I am reading Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. I am not sure whether I enjoy it. Sometimes I think that I really enjoy it and sometimes I think that I really do not enjoy it. It’s Dickens’ first good novel (the Pickwick Papers is more of a linked collection of stories than a novel and Oliver Twist is, quite frankly, kinda terrible), but the voice is already very mature. I feel like the thing that’s often overlooked about Dickens is that he was a very good and evocative writer on a sentence level. There’s this sense that, oh, Dickens was great but the writing was padded and that if someone could flense out all the fat, then Dickens would be much more readable.
But the fat in Dickens is not necessarily at the level of the word. Although his sentences are long, they’re also interesting. He’s interested in setting and image in a way that many Victorian writers were not (for instance, Austen very rarely takes the time to describe anything). Take, for instance, this long lovely passage about a patch of garden in London:
Some London houses have a melancholy little plot of ground behind them, usually fenced in by four high whitewashed walls, and frowned upon by stacks of chimneys: in which there withers on, from year to year, a crippled tree, that makes a show of putting forth a few leaves late in autumn when other trees shed theirs, and, drooping in the effort, lingers on, all crackled and smoke-dried, till the following season, when it repeats the same process, and perhaps, if the weather be particularly genial, even tempts some rheumatic sparrow to chirrup in its branches.
That’s something you can see.
Dickens also doesn’t repeat himself as much as one would think he would. If you read enough Dickens, you notice some commonalities amongst his characters. He has a host of philanthropic bachelors: Newman Noggs in Nicholas Nickleby, Mr. Jarndyce in Bleak House, Pancks in Little Dorrit, and Abe Magwitch in Great Expectations. But they’re all different. They look different and sound different and feel different. I don’t know where he gets this raft of detail to round out his characters.
He also trusts his dialogue in a way that’s very rare. He won’t tell you that a character is boring or tedious or annoying or evil or stupid–he’ll just have them speak in a boring, tedious, annoying, evil, or stupid way. When you read Dickens, you have to trust yourself to get the joke.
Dickens is weird. I suppose I must enjoy reading him. I fall into his books and will sometimes spend hours reading them. But there’s always a point at which they throw me out and I have to make myself keep reading. Normally, my rule is to put down any book that’s lost my interest. But I bend this rule for Dickens. And I’m not sure that he deserves it. The joy of Dickens is seeing these caricatures that bear some strange, intuitive relationship to our world. But the caricatures rarely grow or change. They’re simply moved around in a set of tableaus. And that’s wonderful, so long as it’s entertaining.
But when it stops being entertaining, I sometimes wonder whether I am fooling myself. Maybe I’m just reading Dickens because he is Dickens. Maybe it would be a better and truer use of my time to read something that I like consistently.
Still…even when it’s boring, there’s something solid about Dickens. Something kind and fertile…I don’t know…usually, when I’m looking for novels to read, Dickens is pretty far down on the list…but sometimes, for some reason, he feels like exactly the right thing.