Friday, February 17, 2012

Recycled Dickens - never perfect, never finished

The commercialized dust heaps of Our Mutual Friend (1865) make the novel a classic of the Literature of Recycling, if there is such a thing.  Dickens was himself a master recycler.  A good part of the fun of reading so much Dickens is watching the author return to characters, images, and problems – problems of how to write fiction, I mean.

See how the grave robber of A Tale of Two Cities (1859), the one whose alibi each night is that he is “fishing,” returns in Our Mutual Friend as Jesse Hexam, who fishes corpses out of the Thames.  Both men make their living by recycling the dead, as does Mr. Venus in his bone shop.

A new strain appears in Our Mutual Friend, in the subplot of the dual obsessions of Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone for Lizzie Hexam.  Wrayburn’s nihilism is paralyzing; the unassuming Headstone turns out to be something of a sociopath (“as I was saying – undergoing grinding torments,” from III.10, where one might wonder if both men are maniacs).  This is Dostoevskian Dickens; The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) takes up the theme again and builds the novel around it, reflecting Dickens’s deepening ideas about the nature of evil.  But different shades  of the characters, of Wrayburn at least, had been appearing in Dickens novels for a decade, in the Sydney Carton of Two Cities and Arthur Clennam of Little Dorrit (1857), and now I wonder about Pip, and have something new to look for when I reread Great Expectations (1861).

Dickens was always working on the problems of past novels, and had little interest in perfecting the novel at hand.  One might blame serialization, where the published chapters constrain the unwritten ones – too late to scrap a character or plot and start over – but the issue is one of artistic temperament.  Dickens was a master of serialization because of the way he wrote, not the other way round.  He was an exploratory writer, one who had to write to know what he was going to write, wholly unlike Gustave Flaubert or other conceptual perfectionists.  Flaubert would stop everything else to fix a word in the wrong place; Dickens, recognizing the artistic error, would try to do better next time.

The cleanest example of Dickens recycling is A Christmas Carol (1843), his first Christmas book.  It was written and published in the middle of the ongoing Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44).  Ebenezer Scrooge is a reworking of Jonas Chuzzlewit, one of Martin Chuzzlewit’s villains.  They are similar in appearance, behavior, and attitude, but one is redeemed by the Spirit of Christmas while the other inevitably destroys himself.  I do not know of another example quite like this, where an author retells a story that he is currently publishing.  Today one would have to look at genres where serialization has survived, to television and comic books.

Roberto Bolaño had the Dickens “write first” temperament.  He came close to the Christmas Carol experiment twice.  After Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996), Bolaño published Distant Star (1996), a reworking and expansion of the last episode of the earlier book.  The next book after The Savage Detectives (1998) was Amulet (1999), a Savage Detectives episode blown up into its own novel.

I wish I had a conclusion, a grand summing up, although that is not in the Dickensian spirit.  There is no summing up, there is no conclusion, until the inevitable one, death ending the exploration halfway through the new novel which has already suggested the next one that we will never know about.


  1. I've read a few Dickens novels, just finished Oliver Twist, but not enough to have the broad overview that you demonstrate. Thank you for your essay; it opens up my perspectives for my next Dickens. Actually, I think I would like to reread Hard Times first. Also, you are encouraging me finally to get to Bolano. All the best!

  2. Hard Times is the hardest novel to fit into the book-by-book story. It is inspired mostly by current political issues and by Elizabeth Gaskell, not as much by unresolved issues from David Copperfield or Bleak House.

    But: Once it is out there, Dickens begins reworking it like he usually does, revisiting this bit in Little Dorrit and that idea in Tale of Two Cities.

    All the best to you, too!

  3. I like your premise, and this approach to writing is consistent w what I know of Dickens' personality. He not only retold his fictions, but he reinvented himself repeatedly, never quite happy w the bare facts of his life, choices, or even talents.

    Interesting about Scrooge being a reincarnation of Jonas Chuzzlewit.

