David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 11 and 12

January 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Continuing the survey of my favorite passages from each chapter:

Chapter 32:

“Yes, it’s always so!” she said.  “They are all surprised, these inconsiderate young people, fairly and fully grown, to see any natural feeling in a little thing like me!  They make a plaything of me, use me for their amusement, throw me away when they are tired, and wonder that I feel more than a toy horse or a wooden soldier!  Yes, yes, that’s the way.  The old way!”

This from Miss Mowcher the dwarf, in a surprising scene with David, revealing her sorrow at Steerforth’s behavior and her not catching it beforehand.  A great example of the celebrated humanity of Dickens, his empathy for the motivations of behaviors of even his minor or comedic characters.

Chapter 33:

Taking that part of the Commons which happened to be nearest to us – for our man was unmarried by this time, and we were out of Court, and strolling past the Prerogative Office – I submitted that I thought the Prerogative Office rather a queerly managed institution. Mr. Spenlow inquired in what respect? I replied, with all due deference to his experience (but with more deference, I am afraid, to his being Dora’s father), that perhaps it was a little nonsensical that the Registry of that Court, containing the original wills of all persons leaving effects within the immense province of Canterbury, for three whole centuries, should be an accidental building, never designed for the purpose, leased by the registrars for their Own private emolument, unsafe, not even ascertained to be fire-proof, choked with the important documents it held, and positively, from the roof to the basement, a mercenary speculation of the registrars, who took great fees from the public, and crammed the public’s wills away anyhow and anywhere, having no other object than to get rid of them cheaply. That, perhaps, it was a little unreasonable that these registrars in the receipt of profits amounting to eight or nine thousand pounds a year (to say nothing of the profits of the deputy registrars, and clerks of seats), should not be obliged to spend a little of that money, in finding a reasonably safe place for the important documents which all classes of people were compelled to hand over to them, whether they would or no. That, perhaps, it was a little unjust, that all the great offices in this great office should be magnificent sinecures, while the unfortunate working-clerks in the cold dark room upstairs were the worst rewarded, and the least considered men, doing important services, in London. That perhaps it was a little indecent that the principal registrar of all, whose duty it was to find the public, constantly resorting to this place, all needful accommodation, should be an enormous sinecurist in virtue of that post (and might be, besides, a clergyman, a pluralist, the holder of a staff in a cathedral, and what not), – while the public was put to the inconvenience of which we had a specimen every afternoon when the office was busy, and which we knew to be quite monstrous. That, perhaps, in short, this Prerogative Office of the diocese of Canterbury was altogether such a pestilent job, and such a pernicious absurdity, that but for its being squeezed away in a corner of St. Paul’s Churchyard, which few people knew, it must have been turned completely inside out, and upside down, long ago.

It’s long, I know, but I do love it when Dickens gets himself worked up like this over some unjust, rectifiable absurdity of bureaucracy or government.  He developed such an effective and entertaining rhetoric of outrage.

Chapter 34:

Peggotty was glad to get it for him, and he overwhelmed her with thanks, and went his way up Tottenham Court Road, carrying the flowerpot affectionately in his arms, with one of the most delighted expressions of countenance I ever saw.

Traddles’ love affair with the two pieces of furniture for his future household with his beloved Sophy, which he bought, then pawned, then bought back, is another delightful example of the way in which Dickens creates the illusion of not just a plot or a community, but a universe: it is the accumulation of just such tertiary incidents, and the care which he put into them, which gives the impression that the characters are living, in a world very similar to (but not identical with) our own, operating on tweaked rules of logic and behavior.  Such rules lead to characters like Tommy Traddles inevitably winning back the flowerpots they’ve earned for their beloveds, and cradling them happily in their arms.

Chapter 35:

There was a beggar in the street, when I went down; and as I turned my head towards the window, thinking of her calm, seraphic eyes, he made me start by muttering, as if he were an echo of the morning:

“Blind!  Blind!  Blind!”

