Reading DOMBEY AND SON

6a00d83455e40a69e20168ea495528970c.jpgI’m reading Dickens. I cannot say exactly why this is. Just that about once a year I get an urge to read a Dickens novel, and since I’ve already read most of the popular ones (and some of the unpopular ones, like Little Dorrit), I’m now moving on to the truly obscure ones (in this case, Dombey and Son).

Rachel asked me what the book was about, and I genuinely had no answer for her. There is really only one Dickens plot: waif is mistreated by their relatives and then cared for by kindly strangers. (Not incidentally, that was also the story of Dickens’s own life.) Dombey and Son falls well into this category. It’s about a businessman who is a very serious and very pompous person (in the way of all of Dickens’s businessmen) who cares only that his child grow up into the “and Son” who will someday join him in their eponymous mercantile concern.

The son, I imagine, doesn’t want to do this? It’s unclear. So far I’m just along for the ride.

One thing Dickens gets insufficient credit for, I think, is being a really good prose stylist. People forget this. They’re always bagging on him for being wordy. Which he is. But he also has a tremendous sense of rhythm. Dickens writes sentences that you can say aloud. And since the human tongue tends to be less terse than most written sentences will allow, this often leads to a certain amount of wordiness. Take this passage from the beginning of the book:

“Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age. Son about eight-and-forty minutes. Dombey was rather bald, rather red, and though a handsome well-made man, too stern and pompous in appearance, to be prepossessing. Son was very bald, and very red, and though (of course) an undeniably fine infant, somewhat crushed and spotty in his general effect, as yet. On the brow of Dombey, Time and his brother Care had set some marks, as on a tree that was to come down in good time— remorseless twins they are for striding through their human forests, notching as they go— while the countenance of Son was crossed with a thousand little creases, which the same deceitful Time would take delight in smoothing out and wearing away with the flat part of his scythe, as a preparation of the surface for his deeper operations.”

That there is a vivid and beautiful passage. Dickens is full of them.

Started reading Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens

710347This might be a bad idea, but I read the first fifty pages and found them very captivating. I occasionally feel nostalgic for Dickens, though I’ve definitely read better and worse books by him. I really enjoyed Great ExpectationsBleak House, and David Copperfield; sort of enjoyed (but was also intermittently bored by) Little Dorrit, Nicholas Nickleby, and Hard Times; and absolutely disliked Oliver Twist.

Dickens is a weird one. There’s no other writer quite like him. On a sentence- and scene-level, there’s no writer who trusts his readers quite so much. Dickens doesn’t explain everything. He expects you to just get it. If a character is saying nonsense, he doesn’t say, “This character is saying nonsense,” he just expects you to see the nonsense. And his characters are incredibly memorable, of course.

The problem is that he veers suddenly into absolute tedium and then you’re just down there, wallowing in it, until he hits his stride and decides to be interesting again. Even David Copperfield, which is almost perfect, has a pretty dull patch right around when he gets married. And in a Dickens-length novel, a dull patch can easily be a hundred pages. It’s pretty tortuous. So yes, I am afraid. Our Mutual Friend is over 1000 pages long and it could, literally, at any moment turn awful.

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.

Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens

nicholas nicklebyI 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.

Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens

It’s hard to believe that this is the sixth Dickens novel* I’ve read. I do like Dickens. His characters are so memorable. While reading this book, I kept thinking back fondly to all the wonderful Dickens characters I’ve enjoyed in the past: Tommy Traddles, Mr. Micawber, Mr. Gradgrind, Miss Havisham, Dora Spenlow, Mrs. Jellyby, Mr. Jarndyce, Richard Summerstone, Uriah Heep. They’re a wonderful bunch. However, there is something daunting about the length of his novels. This is one of the longer ones (about 300,000 words), and it’s not something that I ever would’ve read except that I had it on my Kindle and sort of browsed through the first few pages and then, before I knew it, I was like 30,000 words in.

