Wednesday, June 18, 2008

1. On vacation in Senegal, 2. Read Adam Bede

I'm either on my way to, in, or returning from Senegal, depending on when you are reading this. I will return July 2.

One book coming with me is Adam Bede. Prof. Novel Reading is hosting a George Eliot summer book club at The Valve. Here's the leisurely reading schedule, and here is the first discussion. I don't understand about 50% of what is written over there, but Prof. Maitzen should be a trustworthy guide.

My travel makes my participation unlikely, but I am happy to read along and catch up. An advantage of being an Amateur Reader is that one can read this 600 pager over the summer just as well as that one. Take the opportunity, and read Adam Bede.

One comment, having only read a few chapters. Since I had recently been thinking about the influence of Walter Scott, I was amused to see that Adam Bede, Eliot's first novel, begins in 1799, exactly 60 years before its year of publication. The long title of Scott's first novel is Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since. So whatever Eliot's many reasons might be for choosing that date, there's also a little nod to Scott.

Then, in Chapter 3, there's a long paragraph of landscape description that has a suspicious resemblance not only to the description of a landscape painting, but specifically to the sorts of description I have been reading in Modern Painters:

"And directly below them the eye rested on a more advanced line of hanging woods, divided by bright patches of pasture or furrowed crops, and not yet deepened into the uniform leafy curtains of high summer, but still showing the warm tints of the young oak and the tender green of the ash and lime." And so on. This is Eliot, not Ruskin.

Eliot uses more metaphorical language than Ruskin, but compare to his chapters on "On Truth of Vegetation" or "On Truth of Earth." Eliot's probably not the only great writer of her generation who learned about nature description from John Ruskin.

Always interesting to root through a writer's toolbox.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

John Ruskin the Appreciationist - who would wish the lark not to sing?

"We shall probably find something in the working of all minds which has an end and a power peculiar to itself, and which is deserving of free and full admiration, without any reference whatsoever to what has, in other fields, been accomplished by other modes of thought, and directions of aim. We shall, indeed, find a wider range and grasp in one man than another; but yet it will be our own fault if we do not discover something in the most limited range of mind which is different from, and in its way better than, anything presented to us by the more grasping intellect. We all know that the nightingale sings more nobly than the lark; but who, therefore, would wish the lark not to sing, or would deny that it had a character of its own, which bore a part among the melodies of creation no less essential than that of the more richly gifted bird?"

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol. I, II.VI.III, pp. 438-9 of the 1851 edition.

Do we all actually agree that the nightingale sings more nobly than the lark? Never mind, not the point.

Ruskin gives us here a little Appreciationist manifesto. He is not the most obvious example of the type, since he is also a vicious slasher - "The mannerism of Canaletto is the most degraded that I know in the whole range of Art" - but that's part of the idea.

The good Appreciationist critic is not uncritical, but rather searching. What's good here, he asks, or true, or beautiful, or new. It won't be everything in a picture, or a book. Note the underlying humanism - there's something to learn from the encounter with almost anyone, or with almost any work of art, and if I don't find it, it's my own fault. This lets the artist off a little easy, doesn't it? But Ruskin is addressing the viewer here, not the artist.

There's still the question of how we spend our limited time. A diet of the World's Greatest Masterpieces would seem to give the highest return on our intellectual investment. Ruskin is suspicious of this idea, though. He is always looking carefully, at mediocrities as much as masterpieces (and at nature as well as art), and will praise a painting for a single well-painted rock or tree or wave.

I like to think that I read the same way. One great sentence, one new image, one real insight - maybe not much to show for the hours spent with a novel, but not nothing.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Nabokov's Nikolai Gogol - my favorite biography - "I said there were students and students."

- "Well." - said my publisher, - "I like it - but I do think the student ought to be told what it is all about."

I said...

- "No," - he said, - "I don't mean that. I mean the student ought to be told more about Gogol's books. I mean the plots. He would want to know what those books are about."

I said...