The fact that David is blind when it comes to Dora is indisputable.  He is an idiot about her; she is a child; that childlike selfishness, pettiness, and idleness is, of course, the reason for the attraction for him, who was deprived of most of his childhood.  The startling thing is how David (the narrator) foreshadows this fact, and gives us these hints of foreshadowing darkness in even the besotted-courtship phase of their relationship, such as this startling tableau with the beggar to close the chapter, after the revelation of his impoverishment.

Chapter 36:

I began the next day with another dive into the Roman bath, and then started for Highgate.  I was not dispirited now.  I was not afraid of the shabby coat, and had no yearnings after gallant greys.  My whole manner of thinking of our late misfortune was changed.  What I had to do, was, to show my aunt that her past goodness to me had not been thrown away on an insensible, ungrateful object.  What I had to do, was, to turn the painful discipline of my younger days to account, by going to work with a resolute and steady heart.  What I had to do, was, to take my woodman’s axe in my hand, and clear my own way through the forest of difficulty, by cutting down the trees until I came to Dora.

This is great, this bright and beautiful beginning to the chapter, following right on the pensive and deeply dark end to the previous one, its optimism so indicative of the feeling you can get on a crisp morning that anything is possible.  And oh, that “woodman’s axe”: one of the most vivid examples of David seeing and telling the fairy tale of his life.

Chapter 37:

My aunt had obtained a signal victory over Mrs. Crupp, by paying her off, throwing the first pitcher she planted on the stairs out of the window, and protecting in person, up and down the staircase, a supernumerary whom she engaged from the outer world.  These vigorous measures struck such terror to the breast of Mrs. Crupp, that she subsided into her own kitchen, under the impression that my aunt was mad.  My aunt being supremely indifferent to Mrs. Crupp’s opinion and everybody else’s, and rather favoring than discouraging the idea, Mrs. Crupp, of late the bold, became within a few days so faint-hearted, that rather than encounter my aunt upon the staircase, she would endeavour to hide her portly form behind doors — leaving visible, however, a wide margin of flannel petticoat — or would shrink into dark corners.  This gave my aunt such unspeakable satisfaction, that I believe she took a delight in prowling up and down, with her bonnet insanely perched on the top of her head, at times when Mrs. Crupp was likely to be in the way.

I love that “insanely perched” bonnet and that “wide margin of flannel petticoat.”  The third sentence would be a lot of fun to diagram — it’s one of Dickens’ twisty marvels.

Surgical Sentences

August 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading:White-Jacket.

Reading next: A Child Again, by Robert Coover.

One of my favorite chapters so far is “The Operation,” chapter 63.  In this section, Melville turns from the law to that other great area of professional expertise and control, medicine.

This medical interlude from chapter 60 to 63 is one of Melville’s great detachable narratives: I’d love to see a small press make a nicely printed volume of it.  It has action (the attempted escape and shooting of the seaman), character study (chapter 61’s sketch of Dr. Cuticle), light, black, grotesque, and gallows humor (Cuticle’s consultation in search of his own verdict with his fellow naval surgeons, and his handling of the operation), serious examination of a social problem (medical practitioners’ view of patients as subjects, their interest in complicated surgeries and treatments rather than in the well being of the patient), suspense (the gruesome operation itself, and the fate of the seaman), and irony (the reaction to the announcement of the seaman’s death).

It may just be me, but I also think that the last two paragraphs of chapter 63 contain some of Melville’s best writing; these paragraphs remind me a little of Stephen Crane, a little of Hemingway, but the details are pure Melville.  They form such a beautiful, poignant coda for this seaman, guilty of trying to take a day of shore-leave he’d been refused but not of anything to justify the butchery and carelessness to which he’s been treated.  I love a lot about these simple sentences.  There’s their rhythm, long and calm, like crashing waves.  And their careful control of emotion — only that “gold-laced” to indicate contempt, in the context of all that’s come before.  And the contrast of the straightforward narration of events here as opposed to the riotous satire, heavy with dialogue and jargon, that’s come before.  Maybe most of all, the fact that it is “remains” that are buried — suggesting there’s not even a “body” to dispose of — and that they are buried near the same “Beach of the Flamingoes” that officers were returning from a party on when the seaman was shot.  These two paragraph-length sentences, which seem quite modern to me — as I said, like Hemingway — combine to both strengthen the entire book and lift the episode out of the work, a perfect little gem:

The assemblage of gold-laced surgeons now ascended to the quarter-deck; the second cutter was called away by the bugler, and, one by one, they were dropped aboard of their respective ships.

The following evening the messmates of the top-man rowed his remains ashore, and buried them in the ever-vernal Protestant cemetery, hard by the Beach of the Flamingoes, in plain sight from the bay.

In the John with the Mother of Mexican Poetry

May 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Savage Detectives.

My favorite section of this book so far is the monologue/testimony of Auxilio Lacouture, self-proclaimed “mother of Mexican poetry.”  Like most of the characters, Auxilio is apparently based on a real person, and the remarkable event in the chapter also seems to be reality-based (if not “real,” exactly).

It’s the best illustration yet that DFW was right in thinking that bathrooms are “places of mortal drama.”  (He was talking about men’s rooms, but presumably that’s all he knew, right?  I think we’re justified in extending his aphorism to the ladies’.)  Auxilio’s predilection for reading poetry in the ladies’ room in the Faculty of Literature at her Mexico City university leads to her being overlooked in the governmental massacre and takeover of the university; she spends ten days in the restroom, in a small but important act of protest — becoming “UNAM’s last redoubt of autonomy.”

Bolaño has told Auxilio’s story in more detail in Amulet.  Here, she’s given a ten-page, one-paragraph monologue, as she revisits passages of her life by revisiting her residency on the ladies’ room floor.  It’s full of fascinating things, including Auxilio’s relationship with Arturo Belano (Roberto B’s fictional alter ego), her status as both insider and outsider in Mexico, the drama of staying alive by eating toilet paper and drinking water (and writing poetry on toilet paper, and dreaming, and crying, and remembering).  Here’s one of my favorite passages, when she realizes what has happened:

So I went over to the only window in the bathroom and looked out.  I saw a soldier far off in the distance.  I saw the outline of an armored troop carrier or the shadow of an armored troop carrier.  Like the portico of Latin literature, the portico of Greek literature.  Oh, I adore Greek literature, from Pindar to George Seferis.  I saw the wind sweeping the university as if it was delighting in the last light of day.  And I knew what I had to do.  I knew.  I knew I had to resist.  So I sat on the tiled floor of the women’s bathroom and in the last rays of light I read three more poems by Pedro Garfias and then I closed the book and closed my eyes and said to myself: Auxilio Lacouture, citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, stand your ground.  That was all.

This is a good passage to illustrate Bolano’s style: the deceptively straightforward sentences that suddenly drop into a kind of cryptic code (an “armored troop carrier” is like “the portico of Latin literature” how?), the boring factual monotone that suddenly spikes into moments of beautiful clarity and purpose, of perfect pacing (“citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, stand your ground.  That was all.”), the emphasis on finding voice without idiosyncratic tics or tricks.

In fact, I think one of the most remarkable things about this book  is how Bolaño dares you to be bored — perhaps dares himself, too.  As a writer, it is remarkably hard to be content with a boring sentence; it is hard to move from sentence to sentence without trying to be beautiful or showy.  Obvious but frequently overlooked: writing boring sentences is boring, and boring is not easy.  Boring is hard.  (Personally, I’ve always had the most trouble writing the most basic transitional elements; those utilitarian sentences to move characters from one place to another, from one scene to another.  They’re just so damn boring to write!  I always fall into the temptation of thinking that they must be boring for the reader, too.)  Bolaño almost never succumbs to the temptation to be beautiful — when he does, it’s because the voice he’s taken on would see fit to do so, and he is, after all, talking about poets.  He lets the thread of his narrative pull the reader along, slowly and intermittently letting insights dawn on the reader.