This novel is one of Dickens’ few historical novels. It’s set about thirty years before the time of writing (1855), which was a necessity, because he wanted to write about a very specific debtor’s prison–the one where his father had been incarcerated–but it had closed back in 1842. It must be sooooo annoying when you’ve got a wonderful Dickensian setting all lined up to serve as the centrepiece of a book, and then, poof, it disappears.

The plot centers around a family who’ve lived in the Marshalsea for twenty years or so. I’m not going to go too far into the plot. Like most Dickens novels, the plot is ludicrous and full of gaping plot holes. But it’s fun to watch everyone run around and be funny and get all tormented. The novel actually switches it up hugely right in the middle (spoiler, although this hardly feels like a secret) when the family suddenly is elevated to massive wealth and leaves the prison and starts hobnobbing with high society.

I feel like I started to enjoy Dickens much more once I realized four things: i) the first few chapters of each book are usually terrible, since he hasn’t hit his stride yet; ii) there will be boring parts; iii) it’s okay to be bored by the boring parts…in fact, it’s even better if you can learn to recognize which parts are boring, since they’re usually signaled by the introduction of a character; and iv) it’s totally acceptable to just skim the boring parts.

For me, the boring parts in Little Dorrit were always the ones with Miss Affery, this insipid and perpetually terrified maid character, and the ones with Flora Finching, the rambling former lover of one of the main characters. Flora is actually fairly funny as long as you realize that her dialogues are meant to be pointless rambles (and thus, you just read the first and last line of each of her speeches). On the other hand, there were some fantastic characters who I never skimmed, like the penurious father, with all his pretensions and silliness, or Mrs. General (the tutor who is hired to teach the daughters of the formerly-imprisoned family) or the mentally handicapped woman, Maggy, who regards the titular character (Little Dorrit) as a sort of mother, or  the sister, Fanny, who marries a man, in part, because she hates his mother so much that she wants to destroy the woman’s life by marrying her son or the pair of Mr. Pancks and Mr. Casby (the latter is a slumlord and the former is his bill collector; the latter is beloved by the tenants while the former is hated; the latter is, in reality, quite kindly, while the latter is greedy and without any empathy for the people he squeezed).

I actually could go on and on and on. There are some brilliant characters in this one. Actually, I view Dickens as a bit of an example. For most of this year, I’ve been trying to make my writing a bit funnier. In my personal life and in my nonfiction writing, I’m fairly funny, but my fiction is so serious. Dickens is one writer who managed to have it every possible way: he wrote about serious topics and reached for serious emotions, but he did so with hilarious out-sized characters. In this, I’d say that he also avoided the other major fault of the humorist, which is a kind of blackness or coldness. For instance, Donald Barthelme is funny, too, but you don’t get the sense that he has any empathy for his characters.

However, I will say that sometimes the emotional moments in Dickens fall a bit flat sometimes, because his plot and characters are a bit toooo melodramatic. But that’s an argument for another day.

Anyways, so, yes….this was a good experience. It’s another of those books that it’s hard to precisely recommend, since it’s certainly not for anyone. There were times, while I was reading it, when I thought, “Please god, when will this end?” But now I look back on it with fondness. Part of me wants to start reading another Dickens novel right now. I’m thinking maybe Tale of Two Cities? But I guess that’ll have to wait.

*The others were: Bleak House; David Copperfield; Oliver Twist; Hard Times; Great Expectations

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

Okay guys, so, I don’t know if I told you, but the theme of this year’s reading is 19th Century English Literature (the theme of last year was Proust and the theme of the year before that was The Russians, okay). And in keeping with said theme, I recently read Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. This book is really, really long. And it wasn’t until I was about 60% of the way through (maybe 700 pages, if I’d been reading a paper book), that I decided I liked it.

The book is basically an all-encompassing indictment of the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the social, business, political, and personal mores of British society. The plot revolves around this financier who’s basically running a Ponzi scheme involving stocks of an American railroad company. But all of that is completely unimportant.

The amazing part of the book was a subplot involving the rapidly aging 29-year-old gentlewoman Georgiana Longestaafe and her engagement to a 50 year old, widowed, Jewish banker named Ezekial Brehgert. Basically, all Georgiana wants is a husband who’ll be rich enough to give her both a townhouse in London and a house in the country. And to get those things, she’s even willing to marry a Jew. But she definitely regards it as a pretty major concession on her part.