"No, you have not," - he said. - "I have gone through it carefully and so has my wife, and we have not found the plots. There should also be some kind of bibliography or chronology at the end. The student ought to be able to find his way, otherwise he would be puzzled and would not bother to read any further."

I said that an intelligent person could always look up dates and things in a good encyclopedia or in any manual of Russian literature. He said that a student would not be necessarily an intelligent person and anyway would resent the trouble of having to look up things. I said there were students and students. He said that from a publisher's point of view there was only one sort.

- Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, pp. 151-2.

The above is how Nabokov more or less ends his dazzling short biography of Nikolai Gogol, dashes and ellipses included. I'll let the (fictional, presumably) excerpt speak for itself. I can recommend this book to anyone interested in, let's say, reading. Not just reading Gogol - reading books.

Once you've read it, you will perhaps see the struggles - anxiety, even - I have had this week, trying to write something about Gogol that is not just a series of quotations from Nabokov.

When I said short, I mean short: 175 pages, including the chronology and index (which will not, in this case, help you find the Crown Jewels). More biographies should be this long. I don't want to exaggerate - I have read the 1,400 pages of the first two volumes of Nicholas Boyle's biography of Goethe, and will dive into volume 3 as soon as it's published - but most of those big brick-like literary biographies are not for me.

So many of the short (less than 200 pages) biographies seem to be in series now - Penguin Lives, Ackroyd's Brief Lives, Overlook Illustrated Lives. Edmund White's little Proust bio is a pleasure, as is Joseph Epstein on Tocqueville. Madison Smartt Bell on Lavoisier. Nigel Nicholson on Virginia Woolf.

None of these hit quite the same perfect combination as Nabokov of fine prose, organization, and focus on the writer's work. But all are worth the two hours or so they'll take you.

Does anyone have any favorite short biographies they would like to recommend - not just of writers, but of anyone? Who do you think gets it right?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Dead Souls - let us harness a scoundrel

Lest I make Dead Souls sound more humanistic than it really is, I'll turn to the flies. They're everywhere in Dead Souls, as part of the scenery, and in comparisons, beginning with serfs dying like flies. The first extended simile in the novel goes like this (we're at a ball):

"Everywhere one looked black frock coats flitted and darted by, singly and in clusters, as flies dart over a white, gleaming loaf of refined sugar in the summer season on a sultry July day, as an aged housekeeper standing at an open window cleaves and divides the loaf into glittering irregular lumps..." (Ch. 1, p. 8) The lumps are then distributed to children. Doesn't that sound nice. But still, the people at the party are like flies.

This is aside from all of the other places where people are compared to animals, or animals are compared to people. There's generosity here, though. Everyone is ridiculous. We're all in it together. Not a hint of nihilism, but just the way people are. That's the great source of comedy in the novel - go ahead, laugh at everyone. They'll laugh at you, too.

I was complaining a while ago about Scott and Dickens and their dullish virtuous heroes. Gogol (or "Gogol") is entirely on my side:

"There is a turn, and a place, and a time for everything! But, just the same, we have not taken a man of virtue for our hero, after all. And one may even explain why he hasn't been taken. Because it's high time to give a rest to the poor man of virtue; because the phrase 'man of virtue' is formed all too glibly and idly by all lips; because the man of virtue has been turned into a hack and there isn't a writer who doesn't ride him hard, urging him on with a whip or whatever else comes to his hand; because they have overworked the man of virtue to such an extent that now there isn't even a shadow of virtue about him, and there is nothing but skin and bones left of him instead of flesh and blood; because it is only through hypocrisy that they trot out the man of virtue; because the man of virtue isn't held in much respect. No, it's high time, at last, to put an actual scoundrel in harness! And so let us harness a scoundrel." (Ch. 11 , p. 224).

Ho ho! Dickens has to figure out how to make the "man of virtue" real in his world, which has its resemblance to Gogol's. Gogol knows he doesn't belong, and instead gives us Nozdrev, who wants to bet on everything, for example, that he once drank seventeen bottles of champagne; or cultivated Manilov, who names his children Themistoclius and Alcides; or the lieutenant who loves his boots so much that he stays up late "lifting now this foot and now the other and inspecting the deftly and wondrously turned heel of each boot." (Ch. 7, p. 149)

Greatest Novel of the First Half of the Nineteenth Century.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The ethics of Dead Souls - how many of you are crowded in here?