Dickens and the Victorian Cinema

December 14, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Sweeping Assertion #27: In the entire history of literature, Dickens is the consummate scene-setter, the one to go to for a seemingly off-the-cuff evocation of a place and its people.  My favorite part of this book so far has been the beginning of chapter nine, “Town and Todgers’s.”  It’s too long for me to write out, so read the first eight paragraphs or so here.

What a piece of writing!  I love the section on the fruit-vendors, and the immediately following description of the scrubby churchyard trees.  What a brilliant metaphor, comparing these lonesome city trees to “birds in cages.”  This section reminds me an awful lot of Ambergris, the pseudo-Victorian city of City of Saints and Madmen: the grit, the soot, the commerce and mystery.  I’m going to indulge myself and write out probably my favorite sentence:

Among the narrow thoroughfares at hand, there lingered, here and there, an ancient doorway of carved oak, from which, of old, the sounds of revelry and feasting often came; but now these mansions, only used for storehouses, were dark and dull, and, being filled with wool, and cotton, and the like — such heavy merchandise as stifles sound and stops the throat of echo — had an air of palpable deadness about them which, added to their silence and desertion, made them very grim.

My god!  For those keeping score at home, that’s 14 commas, a semicolon, and one marvelous dashed aside.  Gordon Lish’s head would explode reading that thing; he’d cut it up into six to eight sentences.  But it’s sentences like this, I think, that got and still get people hooked on Dickens.  It just sounds so damn good: the commas flowing along, the punctuation so perfect that you can almost hear Dickens reading it aloud.  And the flawless word choice, the alliteration and assonance (the rich, full o‘s of wool, cotton, sound, stops, throat, echo filling up space like the “heavy merchandise” of the warehouses).

Somehow in those eight paragraphs, Dickens conjures up a world, taking you from the city to the neighborhood to the specificity of a grubby boarding house.  You’re there, lost in the labyrinth, viewing these grotesque bruised oranges and soot-covered windows and the scene from the scary roof of the Todgers’s.  And he segues effortlessly from this into the domestic comedy of the rooms in the boarding house.  Amazing.  (Some writers I love because I feel like they’re kindred spirits, and they write in ways I feel I have written or could write; with Dickens, I can’t imagine writing this way.  I’ve never lost my self-consciousness enough, my sense that I’m writing.  I literally don’t know how he does it — on tight deadlines, no less, the serial numbers coming out month after month.  He seems to feel his way into the page, into a kind of state where the words are effortless extensions of his thought.  And it comes out brilliant: something close to prose poetry.)

This section reminds me of the opening of Bleak House, another of my favorite Dickens scenes and, I have to believe, the best description and metaphoric use ever of a London fog.  That was the first Dickens scene I ever read that made me sit up and realize what strange, nearly avant-garde, modern, cinematic things Dickens was doing with words.  To say that Dickens writes cinematically is misleading, in a way, because the words were important to him, obviously, and they work so well together, and are integrally important.  (The metaphor of churchyard-tree to caged-bird, for instance, is perfectly suited to literature, not cinema, and Dickens is always pulling brilliant metaphors and turns of phrase out of thin air.)

And yet it’s there, somehow, isn’t it?  Doesn’t it seem like a camera, roving over this seedy warehouse district in London, in the opening of “Town and Todgers’s”?  The dollies and cuts, the effects of sound and his placement of objects and figures (his mise en scene, if you want) like what you would expect in the opening of a (really good) movie?  And the way he cuts to the interior from the exterior?

As it happens, there are books about this.  (And I have this nagging half-memory of a quote about Dickens being proto-cinematic by a famous director — maybe Godard — but I can’t find it right now.  Arrgh.)  Here’s one I hope to take a peek at.  Intriguing synopsis, right?

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