However, to her family, this is totally beyond the pale. But Georgiana holds firm against them, and, slowly, begins adopting all this egalitarian rhetoric about how Jews are just like everybody else and what does religion matter, it’s not like anybody goes to Church anyway. She actually does her best to hold out against some fairly determined opposition from her family. And she slowly comes to realize that they don’t really care about her quality of life. They want her to be respectable, but she wants to be rich. It’s a slow sort of emancipation.

I thought it was delightful. Anyone can write a story where True Love overcomes prejudice, but it takes a genius to write Greed overcomes prejudice.

Beware, though, lest anyone think that this book is not anti-Semitic, that is absolutely not the case. The book repeatedly implies that the aforementioned shady financier is Jewish. Trollope suffers from that weird Dickensian anti-Semitism where he hates the Bad Greedy Jews but is willing to point out some Good Honest Jew and say, “Oh, look, some Jews are honest and don’t love money.” (It’s kind of like how some straight guys who don’t like feminine gay men will go out of their way to try to prove their lack of homophobia by pointing at a more masculine gay acquaintance and saying, “Oh, he’s a real man, even though he’s gay”).

Anyways, I am not sure I can recommend this book. But it has lots of things in it that are really interesting. The book is not nearly as comedic and exaggerated as most 19th century British classics, and it’s much more concerned with actualities: money and the practical mechanics of things like earning a living or proposing marriage. Thus, it many incidents within it provide a sort of counterpoint to Dickens, Austen, and Thackeray.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I just finished Bleak House. I’ve never read so much as a word of Charles Dickens before, nor did I have any particular desire to. Whatever impression I had of him was that his work was quite long-winded, dull, and trite…but his work kind of sits astride the history of the novel in English like a collection of 900-page behemoths. And I’d had glimmerings that there might be something worthwhile in him, mostly from my friend Becca (including this blog post of her), and through the various breathless praises heaped on him by various British authors.

I liked Bleak House, of course. It was not just great, it was also kind of shocking. I’ve never read anything like it. And I have numerous reflections on it which I will proceed to demarcate via numbered sections.

 

I. This Being The First Such Numbered Section

Even someone who’s never read Dickens can’t help but be familiar with his style of farce mixed with drama. It’s been transmitted down to us by approximately seventy-eight filmed or televised versions of A Christmas Carol. It even has its own epithet – “Dickensian” – and is exemplified by the way he gives his characters these perverse, resonant, Anglo-Saxon names like “Jellyby” or “Bucket” (or my most totally favorite name ever, which will be discussed in a numbered section to follow).

But I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. The characters, at least in Bleak House, are too large and broad to work as real human beings. They’re total creatures of invention, more like the denizens of dreams than those of the world around us. Take, for instance, Lignum Bagnet, the retired soldier, who takes his friend George on walks where Lignum waxes rhapsodic about the virtues of Mrs. Bagnet, and then closes by saying that he’d never tell Mrs. Bagnet these things, of course.

“The old girl,” says Mr. Bagnet in reply, “is a thoroughly fine woman.  Consequently she is like a thoroughly fine day.  Gets finer as she gets on.  I never saw the old girl’s equal.  But I never own to it before her.  Discipline must be maintained!”

Now, something about that doesn’t ring precisely true psychologically. If he can boast to every random passerby about how great she is, then he would probably also tell her. How could he avoid it? That’s the kind of humorous, or farcical quality.

But there is also something that does ring true, in that we can easily imagine a person who is so fully, so exuberantly in admiration of his spouse that he wants to shout it to everyone, but is somehow not fully articulate enough to be able to do so. That’s what lends the farce it’s sort of emotional impact. People acting nonrealistically is funny, by itself, but when they do it in ways that is emotionally resonant, there’s something else going on…

The dreamlike aspect is that the story doesn’t really exploit this tension. Mrs. Bagnet is fully aware that her husband loves her. They have a fine relationship. Her husband’s quirk exists on some other plane of storytelling, it’s a fiction even within the story itself. Just like, in, say, a musical, the characters sing and dance to express their personalities, in this novel there is some whole new range of tricks and conventions that characters use.

