Thursday, June 08, 2017

About Time and the Dickens

I've recently finished reading Bleak House, one of Charles Dickens' big novels which some consider his best--some call it the best English novel of the 19th century.

I remember being impatient with 19th century novels when I studied literature in college, partly I'm sure because they were long and I was impatient with everything that didn't move along at the speed of rock music, and partly because of the tedious experience of being forced to read a few such tomes in high school classes, including Dickens' Great Expectations.

But my college teachers didn't insist on them, and as a writer I was more interested in 20th century novels of the so-called Modern period (as opposed to Contemporary, which were by living writers and hence not yet literature.  We were however expected to read contemporary stories and novels for writing classes.)  The irony is that by the late 1960s, the Modern novels and novelists were almost as obsolete in terms of contemporary writing as the 19th century novels.  But we still wanted to be Hemingway or Fitzgerald or James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.

It's true that the diction and style, and the rhythms of 20th century fiction were closer to what writers were writing then.  But we were encouraged to believe that the Modernists had rejected the past and so relevance started with them.

Like a lot I thought I learned in those classes, it turns out not to be true.  And that's one of the delights of living awhile--the perspective of your years and the opportunities to explore more of the cultural timeline expands and deepens a sense of the continuum.  You learn that nothing is completely new, that every artistic work takes a lot from the past as well as whatever else is around.  It became clear to me first in music, learning the roots of rock and other contemporary forms, not through theory but through people and the music itself.

Except for some exploration of French classics in the 70s (under the influence of Truffaut films no doubt) it wasn't until the 1980s--some 15 to 20 years after I left school--that I could re-discover the diction of the 19th century (for in fact I'd absorbed some with boyhood reading of  The Three Musketeers, Huckleberry Finn, etc.)  I read all of Jane Austen I could find, and took on Moby Dick (which influenced my entire approach to my final draft of The Malling of America, though not in an obvious way.)  Of all the things I "knew" about Moby Dick without reading it, I didn't know that much of it is very funny.  I read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, the latter of which I found amazing, and I wished I had read it as a student writer.  My conception of what was possible in the novel would have benefited.

Similarly I was startled by the freedom and virtuosity of Dickens in Bleak House as well as his powers of description.  In the immense space of that novel he could be satirical and naturalistic, transparently heartfelt and slyly ironic.  Some of it bordered on surrealism.  The moderns must have stolen a lot from Dickens, perhaps even while denouncing him.  (If I remember correctly, Dickens especially was pretty unfashionable in the 60s.)

But after 881 pages of the Signet paperback edition, I read the short afterword by Geoffrey Tillotson and learned that Dickens not only riffed on some of his contemporaries like Carlyle and Tennyson but learned his satiric technique from 18th century poet Alexander Pope.  This is the difference between working writers, who beg, borrow and steal from the best no matter their current standing, and the critics and teachers of literature, who decide who is fashionable and legitimate to read.

I recently saw the Richard Curtis movie About Time.   It concerns a contemporary young man who learns from his father that the men in their family can travel through time, though only the past times of their own lives.  When his father (played by Bill Nighy) reveals this and the son asks him how he's used this gift, the Nighy character says he's used this infinite time to read books.  He's read everything he's wanted to twice, and Dickens three times.

At my age I read for the experience of it, while I'm reading.  I don't worry about how much I retain.  Well, I do notice the loss, but it doesn't stop me from reading as much as I can.  One thing has remained true, and perhaps become more true: I read not so much for story or even characters but for the diction, the vocabulary, the rhythms.  The words, the sentences, and so on.   I guess you can say I read for a good time, but what constitutes a good time for me would probably mystify most people.

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