Tuesday, December 22, 2009

pockets peculiar

Following a link from Whispering Gums to Tony's Book World, I came across this question: Does Dickens have any other novellas besides A Christmas Carol? The blogger wanted to read some short Dickens. "The other Christmas books," I thought, and then I thought: "Even shorter, Sketches by Boz." Not the book, but the sketches themselves, each sketch being a little under ten pages long in the edition I've got here, which is undated, American, a grey elephant colour, and so hardcovered that it sounds like a door when I tap on it. So, answering the question at Tony's, I opened my Boz to write down examples of the sketches' headings, and then I typed out part of the Thoughts About People sketch on page two hundred and sixty-eight, and after that I kept reading

I hadn't read Dickens for years, and it wasn't until I looked at this Boz that I remembered the vitality of him - I mean, I'd remembered the fact or existence of it, but it wasn't until I began to read that I remembered the details, the huge, effervescent life of him, just constantly bubbling, now with gusto, now with melodrama, now glittering brilliantly at the thought of a disaster - how he loves, loves disasters -

The walls were ornamented with three or four old coloured prints in black frames, each print representing a naval engagement, with a couple of men-of-war banging away at each other most vigorously, while another vessel or two were blowing up in the distance, and the foreground presented a miscellaneous collection of broken masts and blue legs sticking up out of the water.

The glee of him - the joy he takes in his Quilps - the whole world alive, moving, thinking in his books, inanimate objects especially:

The ancient appearance of the room … would have carried us back a hundred years at least, and we should have gone dreaming on, until the pewter pot on the table, or the little beer-chiller on the fire, had started into life, and addressed to us a long story of days gone by.

He'll sometimes split one object into several parts and play them off against one another, like this:

There were four of them [wearing] coats for which the English language has yet no name - a kind of cross between a great-coat and a surtout, with the collar of the one, the skirts of the other, and pockets peculiar to themselves.

A technique Mervyn Peake uses too, in a slower, heavier way, accumulating details gradually and firmly, like bricks in a wall (whereas Dickens, in Boz, at least, sparkles them at us - that last quote from him ends with the different parts of the coats pinged at the reader, one, two, three, while this quote from Peake calms things down with its frequent adjective-noun combinations: great hurry, mutual advantage, ruthless disregard).

It was a wedge … in which the features had been forced to stake their claims, and it appeared that they had done so in a great hurry and with no attempt to form any kind of symmetrical pattern for their mutual advantage. The nose had evidently been the first upon the scene and had spread itself down the entire length of the wedge … spreading on both sides with a ruthless disregard for the eyes and mouth …

The playing-off in Dickens goes on almost constantly in major and minor keys, giving the sentences a kind of ping-pong vitality:

Mr. Thomas Potter and Mr. Robert Smithers drank small glasses of brandy, and large glasses of soda, until they began to have a very confused idea, either of things in general, or of anything in particular; and, when they had done treating themselves they began to treat everybody else; and the rest of the entertainment was a confused mixture of heads and heels, black eyes and blue uniforms, mud and gas-lights, thick doors, and stone paving.

Such pleasure in this multitudinous life, swarm, abundance, chaos organised for our enjoyment by the author, a thousand atomies dancing on a pinhead. Peake also borrows Dickens' habit of spinning off into comparisons that seem to have just occurred to him, something incredible and apt, tacking this seething universe together: Peake gives us Swelter's bellybutton first as the "pivot for a draughtsman's eye," then as an eggcup, Dickens gives us a letter sealed with "a large red wafer, which, with the addition of divers ink-stains, bore a marvellous resemblance to a black beetle trodden upon" and a landlady who appears on the stairs "like the ghost of Queen Anne in the tent-scene in Richard."

He notices things, and names them, even down to their particular names - when a young man in Miss Evans and the Eagle buys his girlfriend a biscuit it isn't merely a biscuit, it's a "sweet carraway-seed" biscuit - and when "a scapegrace of a cousin" in A Christmas Dinner drinks ale, it isn't just ale, it's "Burton ale."

