Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The sensation of the very airs that blew upon me - Proustian Dickens

I omitted a central first person question from my list yesterday:  Why is the narrator writing anything at all?  Neither Charles Dickens nor David Copperfield answer this one in The Personal History of David Copperfield.  Copperfield insists that the history is private, “intended for no eyes but mine” (Ch. XLII), but surely he, if anyone, is aware of his own history.  Why bother to write it out to the length, in the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition, of 877 pages?

Copperfield never says, so it becomes a matter of interpretation.  One thing he is doing, I think, is testing his memories.  Against what, it is hard to say.  Perhaps Copperfield wants to know if the retrospective written account can match the memory, or capture it.  He sometimes comments on the vagaries of his memory. A story in Chapter XVI, for example, is introduced with this qualifier:

(I have no idea, and never had, on what authority, but I have believed it for so many years that I feel quite certain it is true)

Copperfield has an “imperfect memory for dates” (Ch. XLVI).  He supposes that many of his “well-remembered facts” are products of his imagination (Ch. XI), while others, like his mother’s funeral, he “could not recollect better” “[i]f the funeral had been yesterday” (Ch. IX).

One will find some logical problems in Copperfield’s theory of knowledge, but the psychology is acute, especially his suggestion that parts of his story may very well be fiction, even he is not sure which parts those are.  If it’s fiction, it’s his own fiction.

Copperfield returns to the mechanisms of his memory so often that a sheen of Marcel Proust is sometimes visible.  See the adult David looking out a window in his childhood home:

The feeling with which I used to watch the tramps, as they came into the town on those wet evenings, at dusk, and limped past, with their bundles drooping over their shoulders at the end of sticks, came freshly back to me; fraught, as then, with the smell of the damp earth, and wet leaves and briar, and the sensation of the very airs that blew upon me in my own toilsome journey. (Ch. LX)

The whiff of Proust is in that air, with the smell of earth and leaves.  Standing at the window (a real action) evokes a more or less conscious memory, the visual image of the tramps, which reminds Copperfield of his own journey as a tramp (ending, more or less, at this window), accompanied, involuntarily, by some associated (non-visual) memories.*

Wonderfully complex, and that's before, twenty four pages later, after a crucial plot development, David returns to the same window, “when the moon was shining:

Long miles of road then opened out before my mind; and, toiling on, I saw a ragged way-worn boy forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the heart now beating against mine, his own. (Ch. LXII)

One can imagine the camera floating down to the road, where we see that the boy is the actor who played Copperfield as a child.  This is about as un-Proustian an evocation of the past as I can imagine, but the way Copperfield artfully joins his current happiness with the ragged boy in his past is a fine example of what Charles Dickens could do.

* One passage could almost have been written by Proust:

There was that jumble in my thoughts and recollections, that I had lost the clear arrangement of time and distance. Thus, if I had gone out into the town, I should not have been surprised, I think, to encounter someone who I knew must be then in London. So to speak, there was in these respects a curious inattention in my mind. (Ch. LV)

Substitute Paris or Combray for London.  That conditional construction, that vague someone from London.  Proust’s narrator anatomizes himself in the same way.


  1. Oh very interesting. David Copperfield is one of my favorite books by Dickens, and I'm currently working through In Search of Lost Time, so this post is very apt. I had never stopped to consider why Copperfield was writing... Thanks for sharing your thoughts. :)

  2. All these narrator-as-author posts are leading very nicely to Madame Bovary - I wrote my first post on it about the odd first-person narrator who vanishes completely after page 2, and my second Flaubert post about possible influence on Proust (and ways Proust may have played with Flaubert's worldview).

    The "long miles of road" passage reminds me how dense and chewy Dickens's prose can be.

  3. Maybe since I write about a few generations back, I liked that phrase of yours "the sheen of Proust."

  4. It's funny, I never, ever think of Dickens writing like this. Of course, I haven't read David Copperfield and so much of what I have read is third-person (omniscient? it's been a while). But you just think of him as so, I don't know, "standard." As you said yesterday, those baleful Modernists, making me think the 19th century was simple. Of course it wasn't!

  5. Your post has inspired me to go write in my multi-volume journal--carefully designed for no eyes but my own (currently awaiting publication)--and stuff my face with madeleines.

  6. What swell comments.

    I continued this theme today, with extra bonus Proust, right out of the Albertine section of books 5 and 6. Where are you at, tuulenhaiven? I just finished a second trip through The Fugitive. Time Regained - which is awesome - next year, maybe.

    Emily's post, a little too enjoyable, is here. Are you sure Proust did not influence Flaubert?

    So there are just the three big first-person Dickens novels, right? This one, Great Expectations, and half of Bleak House? Am I missing something? So eleven and a half novels, more or less, are third person omniscient, the epitome of the technique. But when Dickens wants to deal with different problems, he does not just pick a different tool, but really thinks about how to use it.

    Lifetime Reader - those madeleines don't do it for me. I didn't have them for tea with my aunt at an impressionable age, so they're just cookies. I need date-pinwheel cookies and milk to get something like the same effect. Looking forward to that memoir.