  4. I forgot to mention the obvious thematic idea. Martin Chuzzlewit is about the dangers and corruptions of selfishness. The title character learns to overcome his selfishness; his - cousin, is he? - does not. Scrooge is that bad cousin allowed to make good, to become selfless.

    Dickens was working the character in one direction but clearly began to wonder what would happen if he went a different direction; it was too late to do it in the novel.

    I wonder what the contemporary Dickens fan saw. Twelve of the twenty parts of the novel were out by December 1843.

  5. I've been thinking about these words of yours:

    "Flaubert would stop everything else to fix a word in the wrong place; Dickens, recognizing the artistic error, would try to do better next time."

    A fine contrast.

    Hoping you might say something more about their temperamental differences.

    Suppose, for instance, we generalize their stance toward artistic mistakes, it seems that Dicken's attitude is healthier / happier, and not only with respect to art, but with respect to life in general.

    I don't know enough about their biography to know if such a jump is fair or not.


  6. Health and happiness: depends on the artist.

    Artistically, I will reuse the Stewart Brand quotation in the link up above: "Both are honorable and productive."

    Personally, I do not know that there is any correlation one way or the other. "Tortured artist" types can fall into either category. They just torture themselves about different things.

  7. I had professor who argued Dickens revisited certain characters to better present them, I think he may have said to apologize for them. I can remember two, Fagin the evil Jew in Oliver Twist and a much more sympathetic jewish character in Our Mutual Friend. And the evil dwarf in Old Curiosity Shop (I hope I have that one right) who is apologized for in I think Little Dorrit.

    I'm having a hard time remembering which characters are in which novels. It's been too long since I re-read Dickens. But I do like they way he 'recycles' material.

  8. The idea of Riah as an apology for Fagin, at least, is direct from Dickens. Too bad Riah is not more interesting!

    The character-to-novel mapping is a serious problem. And then add in the Christmas book and Christmas stories! I am doing all right now, but I am sure the map will begin to fade away soon.

  9. Interesting point about Dickens being an exploratory writer, "one who had to write to know what he was going to write". I agree with you fully. While he did, I think, plan out very intricately the bones of the structure (it is hard to imagine a more intricately plotted novel than "Bleak House"), the flesh he put on those bones conveys the impression of brilliant improvisation. With Dostoyevsky, on the other hand - a writer who absorbed much of what he found in Dickens, and refashioned it in his own rather idiosyncratic manner - both the flesh and the bones seem improvised.

    (You do realise that I'll be stealing all these ideas when I finally get round to writing up about "Our Mutual Friend"...)

  10. One character who frequently appears in Dickens' novels, especially the late ones, is a person who has suffered wrong, but who, in nursing the grievance, does even greater wrong to his or her self. Miss Havisham is perhaps the most conspicuous example, but we see this also in Miss Wade and Fanny Dorrit (both in Little Dorrit), Rosa Dartle in David Copperfield, and even perhaps Magwitch. Another character who re-appears is the young woman who has either sacrificed her gentler emotions, or who hides (or tries tohide) them carefully beneath a mask: Louisa in Hard Times, Estella, Bella Wilfer, etc. Bella Wilfer strikes me as a potential Estella who was redeemed in time: she is brought back before she hardens her heart.

  11. Please do steal. Steal and repair. Steal and improve!

    So I think the well-planned structure of Bleak House and some of the other later novels is one of those things Dickens had to teach himself how to do. He had to write the structureless novel, and the half-structured one, and the three-quarters etc. etc. to get to the complete structure. And at the same time, he learned how to leave room within the structure for all of the improvised stuff.

    Dostoevsky is so often a mess. Much of the plotty business in the trial at the end of Karamazov is clearly just being made up as D. goes along.

    Great list of recurring types. I had intuited the first group, but not the second, which would also include Mrs. Dombey as an early prototype. Bella Wilfer as a revision of Estella, Estella with moral development, makes a lot of sense.