How about a week of Bleak House (1852-3)? Now that I have reread Bleak House, and Great Expectations earlier in the year, I have not only read every Charles Dickens novel, but have read them all within the last ten years. I doubt I will ever do that again, although it would be great fun do it over and over, every decade until I expire. There are not many books I have read even three times.
I took more notes than usual, as many as I took earlier this year for Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done?, but I was going to be tested on that one. This time I was mostly wallowing in the Dickens stench and breathing in the Dickens fog. “Fog everywhere” (Ch. 1).
The weather, for many a day and night, has been so wet that the trees seem wet through, and the soft loppings and prunings of the woodman’s axe can make no crash or crackle as they fall. The deer, looking soaked, leave quagmires, where they pass. The shot of a rifle loses its sharpness in the moist air, and its smoke moves in a tardy little cloud toward the green rise, coppice-topped, that makes a background for the falling rain. (Ch. 2)
I fear this is what some readers are criticizing when they call Dickens “wordy,” as if the passage would be improved with fewer words, perhaps without “loppings” or “crackle” or “soft.” The paragraph and page only improves as it continues – “the oaken pulpit breaks out in a cold sweat,” or “[t]he pictures of the Dedlocks past and gone have seemed to vanish into the damp walls in mere lowness of spirits, as the housekeeper has passed along the old rooms, shutting up the shutters.”
The book has the most marvelous things for the reader interested in looking for them, so many that I find myself a bit paralyzed at the moment.
In another corner, a ragged old portmanteau on one of the chairs, serves for cabinet or wardrobe; no larger one is needed, for it collapses like the cheeks of a starved man. (Ch. 10)
That one just popped out as I randomly paged through the novel.
That method will not work everywhere in the novel because of its unique dual narration, with half of the novel written by the usual omniscient Dickens narrator, made unusual only the extraordinary rhetorical and artistic effects he achieves this time around, and the other half written in the first person by one of the characters in the novel, Esther Summerson, in terms of the omniscient narrator’s story a secondary character at best, but, given that she gets half of the actual 880 pages, the novel’s protagonist. Summerson is an implausibly great writer, but not at the level of Charles Dickens. She is comparable to David Copperfield, and he's a professional novelist, while this is Summerson's first book!
A little more than half, actually, 53%. This time I counted pages. The novel alternates from the omniscient to the first person narrator, not by any fixed rule. I thought that perhaps I had imposed a false symmetry, but no. The fluidity with which Dickens varies the length, pace and tone of the alternating narrators is a minor pleasure of its own, now that I know the book.
I have no idea why more writers have not used this device. It solves so many problems; it creates so many opportunities. Not so long after Dickens, fiction writers grew tired of the omniscient narrator, preferring to explore the limited third person brought to prominence by Flaubert, or messing around with all of the variations of the pure first person. The Bleak House narrator is a griffin, no doubt about that, a fantastic beast created to tell a fairy tale.
Boy, if I keep going like this, I’ll be able to write about Bleak House for two weeks, or ten. “I went on prose, prose, prosing, for a length of time,” says Esther (Ch. 23). Tomorrow, I’ll try to focus.