Saturday, December 21, 2013

`A Kind of Dark and Gloomy Joy'

“I was born in London, 21 December, 1905, the winter solstice (``tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s’), feast of the sceptical St Thomas, cusp of The Centaur and The Goat; the hour, towards one o'clock of a Thursday afternoon; the place, 44 Ashley Gardens, Westminster, a furnished flat rented for the occasion in one of the several redbrick blocks in that rather depressing area between Victoria Street and the Vauxhall Bridge Road.” 

So writes Anthony Powell in the opening sentence of Infants of the Spring (1976), the first volume of his four-volume memoir, and it reminds me of nothing so much as the opening sentence of the first novel by a most un-Powellian English novelist: 

“The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved…” 

And so on, in an overture inflected with irony that, like Powell’s, seems to announce an event of cosmic or at least global significance. I reread Pickwick almost every year at this time for its Christmas scenes. I’m forever up and down with Dickens, loving and hating him since I was a boy with an incomplete set of his collected novels. I’ll never reread A Tale of Two Cities or Hard Times, but will happily return to Our Mutual Friend, and always Pickwick, still my favorite. Sample this from Chapter 28, “A Good-Humoured Christmas Chapter,” featuring Sam Weller: 

“`Vere does the mince-pies go, young opium-eater?’ said Mr. Weller to the fat boy, as he assisted in laying out such articles of consumption as had not been duly arranged on the previous night. 

“The fat boy pointed to the destination of the pies. 

“`Wery good,’ said Sam, `stick a bit o’ Christmas in ’em. T’other dish opposite.  There; now we look compact and comfortable, as the father said ven he cut his little boy's head off, to cure him o’ squintin’.” 

That’s the Dickens I relish—not the sentimental social critic but the bottomlessly voluble comedian. Pages of Pickwick remind me of Duck Soup, a film in which the Marx Brothers’ comic invention flows so violently, you necessarily miss an occasional joke because you’re still laughing at the previous one.  Anthony Powell writes in Miscellaneous Verdicts: Writings on Writers (1992) that Dickens was “not always a particularly attractive figure” and that “even by Victorian standards his self-righteousness was colossal.” But not in Pickwick: 

“`Wardle,’ said Mr. Pickwick, almost as soon as they were all seated, `a glass of wine in honour of this happy occasion!’” 

“`I shall be delighted, my boy,' said Wardle. `Joe--damn that boy, he's gone to sleep.’ ‘ `No, I ain’t, sir,’ replied the fat boy, starting up from a remote corner, where, like the patron saint of fat boys--the immortal Horner--he had been devouring a Christmas pie, though not with the coolness and deliberation which characterised that young gentleman's proceedings. 

“`Fill Mr. Pickwick’s glass.’”

“`Yes, sir.’” 

“The fat boy filled Mr. Pickwick’s glass, and then retired behind his master’s chair, from whence he watched the play of the knives and forks, and the progress of the choice morsels from the dishes to the mouths of the company, with a kind of dark and gloomy joy that was most impressive.”


George said...

I believe that it was the Merck Manual in which I read of "Dickensian syndrome", otherwise "fat boy syndrome", in which the strain that morbid obesity puts on the system causes one to sleep a great deal: see I guess that could argue for Dickens's realism.

zmkc said...

If you're going to go round calling people not particularly attractive figures, you have to be fairly sure that you are a particularly attractive figure yourself. I suspect Powell never questioned that presumption, which may be why I prefer Dickens.