On Dickens (Part 1): Art and Life

Considerably before there was dada, surrealism, magic realism, or animation, there was Dickens, who foreshadowed them all. He was born two hundred years ago last month into a world that he would later give his nameDickens' study at Gad's Hill to. His childhood was what can only be described as Dickensian - financially precarious, socially liminal, involving stints in a blacking factory. He grew up, somewhat embittered, to skewer a succession of fat, juicy Victorianisms on the spit of his genius, and roast them to a delicious crispness. He’s praised and censured for how much larger his imaginary world is than life, but it’s this largeness, more than anything else, that makes him great. 

What first grabbed me about Dickens was his sheer energy. His narratives rush at and past you. His prose feels like some winged creature swooping and wheeling, circling upwards then suddenly diving, pecking savagely at the nasty characters, tenderly enfolding the sweet ones in soft feathers. His language is elastic, inventive, rhythmic, even onomatapoeic; jazz is latent in it. There are jokes, or at least barbs, embedded in the very syntax. Perhaps my favourite sentence in all of Dickens (it’s the one Miriam Margulyes ends her show with) is the names of the birds that, in Bleak House, Miss Flite keeps caged: “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.” This sentence runs the reeling gamut of Dickens’ portraiture. Here, and everywhere, he seems to skitter along the edge of the fantastic, the unbelievable. But this, after all, is his most consistent comment: life is unbelievable. 

In his speech at the official wreath-laying in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, the Archbishop used words like ‘exuberance’ and ‘excess’ to describe the essence of Dickens.   What appeals is the exaggeration and caricature, but more because they reach for something truthful than because they go beyond it: “The truth is extreme, the truth is excessive. The truth about human beings is more grotesque and bizarre than we can imagine. And Dickens' generous embrace of human beings does not arise out of a chilly sense of what is due to them, but out of a celebratory feeling that there is always more to be discovered.”  

This is a thought GK Chesterton took up in his marvellous biography of Dickens, published in 1906. He answers the critics who found Dickens’ works unlike life.  “Dickens is ‘like life’ in the truer sense, in the sense that he is akin to the living principle in us and in the universe; he is like life, at least in this detail, that he is alive. His art is like life, because, like life, it cares for nothing outside itself, and goes on its way rejoicing. Both produce monsters with a kind of carelessness... Art indeed copies life in not copying life, for life copies nothing. Dickens's art is like life because, like life, it is irresponsible, because, like life, it is incredible.”


More soon, I promise, but till I have more time, here's where I'm up to:

I picked up two books today ($5 each) from the big discount store that has moved in where Borders was. A gorgeous Vintage edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, and Chesterton's biography of Dickens, which I shall place on the shelf next his biography of Browning. Chesterton is a marvellous biographer simply because he breaks all the rules: fiercely partial, wildly speculative, intrusively pontifical - in short, a delight. I won't read the Chesterton immediately because I'm knee-deep in Middlemarch, which I'm reading for the third time.  This time around my sympathies are given differently, and I have a much better grasp of Eliot's peripatetic narration. The sensations of my 19-year-old self reading it for the first time are there as a kind of watermark, against which I can measure my progress. I'm also thinking about how far Dorothea Brooke might be compared with Isabel Archer, of Henry James' masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady: both young women affronting their destinies, making fatal choices about where to bestow their promise. Indeed, both might be the objects of sonnet 87:
Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate:
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thyself thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gavest it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

I recall that James, though with the highest admiration for her, called Eliot a 'great horse-faced blue-stocking.' Surely one of the great literary insults, of which even Chesterton might have been proud.

Riparian purloining

Reading about looters and other riverine lowlife emerging from the floods made me think of the opening scene of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, which introduces Gaffer Hexam, a man who makes his living from the river’s dead.

A boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in. […] The tide, which had turned an hour before, was running down, and his eyes watched every little race and eddy in its broad sweep, as the boat made slight head-way against it, or drove stern foremost before it, according as he directed his daughter by a movement of his head. She watched his face as earnestly as he watched the river. But, in the intensity of her look there was a touch of dread or horror.

Back in Queensland, it’s hard to stomach the truly Dickensian villainy of these marshy scavengers, but I think John Birmingham summed it up admirably in his blog post: ‘The bad stay bad, but floods make good people great.’ The kind of thief who sees his chance in disaster will see it anywhere, but ordinary decent folk find in disaster the chance to become something better.

In the beginning...

Listen to the first sentence of Cormac McCarthy's Pullitzer prize-winning The Road:

“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”

Wow. This is like beat poetry. I haven't got very far with this one yet, but I can tell it's going to require concentration. This is a good thing. I think too few modern writers pay attention to prosody - the music and rhythm of their writing, the way it sounds in your head and feels in your mouth when you read it.

This also got me thinking about great first lines. Moby Dick's “Call me Ishmael” comes to mind, and of course Dickens' Tale of Two Cities opener. I know I harp on Henry James, but how exquisite is this from Portrait of a Lady:

“Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

I also like the one-word openers. Bleak House begins with “London.” Unbeatably, Beowulf begins with “So.”

And how can you go past Genesis? When you think about it, it's a spine-tingling way to begin a book:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”