Nicholas Nickleby, Proust…other stuff

So I’ve been reading Les Miserables (the novel by Victor Hugo) for the past few days. And, since it is hellaciously long (like…War and Peace long), that means I’ve kind of been left without books to blog about. Nor do I really have any writing news. I’m writing and stuff…

I did finish reading Nicholas Nickleby I can’t tell whether the novel picked up at the end or whether I just got used to it, but I raced through the last third of the book. Sometimes, it’s hard to pick out the theme of a Dickens novel. There’s just so much stuff happening, in so many weird ways, that it all kind of blends together like a delicious stew. For instance, Nicholas Nickleby at various times works for a super-evil Yorkshire schoolmaster, a very clever theater troupe impresario, and a pair of super kindly merchants (who, like all Dickensian merchants, don’t seem to do anything other than be kindly all day). But I guess if I had to pull out a linking thread in NN, I’d say that it’s about the various shades of greed. The novel starts off with NN’s dad losing all his money in a stock market speculation. And most of it is concerned with the greed of NN’s cousin Ralph, who is actually an extremely complex character. He’ll literally screw over anyone if there’s money in it (for instance, he uses his innocent niece as bait to entrap a young lord into debt), but he’s not cruel—he won’t molest someone when there’s no gain in it for him. And…at times…this very thin, reedy sort of pity starts to whistle through his hollow insides. It doesn’t last for long, but each time it starts up, the reader sort of cocks his ear and thing, “Maybe…maybe this time he’ll change…” Ralph’s ending was really fascinating. The book is reading for him alone.

It occurs to me that I’ve often used some version of the phrase: “This book taught me how to read itself.” The idea is that a masterpiece breaks so much new ground that no one really knows how to read it. A masterpiece creates its own audience by teaching people how it should be read. This is not a notion that’s original to me. I got it from In Search Of Lost Time. There’s a section of that novel where the narrator is talking about the composer Vinteuil and how people always say stuff like, “He was ahead of his time” and “if he’d only come fifty years later, then he’d have been appreciated” Then the narrator discourses for twenty pages on how geniuses create the world in which their genius can finally be appreciated.

You know, many of my feelings about art are pretty much lifted from Proust. For instance, there’s a section where he talks about the writer Mme de Villeparisis, he says that she wasn’t particularly fashionable and she didn’t really keep the most charming or high-toned company. In fact, there were many women who’d never, ever allow Villeparisis to come to their salons. However, because Villeparisis was so skilled at writing about her milieu and successfully capturing what sparkle and charm it did have, future generations consider her to have been one of the grandest hostesses of la belle époque. To me, that kind of rings true. Writers don’t need to have interesting lives; they just need to be able to transfer something that is alive onto the page. Since most written things are quite dead, a capable writer is just a person who’s able to make something, anything, seem alive. It also makes me wonder whether history’s coolest circles–the Bloomsbury group, the Alconquin Round Table, the Montparnasse set—were actually not nearly as cool as some other bunch of anonymous people who were busy living life instead of writing about it.

Anyway, it’s kind of an accomplishment that so much of Proust’s philosophy is so memorable and useful, since most of the philosophical interludes in novels tend to be garbage. War And Peace is a stand-out here. The philosophy in War and Peace is fascinating, and really fun, but it basically amounts to “For mysterious reasons, God let Napoleon destroy Europe and then God destroyed Napoleon.”

If I had to guess, I'd probably say that this guy's personal philosophy involved eating babies.
If I had to guess, I’d probably say that this guy’s personal philosophy involved eating babies.

2 thoughts on “Nicholas Nickleby, Proust…other stuff

  1. Becca

    The only part I ever remember about Tolstoy’s philosophy is the part where he explains how the universe is infinitely predictable if you just understand everybody, because they’re always going to react the way they react. For whatever reason that’s stuck with me for fourteen years.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I don’t remember that. I actually loved Tolstoys asides about Napoleon. He’s so wonderfully dismissive. He’s like “Napoleon was just a guy in a big hat who stood in front”. It’s funny to see Victor Hugo approach the same topic in such a different way.

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