Saturday, April 05, 2014

`Outside Is the Calm Measureless World'

Like Swift and Melville, Dickens is often judged palatable and appropriate for children, even quite young ones. Odd, how we misrepresent and defang books for safe consumption, doing no favors for their readers or writers, especially when we bowdlerize. Our grandparents lapped up Dickens’ novels, which rivalled the Bible in ubiquity in private homes. Dorothy Day (1897-1980), co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, whose most endearing quality is sheer cussedness, read Dickens from childhood and did so for the rest of her life. Her Dickens, like her Dostoevsky (Dickens’ chief offspring), was primarily a source of acute social observation (she cherished the documentation of poverty) and spiritual sustenance. The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day (Marquette University Press, 2008) is peppered with references to Dickens. In 1958, she’s rereading Nicholas Nickleby and says: “What a help Dickens is in time of trouble.” And in January 1965, one day after she reports reading Bellow’s Herzog (“very good indeed”), she writes: 

“When I see the constant failure around me, I think of myself as Emma [Jane Austen’s, not Flaubert’s]. Rita wanted to know once why I spoke with literary allusions. It helps balance me: Dickens and Dostoevsky help me more.” 

Here’s a very different sort of writer, Philip Larkin, writing about Dickens to his girlfriend Monica Jones, from Belfast on Aug. 26, 1951 (Letters to Monica, 2010): 

“I sit in my room like Miss Havisham, about whom I have been reading this week. Better the Dickens you know than the Dickens you don't know - on the whole I enjoyed it. But I should like to say something about this `irrepressible vitality,’ this `throwing a fresh handful of characters on the fire when it burns low,’ in fact the whole Dickens method -- it strikes me as being less ebullient, creative, vital, than hectic, nervy, panic-stricken. If he were a person I should say `You don't have to entertain me, you know. I'm quite happy just sitting here.’ This jerking of your attention, with queer names, queer characters, aggressive rhythms, piling on adjectives -- seems to me to betray basic insecurity in his relation with the reader. How serenely Trollope, for instance, compares. I say in all seriousness that, say what you like about Dickens as an entertainer, he cannot be considered as a real writer at all; not a real novelist. His is the garish gaslit melodramatic barn (writing that phrase makes me wonder if I'm right!) where the yokels gape: outside is the calm measureless world, where the characters of Eliot, Trollope, Austen, Hardy (most of them) and Lawrence (some of them) have their being.” 

We know the feeling. I’ve revised my understanding of Dickens repeatedly since I first read him half a century ago or more. Larkin rightly observes the “insecurity” in Dickens (odd to observe in so prolific a writer). He shares a manic quality with certain comedians: “I just told a joke and they loved it. I better tell them another one quick so they don’t stop loving me.” In Dickens, this works on the small scale. Some early passages in Pickwick Papers make me smile just to remember them. But over the long haul, Dickens can be exhausting. He tries too hard. I share Larkin’s fondness for three of the five novelists he finds in the “calm measureless world,” but later in the same letter the poet admits: “Since starting this letter I’ve begun to read Bleak House, with pleasure, again.” 

When Faber and Faber permitted the novels of Barbara Pym to go out of print, Larkin wrote a letter of protest that is very funny and critically acute, coming from a great poet who started out as quite a good novelist: 

“I feel it is a great shame if ordinary sane novels about ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things can’t find a publisher these days. This is the tradition of Jane Austen and Trollope, and I refuse to believe that no one wants its successors today. Why should I have to choose between spy rubbish, science fiction rubbish, Negro-homosexual rubbish, or dope-take nervous-breakdown rubbish? I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful and lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in the little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called ‘big’ experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humour.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

regarding the self-pity/despair: