Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What ravages I committed on my favorite authors in the course of my interpretation of them - David Copperfield, author

Charles Dickens switched to a first person narrator in David Copperfield.  Once, influenced by baleful Modernists, I would have found myself surprised that Dickens was interested in, and wanted to answer, the usual first person questions.  No more, though.  Nineteenth century writers were no fools.

What are we supposed to be reading – is it a document, writing (or is it speech, or thinking)?  Did the narrator write it himself (Huckleberry Finn is pretty clearly dictated)?  What is the genre of the book – memoir, travel, even fiction, fictional fiction?  For whom is the writer writing?  Why is the writing so good?

Dickens answers every one of these questions, decisively*, spreading the theme all through David Copperfield, with all sorts of interesting touches.  I’ll just mention a couple of them.

David Copperfield shares David Copperfield with two other authors, neither with a subject other than himself.  One of them, Mr. Dick, is a lunatic with an obsessive compulsive disorder.  The other is a sponging blowhard.  I do not believe we ever sample the prose of the former, but here is a taste of Mr. Micawber:

Without more directly referring to any latent ability that may possibly exist on my part, of wielding the thunderbolt, or directing the devouring and avenging flame in any quarter, I may be permitted to observe, in passing, that my brightest visions are for ever dispelled - that my peace is shattered and my power of enjoyment destroyed - that my heart is no longer in the right place - and that I no more walk erect before my fellow man. The canker is in the flower. The cup is bitter to the brim. The worm is at his work, and will soon dispose of his victim. The sooner the better. But I will not digress. (Ch. XLIX)

In a novel in part designed by Dickens to control his own rhetoric, he includes a character whose writing goes to a painful and hilarious extreme.  Authorship has its dangers.

A new problem for Dickens: now to tell a first person story that still includes all of the complex, entangled plotlines of his previous novels?  David Copperfield has to employ a bit more plot machinery than usual – cast members keep shuttling between London and other settings in order to put them in the right place at the right time.  Bleak House solves the problem more elegantly, and JaneGS pointed me to the example of Wilkie Collins, whose The Moonstone (1868) employs a collage of documents to allow multiple first person narratives.  Dickens, a few letters excepted, is stuck with Copperfield, and I have to say that I’m impressed by how little artificial nonsense (chance meetings and so on) Dickens needed – no more than in some of his omniscient novels.

For example, by my count, Dickens only uses the eavesdropping device five times over the course of the long novel.  One of those is really a “bursting in,” but works similarly.  I understood them as failures of plotting, places where Dickens had not come up with a better way for Copperfield to witness something necessary for the plot.  My understanding was incorrect.  Seen as a group, a pattern is visible.  Every eavesdropping scene is associated with the “fallen woman” theme (one is actually about a “fallen man”).  The eavesdropping, the device itself, connects some scenes that might otherwise seem unrelated.  Really clever, and one more way that David Copperfield oddly resembles In Search of Lost Time, where eavesdropping is linked to the homosexuality theme and is used so often by Proust that it simply becomes part of the texture of the novels.  More Proust tomorrow, maybe.

The title I have chosen, one I should apply to any number of posts, is from Chapter VII, and actually applies to Copperfield’s youthful reading, another lovely theme of David Copperfield.

* My only remaining question is why Copperfield’s memoir is so neatly divided into three-chapter chunks, like a serialized novel, when evidence suggests it should be structured like a three volume novel.

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