. Little Paul Dombey.) It’s not really gripping stuff. But the Victorians did love their comedic busybodies, their precocious tiny tots, their colorful servant-folk, and their little bits of scenery and sketches of personality. (This stuff is what Dickens cut his teeth on, after all.) I have to admit that I, too, am loving Major Joe Bagstock, who is constantly referring to himself in the third person as “Joey B.,” “Old Joe,” “J. Bagstock,” etc. — maybe the earliest example of this now-omnipresent phenomenon.
Then comes the eighth chapter, “Paul’s further Progress, Growth, and Character,” and the book comes to life. Dickens is never a waste of time, even when he’s merely trying to entertain or lecturing. But he can sometimes seem much flatter, even disinterested in his own work. That’s how the first seven chapters felt, in part because Paul Dombey Sr. is an intentionally flat, cold, mostly uninteresting character: Scrooge without Scrooge’s fire. We hate him for ignoring little Florence, his unwanted daughter, but even there Dickens’ narration distances us from our fury. In chapter eight, however, Dickens is fully engaged, and personally invested, and seems to know he’s working on something great. And it is personal: this chapter is grounded in autobiography. In a letter to his biographer, John Forster, Dickens said that “It is from the life, and I was there — I don’t suppose I was eight years old…”
The “there” there is Mrs. Pipchin’s, near the sea, where “nearly five years old” Paul is sent in hopes of improving his health in the fresher air. Pipchin is a typical Dickens grotesque, an ancient widow known for her expertise on “infancy” who lives in a strange, dank house. Little Paul really becomes the center of the show here, but I think I will reserve my thoughts on him for my next post. The foreshadowing in this chapter is deep and dark.
There are any number of fascinating aspects to this chapter, but I’m interested in how it got me thinking about time, and about the arc of a life. The first paragraph is the beginning of one of Dickens’ smart, compact, and lyrical fast-forwards:
Beneath the watching and attentive eyes of Time — so far another Major — Paul’s slumbers gradually changed. More and more light broke in upon them; distincter and distincter dreams disturbed them; an accumulating crowd of objects and impressions swarmed about his rest; and so he passed from babyhood to childhood, and became a talking, walking, wondering Dombey.
Dickens is one of the best at this: knowing when it’s time to pull back, take out the wide view, and switch from incident to exposition. He knows his pace; he knows how to stretch minutes (the agony of Jonas Chuzzlewit comes to mind) or speed years. In this chapter, he manages to balance his summaries with his scenes, and somehow gives the texture of lived life and the experience of a sick young boy.
As Paul’s innocent questions about money and death endear him throughout the chapter — and really, I suppose dear little dying Paul is the reason the book was so popular — time crystallizes as a major theme. Paul Dombey Sr. wants time to fast-forward to his son’s adulthood in a way that Dickens will not permit (at least not yet); and his dissatisfaction with day-to-day life is one of the sad subtexts which Dickens has handled beautifully, without explicit moralizing (again, at least not yet). This is one of the best ways that Dickens uses his typically protean and ambiguous narrator: often seeming to chronicle events in a way consistent with the book’s full title, as a kind of business/family history, and therefore often facetiously arguing from Dombey’s perspective, he lets the reader’s own sense of morality and humanity work against the grain of the words. This usually only lasts so long before Dickens can no longer resist laying into his villain.
Little Paul and Florence want their mother back; Mrs. Pipchin feels better about her age by sucking the childhood out of children; even Solomon Gills, in the primary subplot, longs for the days when his nautical instruments were in demand. Future perfect, past perfect: who’s living today, here? When is a life’s living overtaken by a life’s waiting?
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?