A corrupt minor official and con man, Chichikov, wants to buy the legal rights to serfs who are deceased but still on the tax roles (one set of “dead souls” in Dead Souls). He enters a provincial town and visits local landowners, buying their recently deceased serfs. People grow suspicious, and Chichikov flees. That’s the story of Dead Souls.

Dead Souls is overpopulated. A short novel (250 pages or so), it is stuffed with incidental characters. The first page, for example, introduces not just Chichikov, but four other people, only one of whom is ever seen again. There’s a fellow, for example, who wears a bronze pin, shaped like a pistol. Two others have this conversation as Chichikov rolls by:

"'Look at that, will you?' said one muzhik to the other. 'What a wheel! What do you think, would that wheel make it to Moscow, if need be, or wouldn't it?'

'It would,' answered the other.

'But it wouldn't make it to Kazan, I'm thinking - or would it?'

'Not to Kazan, it wouldn't,' the other answered.

And with that the discussion ended."

The novel is so full of people that they spill over into the metaphors Gogol uses to describe anything and everything – see the examples from the last two days. The parody of the epic simile, this abundance of humanity, is directly tied to the ethics of the novel.

Dead Souls is a novel about slavery (other things, too, sure). A later generation of Russian radicals saw it as a realistic attack on the social conditions of serfs, suggesting that they did not actually read the novel. Nevertheless. The plot is about the buying and selling of people, even if the particular people are dead. Chichikov’s attempts to buy dead serfs deeply confuse most of the other characters. The Public Prosecutor and other officials spend most of Chapters 9 and 10 trying to figure out what Chichikov is up to. Some conclude that he is a famous bandit, others that he is Napoleon in disguise, while the women all understand that the “dead souls” business is just a trick to distract the men while Chichikov elopes with the Governor’s daughter.

This confusion is the ethical heart of the book. If Chichikov were buying live serfs – actual people, slaves – to be resettled in a wilderness a thousand miles away, there would be no confusion. Everything would be perfectly legal, and everyone would approve, and even celebrate. They actually do celebrate, in the great scene where the bear-like Sobekevich eats an entire sturgeon (except for the “inedible tail”).

The “reality” of the characters who emerge from the metaphors is just as strong as the reality of most of the characters who exist in the world of the book. In exactly the same way, the dead souls have as much reality as anyone else. They’re not just legal fictions, but actual (“actual”) people.* At the beginning of Chapter 7, Chichikov looks over the list of his purchases:

“All these details imparted a certain air of freshness: it seemed as if these muzhiks had been alive only yesterday. As he gazed long at the names, Chichikov’s spirit was touched and, with a sigh, he uttered: ‘Good heavens, how many of you are crowded in here! What my hearties, have you done in your time? How did you get along?’” (p. 131)

Is this passage about dead souls, or about Dead Souls?

* One could also take this in an entirely different direction. The "actual" characters are no more real than the metaphorical ones. What is a novel if not a long, complicated metaphor?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dead Souls and life within a metaphor - he may just have dropped in on Schiller for a chat

At the risk of incoherence, I am going to discuss, with interruptions, a long passage from Dead Souls. It worked for Nabokov. Ha ha! The number of writers whose last words were “It worked for Nabokov” – oh well, let’s try it.

We’re exactly halfway through the novel, at the end of Chapter 6. Our hero Chichikov is returning to town from his excursion to the countryside. This is all one paragraph.

“It was already dusk when they drove up to town. Light and shadow had become thoroughly intermingled and, it seemed, all objects had also become intermingled among themselves. The striped tollgate had taken on some indeterminate hue; the mustachios of the soldier on duty seemed to be up on his forehead and considerably above his eyes, and as for his nose, why, he seemed to have none at all.”