… and a young scapegrace of a cousin, who has been in some disgrace with the old people, for certain heinous sins of omission and commission - neglecting to call, and persisting in drinking Burton ale -

The gratuitous precision of the censure pushes it towards abstraction. Objecting to someone drinking too much alcohol is normal; objecting to them drinking only one kind begins to verge on surrealism or obsession, and this suggestion of madness (fighting against, and ultimately defeated by, the neatness of the structure around it, the status quo threatened then resurrected - like a tickle, this is the form of an attack that turns out to be harmless) is enough to make the sentence funnier than it would have been if the author had written nothing but "ale." This particular detailing of objects is something Gabriel Garcia Marquez advocated when they tackled him for his Paris Review interview:

That's a journalistic trick that you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you. One Hundred Years of Solitude is full of that sort of thing.

Dickens is a master of this, of noticing things - this is what he does, this is his great power, he notices, and notices and notices - and there must have seemed no end to his noticing until the year when he lay down on a couch in his dining room and died at the age of fifty-eight, exhausted, and no wonder, he'd talked and worked and noticed himself to death. "One of the consolations of literature," wrote Richard Holloway in Between the Monster and the Saint, "is the way it transmutes the tragic comedy of life by noticing it."

But it was none of these things that made me decide to keep reading. It was the fact that I laughed when I reached the word apoplexy:

These are generally old fellows with white heads and red faces, addicted to port wine and Hessian boots, who from some cause, real or imaginary—generally the former, the excellent reason being that they are rich, and their relations poor—grow suspicious of everybody, and do the misanthropical in chambers, taking great delight in thinking themselves unhappy, and making everybody they come near, miserable. You may see such men as these, anywhere; you will know them at coffee-houses by their discontented exclamations and the luxury of their dinners; at theatres, by their always sitting in the same place and looking with a jaundiced eye on all the young people near them; at church, by the pomposity with which they enter, and the loud tone in which they repeat the responses; at parties, by their getting cross at whist and hating music. An old fellow of this kind will have his chambers splendidly furnished, and collect books, plate, and pictures about him in profusion; not so much for his own gratification, as to be superior to those who have the desire, but not the means, to compete with him. He belongs to two or three clubs, and is envied, and flattered, and hated by the members of them all. Sometimes he will be appealed to by a poor relation—a married nephew perhaps—for some little assistance: and then he will declaim with honest indignation on the improvidence of young married people, the worthlessness of a wife, the insolence of having a family, the atrocity of getting into debt with a hundred and twenty-five pounds a year, and other unpardonable crimes; winding up his exhortations with a complacent review of his own conduct, and a delicate allusion to parochial relief. He dies, some day after dinner, of apoplexy, having bequeathed his property to a Public Society, and the Institution erects a tablet to his memory, expressive of their admiration of his Christian conduct in this world, and their comfortable conviction of his happiness in the next.


  1. B** just lost my comment. This is a gorgeous post and reminds me why despite the melodrama, stereotypes and frequent (occasional) sentimentality, I love to read him (though haven't read as much as you clearly). "The huge, effervescent life of him" - love it.

  2. Oh Deane, you are *so* good at this type of post: sharing your extrordinary familiarity with the great writers and reminding about why we loved them.

  3. Thanks. I love to read the man, in spite of the sentimental bits, and the irritating ideas about women. Agnes Wickfield is one of the characters I loathe most in all literature - I'd like to kick her through the stained glass window she's supposed to resemble and dance flamenco on the hand that always points upwards. Reading through Boz, I'm noticing something about the sentimental bits that I hadn't really registered before: as soon as women start dying (or whatever happens) the detail fades and things get generic. It's as if the level of detail in his work is connected to the level of delight he feels. When he's springing along, telling jokes, or people-watching, being delighted, then the detail is present. When he wants to slow down and move our hearts, when he's not delighted, then the detail drains away into "her pale and sunken cheeks," her white face wan upon the pillow, her folded hands, "her sight was fast failing her," etc, etc.

    I think he gets it right in one sketch called A Visit to Newgate, describing a visit to Newgate prison. He reacts with horror to the idea that the condemned men he's looking at will be dead in a week or two - moving around and looking at you today, nothing but a corpse by next month - and the horror seems alive, and genuine, and the prose builds around this idea of horror. They had a special pew in the prison church for the men who were sentenced to death, he writes, and the condemned men had to sit there so that the rest of the congregation could learn from their terrible example. Before his time, says Dickens, they sat there with their coffins propped up next to them, just to push the point home - and the language is formal ("Let us hope that the increased spirit of civilisation and humanity which abolished this frightful and degrading custom, may extend itself to other usages …") but behind it you can hear him shrieking with primal fear and disgust: This is sick! sick! sick!