Tuesday, February 14, 2012

That's the general panoramic view.

I suppose in the end it makes sense to have some idea of a book as a whole, good or bad, worth reading or not, morally edifying or blighting, but in fact I do not read books as wholes, but rather passages, and sentences, and sometimes even individual words.  As I have improved as a reader I have retreated further from the whole;  as I continue to improve, I will move past the passage, and then the sentence, and perhaps even the word, reading nothing but a series of letters, each deeply meaningful, until I am adept enough to read nothing but the nirvana of the blank space between and among the letters.  Every day, then, after an hour or so of clear thought, careful writing, and judicious editing, I will produce the perfect blog post about what I read, one that is completely blank.

I have not yet achieved that level of sophistication.  What I am trying to say is that I have read 14 ½ Charles Dickens novels because of, as an example, this:

From these, in a narrow and a dirty street devoted to such callings, Mr Wegg selects one dark shop-window with a tallow candle dimly burning in it, surrounded by a muddle of objects vaguely resembling pieces of leather and dry stick, but among which nothing is resolvable into anything distinct, save the candle itself in its old tin candlestick, and two preserved frogs fighting a small-sword duel.  (I.7)

Allow me to savor the image: “two preserved frogs fighting a small-sword duel.”  Readers familiar with Our Mutual Friend will know that I have just accompanied the one-legged Simon Wegg into the anatomy shop of Mr. Venus.  The latter is presumably the creator of the frog tableau; he is a taxidermist and assembler of skeletons by trade:  “’You may go and buy a skeleton at the West End if you like, and pay the West End price, but it’ll be my putting together.’”  Again, I will pause – “and pay the West End price.”  I have been led to believe that there are people in the world who criticize Dickens for wordiness, who wonder why he does not just get on with it.  But he is!  This, the dueling frogs and proud craftsman, are it, or much of it.

Mr. Venus gives a tour of the shop:

‘My working bench.  My young man's bench.  A Wice.  Tools.  Bones, warious.  Skulls, warious.  Preserved Indian baby.  African ditto.  Bottled preparations, warious.  Everything within reach of your hand, in good preservation.  The mouldy ones a-top.  What's in those hampers over them again, I don't quite remember.  Say, human warious.  Cats.  Articulated English baby.  Dogs.  Ducks.  Glass eyes, warious.  Mummied bird.  Dried cuticle, warious.  Oh, dear me!  That's the general panoramic view.’

I have to suppress the kerfuffle over teeth (“There was two in the coffee-pot at breakfast time.  Molars.”)  in order to marvel at the delights of this passage alone, “Say, human warious,” for example, or “Ducks.”  The penultimate exclamation is the result of something, the bird mummy or cuticles, reminding Mr. Venus of his romantic troubles, which will work out fine; do not lose any sleep over the love life of Mr. Venus the skeleton articulator.

The frogs, by the way – this is a tip for aspiring fiction writers – could be found on Dickens’s own writing desk, not as taxidermy but in the form of a French bronze sculpture (and they were toads, not frogs).  So the tip is to surround yourself with useless knickknacks which you will someday insert into your story as a telling detail.

All of this is just one little slice of one little chapter of Our Mutual Friend.  Dickens is so generous.


  1. Love the frog detail! And I must say your first paragraph made me chuckle. I do so look forward to your reading and writing achievement that brings you to the perfect blog post :)

  2. That perfect blog post will be a time saver for my readers, won't it?

  3. I have yet to catch the Dickens bug, but that might have something to do with the fact that I am about 13.5 Dickens works behind you. On a positive note, I might double my "Dickens completed" stats if I finally read Great Expectations this year. In the meantime, like Stefanie, I look forward to watching you in your pursuit of the perfect blog post grail.

  4. So, Richard, the thing about Dickens, the thing specifically for you is - no, you know, this is what I will write about for tomorrow.

    For someone like you, with entirely justified suspicions of the civilizational achievement that is the Victorian novel, Dickens is exactly the writer for you. Dickens novels are full of completely crazy stuff.

    That would be fun, to make a list of Victorian novels for readers of Roberto Arlt.

  5. Ha! I thought I was showing restraint by not tacking on a comment along the lines of "and the Victorian novel in general," but you picked up on my flippant aesthetic brain-waves anyway. Will now tune in extra-eagerly for tomorrow's post and will happily daydream for a good long time about a future post titled "Victorian Novels for Readers of Roberto Arlt." That might even be catchier than "The Argentinean Literature of Doom" for crying out loud! Ah, what happy thoughts are floating in the ether tonight...

  6. I mean, just look at this chapter in the bone-shop. "The mouldy ones a-top," "Skulls, warious." We have here a candidate for the eighth madman.

  7. I almost left a blank comment, hoping insanely you'd get its meaning. Instead, I'll offer a lame comment followed by one meaningful word. You can read into the wide open spaces of that one word and decipher my thought perfectly. But first the lame comment. I insist you read words, sentences and passages of whole novels. Yes, I insist. You don't read one word from this or that novel, then one sentence from this or that novel and so on. You're swimming in the wholeness of this or that novel. Yes? Yes. I insist. But what's the value of a lame comment when a single word that may or may not even be a word suffices.


    Or roomy.

    Or even rheumy.

    Wait, no, Rumi. Yes that's the word.

    The "u" is very inviting.


  8. The thoughtful blank comment is the perfect response to the blank post. Someday, someday.

    Insist away, but "swimming in the wholeness" is a metaphor I do not understand. Reading the words that are actually in front of me turns out to be difficult enough.

    Also, reading one passage from this novel and then one passage from that often is exactly how I read.

    I am parroting VN here:

    "In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected." (Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Lectures on Literature)


  9. I'm currently teaching 19thc. French lit. and we've just been through Un coeur simple (with the parrot) and Therese Raquin (with the dim and dingy shops full of musty and unpleasant knickknackery.) Squawk, indeed. It's all joined up in my head now.

    OMF is my favorite of Dickens's novels (of those I've read) after Bleak House. This passage is one good reason why.

  10. Nabokov's words are addressed to his literature class. A certain breed of undergraduate wants to leap to the generalization, and may have even been trained to do so. He wants to know the "sense of the book" whatever that is and seems to skip over much of what is actually in the book.

    Other teachers try to slow that kid down. Flaubert is perfect for the exercise. Un coeur simple is especially perfect.

    Jenny, I am with you - these big late Dickens novels are so impressive. It amazes me that they were once in relative disrepute as being too dark.

  11. Even Proust's little patch of yellow is part of a larger gestalt, no matter how lovingly he lingers over it. It seems to me that the same thing holds true for words, sentences and passages. A delicious Dickens passage lifted from Copperfield and shoehorned into Moby Dick is no longer the same little patch of yellow.


  12. That's fair enough. The swimming metaphor is growing on me, too.

    Careful, though - you're going to encourage people's bad moonshine habits.

  13. Well, right. And each time through, the sense of the book (whatever that is) is a little different; re-reading is so different from reading. This is the third time I've read Therese Raquin and I'm finding it quite funny, this go-round. All in the details, as you say.

    By the way, did you catch that Therese spoils herself with reading? Perfectly good brutish instincts, all gone by the wayside. Ho, ho.

  14. I am afraid I remember TR the other way, that the joke is that unlike Emma Bovary, Thérèse is immune to books. but I likely misremember.

    I definitely take that novel as a comedy. Or at least I cannot take it seriously. Not the same thing, I guess.