[This is what I was getting at yesterday. Gogol is really looking at the world, and here describes the sort of light effect we might see in a Turner painting. As for the missing nose, see Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose”, and also the drawing of him to the right, in About Me. He was obsessed with noses.]

“The thunderous rattling of the carriage and its bouncing made the occupant notice that it had reached a cobbled way. The street lamps had not been lit yet; only here and there were lights beginning to appear in the windows of the houses, while in the lanes and blind alleys scenes and conversations were taking place inseparable from this time of day in all towns where there are many soldiers, cabbies, workmen, and beings of a peculiar species who look like ladies, wearing red shawls and shoes without stockings and who dart like bats over the street crossings at nightfall.”

[Gogol commonly begins his descriptions with this disclaimer – this is what you see in “all towns” of a certain type. But he immediately starts picking out details – the red shawls, the darting, like bats.]

“Chichikov did not notice them, nor did he notice even the exceedingly slim petty officials with little canes who, probably after taking a stroll beyond the town, were now returning to their homes. At rare intervals there would come floating to Chichikov’s ears such exclamations, apparently feminine, as ‘You lie, you drunkard, I never let him take no such liberties as that with me!’ or: ‘Don’t you be fighting, you ignoramus, but come along to the station house and I’ll show you what’s what!’ In brief, such words as”

[Ah ha, we’re beginning a simile, which for some reason is describing the exclamations Chichikov barely hears.]

“such words as will suddenly scald, like [simile # 2] so much boiling water, some youth of twenty [who is this?] as, lost in reveries, he is on his way home from the theater, his head filled with visions of a Spanish street, night, a wondrous feminine image with a guitar and ringlets. What doesn’t he have in that head of his and what dreams do not come to him?”

[Already, it is easy to forget that the Spanish street and the “image” with the guitar are just theater-inspired fantasies in the mind of a character who exists entirely within the metaphor, which was supposed to tell us what some overheard phrases were like.]

“He is soaring in the clouds, and he may just have dropped in on Schiller [!] for a chat [so the metaphorical man has been to the metaphorical theater to see a metaphorical Don Carlos], when suddenly, like thunder, the fatal words [back to the words] peal out over his head, and he perceives that he has come back to earth once more, but actually to Haymarket Square, and right by a tavern, at that; and once more life has begun strutting its stuff before him in its workaday fashion.”

At this point Chichikov himself, thundering along, also dreaming, although probably not about Schiller, arrives at his own inn, so we leave the simile.

This is the characteristic of Dead Souls, the metaphors that not only describe the “real” world of the novel, but intrude on it, or exist alongside it. The “fictional” young man in a post-theater reverie, or the twenty-year-old fellow with a guitar in yesterday’s pumpkin-head metaphor, has just as much existence as many of the “actual” characters.

Gogol spins out these metaphor-inhabiting characters a dozen times or more, although not always at this length. It’s a virtuoso performance, with only a hint of precedent in his own work, and less in anyone else’s. I don’t think there’s much in the way of successors either. Dead Souls is a unique book.

Does this device mean anything? I’ll take a shot at that tomorrow. This was plenty long.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dead Souls - crayfish, straw-stemmed cheroots, and that kind of pumpkin

So what’s in Dead Souls that one could not have found elsewhere in 1842? There’s this simile, for example:

“Without the little wench it would have been difficult to accomplish even this, inasmuch as the roads crept off in every direction, like a catch of crayfish when you dump them out of a sack...” (Ch. 3, p. 55)

Everything is like an animal in Dead Souls. Geese, bats, bears, ants, and flies, flies, flies.* Or almost everything – not this fellow:

“The corner shop – or to put it better, it’s windows – was occupied by a vendor of hot mead, with a samovar of ruddy copper and a face as ruddy as his samovar, so that from afar one might think that there were two samovars standing in the window, if only one of them were not sporting a beard as black as pitch.” (Ch. 1, p. 2)

Or this happy couple:

