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.