Hmm, I’m not doing a very good job of describing what I found interesting about book’s storytelling. Let me put it this way. The thing it most reminded me of was a television sitcom, like Friends or Scrubs. You know how in any sitcom with any kind of story or character arc, you’ll eventually come to care what the characters do and who they have sex with and all that stuff even though they’re character basically buffoons? But it’s okay, because the demands of the story allow them all to be buffoonish in ways that act as a stand-in for serious behavior? Like how J.D’s bromance with Turk is actually kind of about real friendship in a way that our brains can sort of unconsciously understand even as we laugh? Well this is the first time I’ve really seen something like that in a book. I think that books are normally too empathetic, and too understanding — the internal monologue is too readily available – to be unrealistic in quite that way.

 

II. This Second Numbered Section Is Long-Winded Just Like Charles Dickens Is Often Said To Be.

It would be hard to make the claim that Dickens is not long-winded. Given the way his plots are assembled, they can basically be of any length he wants. And he chose to make that length roughly 350,000 words. But buried within that long-windedness, there’s some good writing. When I hear that an author is long-winded, I assume that their work is going to be filled with long pages of visual description that I will eventually skip.

But not only are the descriptions not really that long, they’re also very good. They actually convey some kind of information to me, a person who is awful at visualizing things. I think this might be because Dickens’ descriptions are also wholly invented, they’re not even attempting to be descriptions of real people or real places. They’re more like descriptions of an impression in the author’s mind. Take, for instance, this paragraph which I chose totally at random:

As the excellent old gentleman’s nails are long and leaden, and his hands lean and veinous, and his eyes green and watery; and, over and above this, as he continues, while he claws, to slide down in his chair and to collapse into a shapeless bundle, he becomes such a ghastly spectacle, even in the accustomed eyes of Judy, that that young virgin pounces at him with something more than the ardour of affection and so shakes him up and pats and pokes him in divers parts of his body, but particularly in that part which the science of self-defence would call his wind, that in his grievous distress he utters enforced sounds like a paviour’s rammer.

Now, honestly, can you visualize that? What do “long and leaden” nails look like? What does it look like when a person slides down in his chair and becomes a shapeless bundle? What does it look like when someone pats and pokes someone into shape, and makes him utter sounds like a “paviour’s rammer” (a paving rammer). None of that means anything, visually or aurally.

But the words are enough. They call up impressions of other words we’ve read, in other passages, in other books. They weave an imagine with their connotation and denotation alone, without any recourse to our stock of visual images. I like that a lot.

 

III. Complete Thematic Disarray

There are about thirteen major plotlines in this book and thirty minor ones. They’re connected in Crash-like fashion by the characters coming into and out of each others lives, and being secretly related, and that kind of stuff. But other than those bits of author fiat, I have no idea what thematic linkage there is between the various stories.

If you read about Bleak House on the internet, it will tell you that the novel is an indictment of England’s Chancery Court. And sure, it is that…for about 30,000 of its words. All the other words are about falling in love and getting married and finding out who your parents are and murdering folks and trying to figure out who murdered folks and trying to escape from disgrace and all kinds of stuff like that.

What’s the linkage? I mean, it certainly all seems to fit together on some unconscious level, but I wonder to what extent the stew of stuff in this book is just the usual mix of Dickensian elements, and to what extent the stuff in this book represents elements uniquely combined for this book. I’ll probably need to read more Dickens to figure it out.

 

IV. Prince Turveydrop is a bomb name

Just say it to yourself, “Prince Turveydrop”, “Prince Turveydrop”, “Prince Turveydrop”. It is utterly mellifluous. I am sorry my cat already has a name. If she didn’t, or if she’d had the current one for fewer than sixteen years, she would now be named Prince Turveydrop. think I will name my child Prince Turveydrop. Prince Turveydrop Kanakia.