“And quite often as they sat on the divan, suddenly, for no known reason on earth, he abandoning his pipe and she whatever she may have been working on (if it happened to be in her hands at the time, of course), they would impress so languishing and prolonged a kiss upon each other’s lips that one could, while it lasted, smoke a straw-stemmed cheroot to the end.” (Ch. 2, p. 21)**

One could, eh? One more:

“After a brief after-dinner snooze he ordered water and a washbasin to be brought and for an exceedingly long time scrubbed both his cheeks with soap, making them bulge out with his tongue...” (Ch. 1, p. 8)

That’s it, right there, the literal tongue in cheek. Last week I went on a bit about the attention to detail of Walter Scott, and his possible effect on Dickens, Balzac, and others, including Gogol. These writers were bringing the physical world into prose fiction in an unprecedented way. But nobody was looking as carefully at the world around him as Gogol. No one else had seen the bulging cheeks, or at least thought they were worth putting on paper.

Now we’re used to this sort of quotidian precision, here in the year 151 AMB (Anno Madame Bovary). But this novel, full of sneezing, snoring, nose-blowing, and digestion, is a first step on the path to Leopold Bloom on the toilet in Ulysses.***

But are we used to this:

“As Chichikov drove up to the front entrance he noticed two faces that had peered almost simultaneously through the window – one feminine in a house cap, narrow and elongated like a cucumber, and a masculine one, round, broad, like those Moldavian pumpkins called gorliankas, out of which they make, in Russia, balalaikas, the pride and joy of some frolicsome, twenty-year-old country lad, a fellow who knows how to wink and is a dandy and who not only winks at but whistles after the snowy-breasted and snowy-necked maidens who gather around to listen to his soft-stringed strumming.” (Ch. 5, p. 89)

Oh, I see, that kind of pumpkin, the kind that – wait, what is going on here? Who is that winking fellow? Tomorrow, a crack at this.

* Since the people are animals, it’s no surprise when, in Chapter 4, Gogol tells us what some horses are thinking.

** Nota Bene has identified this admirable passage as his favorite. The fussy parenthetical insert is hilarious.

*** I'm not saying there are no precedents. Rabelais, Swift, maybe Sterne. Right. But how about this, describing Russian provincial ladies: "Never did they say: 'I blew my nose; I sweated; I spat'; instead they said: 'I relieved my nose; I had to use my handkerchief.'" (Ch. 8, p. 155) Gogol knows this is new. Gogol nose - this is new.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Nikolai Gogol on how to read - some word or other inevitably emerged

"He was by temperament taciturn rather than talkative; he even had a noble impulse toward enlightenment - i.e., the reading of books, the contents of which presented no difficulty to him whatsoever; it was all one to him if the book dealt with the adventures of an enamored hero or whether it was simply a dictionary or a prayer book - he read everything with the same attentiveness; if a handbook on chemistry were to be thrust under his nose he wouldn't have spurned it either. It wasn't what he read that pleased him, but more the reading itself or, to put it better, the very process of reading - lo and behold, some word or other inevitably emerged out of the welter of letters, even though, at times, the Devil alone knew what the word might mean."

Dead Souls, tr. Guerney, Chapter 2, p. 14 of the Yale University Press edition.

Speaking of page 14:

"In his study there was always some book lying about, with a bookmark on page 14, which he had been steadily reading for two years by now." (Ch. 2, p. 20)

Why are novelists so suspicious of reading? The theme goes back to the beginning, to Don Quixote. However you're reading their precious book, they never think you're doing it right.

Let's spend this week reading and writing about Dead Souls, Greatest Novel of the First Half of the 19th Century.

Friday, June 6, 2008

A glance back at Scott - his influence, whatever that means

Charles Dickens had begun thinking about a novel centered on the Gordon riots years before he wrote it. Most writers at the time probably thought about writing historical novels. They were popular, and they were relatively prestigious. Novels were still inferior to poems, but historical novels were somehow classier than domestic novels. Because they required research, I guess.

For a while, almost everyone was influenced by Walter Scott in some way. The phenomenon extended throughout America and Europe, although there's an irony that in most countries Scott was read in hasty, sloppy French translations. Alexandre Dumas and James Fennimore Cooper were direct imitators, although they found their own voices over time. The first novel Balzac put his name on, Les Chouans, is pure Scott, and it's no coincidence that Balzac has young Lucien of Lost Illusions bring two manuscripts to Paris: a book of sonnets, and a historical novel, The Archer of Charles IX. And there was a mound of others - Ainsworth, Bulwer-Lytton - names from literary encyclopedias; Gogol, Pushkin - names still very much alive.

Influence can be a slender thing, though. My two favorite historical novels of the early 19th century are Victor Hugo's Notre Dame of Paris (1831) and Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed (1827). Both are big, lively, exciting books, dramatic and humorous. Both contain complete imaginative worlds. Scott, or the imitators of Scott, may have planted the idea of writing a historical novel, but any influence ends there. These writers didn't need Scott's help with anything.*

At some point, the popularity of the genre made Scott's influence too diffuse to be noticed. I doubt War and Peace (1869), or Salammbo (1862), or maybe even The Tale of Two Cities (1859) owe much to Scott.

But there may have been another way that Scott left his mark, more important than his affect on the popularity of a particular genre. To differentiate then from now - a primary goal of historical fiction, one would think - the novelist must detail the differences. Clothes, food, speech, coaches and houses have to be described in some detail. Customs, laws, society, those, too, but also the physical world. Attentive readers of Fielding or Richardson or Austen's earliest novels will understand how new this level of detail is. John Galt, for example, understood that he could write in similar detail about contemporary life in Scotland. I think he picked this up from Scott. Although, come to think of it, his masterpiece The Entail (1823) covers a García Márquez-like hundred years, which sounds a bit historical.

Anyway, maybe there are a few more traces of Scott in Flaubert and Tolstoy than one would guess.

*Manzoni's framing narrator may have an element of parody of Scott. Manzoni later wrote a book length essay on the genre (On the Historical Novel), which I have not read, and should.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Poe on Barnaby Rudge, proto-murder mystery

Edgar Allan Poe wrote two reviews of Barnaby Rudge in 1841. The first review was of the first few chapters, serialized, the final review of the whole book.

The initial review is a curious thing. Poe is excited to find that Dickens has written a murder mystery. Earlier that year, Poe had published "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," often considered, correctly or otherwise, to be the first detective story. So one can understand Poe's interest.

Poe uses his review to use the clues at hand to solve the mystery. Today, his magazine would receive a swarm of angry "Spoiler!" emails. I don't know if Poe's readers thought this was fair game or not. Anyway, Poe correctly identifies the murderer. He proceeds to explain exactly how the story will unfold and how the murderer will be revealed.

Here, Poe is wrong in every detail, sometimes hilariously wrong (the hilarious part is that his predictions are so confident). But he's correct in one sense - the story he describes would be a much better murder mystery. One thing Poe does in his second review, of the complete novel, is to discuss, in detail, and correctly, how the murder plot is botched. The drama of the solution of a 25 year-old murder loses a lot of its impact when inserted into the middle of the Gordon Riots, which engulfed London in flames for a week, and resulted in the deaths of at least 800 people, many by hanging. One more execution in all that bloodshed - well, it's not nothing, but it does not exactly stand out.

In fairness, although Poe regrets the loss of the murder mystery amidst the rioting, he does say that "The riots form a vivid series of pictures never surpassed." He means not just unsurpassed by Dickens, but by anyone.

Poe was a pioneering book reviewer, but I'm not convinced that he is a first-rank critic. Much of the interest in reading Poe, as is the case with the Barnaby Rudge reviews, is to learn about Poe. He reminds me of Virginia Woolf in this way. Her Common Reader essays often reveal as much or more about her ideas about the novel than about the book she is reviewing. I hope this doesn't seem negative - the ideas about ficiton of Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allan Poe are worth reading for their own sake.

Poe's reviews are both in the Library of America Essays and Reviews.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Grip the raven and spontaneous combustion - More! cried Grip. More!

Barnaby Rudge, star of Barnaby Rudge, has a pet raven. Grip is quite a talker ("I'm a devil," "Never say die," dog noises, popping corks), and is probably smarter than his owner:

"The raven flapped his wings, and, croaking his satisfaction, hopped to the feet of his master, and there held his bill open, ready for snapping up such lumps of meat as he should throw him. Of these he received about a score in rapid succession, without the smallest discomposure.

'That's all,' said Barnaby.

'More!' cried Grip. 'More!'" (Ch. 17)

What I most like about Grip the talking raven is that Dickens feels the need to begin the Preface to Barnaby Rudge by insisting that the exploits of the bird are entirely plausible, being just like those of two ravens that he himself personally owned:

"The first act of this Sage [Dickens' second raven], was, to administer to the effects of his predecessor, by disinterring all the cheese and halfpence he had buried in the garden--a work of immense labour and research, to which he devoted all the energies of his mind. When he had achieved this task, he applied himself to the acquisition of stable language, in which he soon became such an adept, that he would perch outside my window and drive imaginary horses with great skill, all day. Perhaps even I never saw him at his best, for his former master sent his duty with him, 'and if I wished the bird to come out very strong, would I be so good as to show him a drunken man'--which I never did, having (unfortunately) none but sober people at hand."

This bird dies after three years, possibly because he "tore up and swallowed, in splinters, the greater part of a wooden staircase of six steps and a landing," or perhaps because "he was too bright a genius to live long."

The raven Preface is the early version of the Preface to Bleak House, in which Dickens insists, loudly and at length, that the great spontaneous combustion scene, one of the best things he ever wrote, is entirely accurate and based on the most solid empirical facts. As with the preternaturally gifted Grip, Dickens identifies the least plausible aspect of the novel and audaciously defends it in the Preface, in other words before the reader* has any idea what he's talking about.

Maybe my favorite Dickensian joke.

* Today's reader. Some contemporary readers. The Prefaces appeared with the complete published volumes, not as part of the serialization.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Barnaby Rudge at the riots - art improves natur' - that's my motto

About a third of Barnaby Rudge takes place in the midst of the London "Gordon riots" of 1780, a week of anti-Catholic frenzy and destruction. It's the best part of the novel - vivid, exciting, and so on. Let's just ignore that Dickens takes 400 pages or more to get there. We spend most of our time with three of the rioters - the almost tragic Hugh, Dennis the hangman, and our hero, the mentally challenged Barnaby Rudge, who is basically tricked into rioting.

That hangman is a strange figure. His neckwear is always compared to a rope. His profession is unknown to the other rioters, so much comedy is made from his ironic philosophizing:

"He heaved a deep sigh as he indulged in these reflections, and putting his fingers with an absent air on Hugh's throat, and particularly under his left ear, as if he were studying the anatomical development of that part of his frame, shook his head in a despondent manner and actually shed tears.

'You're a kind of artist, I suppose--eh!' said Mr Tappertit.

'Yes,' rejoined Dennis; 'yes--I may call myself a artist--a fancy workman--art improves natur'--that's my motto.'" (Ch. 39)

Besides being a distinct, lifelike individual, Dennis also then has an obvious symbolic function: death and the law, in the midst of the rioters. This is something new in Dickens, this layering of meaning, a modernist device that he had only introduced earlier that year in The Old Curiosity Shop, for example in the "industrial hell" section. To me, it looks like a big step forward, even if Dickens is still learning what to do with his new tools. Here the rioters have just sacked a Catholic church:

"Covered with soot, and dirt, and dust, and lime; their garments torn to rags; their hair hanging wildly about them; their hands and faces jagged and bleeding with the wounds of rusty nails; Barnaby, Hugh, and Dennis hurried on before them all, like hideous madmen. After them, the dense throng came fighting on: some singing; some shouting in triumph; some quarrelling among themselves; some menacing the spectators as they passed; some with great wooden fragments, on which they spent their rage as if they had been alive, rending them limb from limb, and hurling the scattered morsels high into the air; some in a drunken state, unconscious of the hurts they had received from falling bricks, and stones, and beams; one borne upon a shutter, in the very midst, covered with a dingy cloth, a senseless, ghastly heap." (Ch. 50)

The horrible parody of the Crucifixion is obvious here, I hope - "the wounds of rusty nails", the wooden fragments suggesting the crucifix, the body on the shutter, Christ taken down from the cross or possibly a hint of the sick man lowered through the roof to meet Jesus.

The whole novel is an intricate machine. Well-structured. A number of plots, including two romances, a primitive murder mystery, and political intrigue are strung together with skill. They all have to be handled in a way that they not only intersects with the historical event, the riots, but are resolved by them somehow. This complicated plot strains in places (the coincidental capture of the muderer in the middle of the riots, for example), but it's an impressive structure. The Old Curiosity Shop, which immediately preceded Barnaby Rudge, is a terrible mess, an improvised story that contains some marvelous imaginative flights. Barnaby Rudge sacrifices some of those creative peaks for a more coherent story.

Both of these novels were serialized in weekly rather than monthly installments, one right after the other. Dickens wrote himself ragged, and I don't believe he ever made that mistake again.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Barnaby Rudge, Walter Scott, and the dull Dickens hero

Barnaby Rudge (1841) is Charles Dickens’ first historical novel. Walter Scott had published Waverley in 1814, not exactly inventing the historical novel, but sparking the craze for the genre. Dickens had apparently been thinking for years about a novel on the subject of the 1780 anti-Catholic “Gordon riots”.

This was not the first time that Dickens had been inspired by Scott, though. Unfortunately. A writer of enormous creativity and unrivalled skill at depicting original characters, Dickens had trouble with his young heroes and heroines. These characters are the greatest flaw in his early novels.

A typology of early Dickens protagonists: There’s the Mr. Pickwick clone, generous and jolly, perfect in The Pickwick Papers, but little more than plot mechanisms in later novels, copies of copies by The Old Curiosity Shop, when there are, for some reason, three of them (the old bachelor, a lawyer, and – another lawyer? – who knows). Barnaby Rudge at least does some interesting things with this type.

Then there’s the commonsense Cockney – Sam Weller in Pickwick. Sam could hardly be improved upon, but Kit in The Old Curiosity Shop is passable. If only Dickens had trusted himself to stick with this kind of hero.

The third type, the disaster, is the dashing young fellow and his dashing young love interest. Rose and the doctor in Oliver Twist are the nadir, refugees from a romance novel dragged in to fill a nonexistent gap. In a novel featuring Fagin and Mr. Bumble and the Artful Dodger, among others, our ten year-old hero Oliver is barely sufficiently interesting. These additional heroes are a waste of space.

Nicholas Nickleby (the character) is an improvement, just barely, Little Nell a regression, and Barnaby Rudge (the novel, not the character) a complete failure. Dickens for some reason decides he needs two of these truehearted pairs. One of the women, Dolly Varden, the coquette, at least has some personality. But the two men and the third woman* are nothing, purely generic. Dickens was obviously perfectly aware how boring they are, since he packs them away halfway through the book and spends the rest of his time with the interesting characters.

By generic, I mean the genre of the historical novel. Dickens just borrows these characters from Walter Scott. He didn’t know what to do, so he went to the most expert, most popular source. Why is this sort of noble and virtuous hero more interesting in Scott’s hands than in Dickens'? They somehow do not exist in Dickens’ world, richer than Scott’s in almost every other way. By Bleak House (1853), at least, and I presume by David Copperfield (1850), Dickens had worked out the problem. Esther Summerson, for example, is as virtuous as any Scott heroine, but also interesting, very much so.**

This is the core of what Barnaby Rudge does badly. I’ll spend at least some of this week on what it does well. As with The Old Curiosity Shop, this is Minor Dickens. As with that novel, minor is relative. There's a lot to like in Minor Dickens.

* Edward Chester, Emma Haredale, Joe Willet. In case anyone cares.

** Is it the switch to first person? We’ll soon see how or if Martin Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son modify my thinking.