Monday, March 5, 2012

ornamented with a hole

I want to say that I can remember a meat pie in one of Stead's books, but I've tried, I can't.* Food, though, food in general, plenty of times. The Cotter family in Cotters' England gets hold of a chicken and miscooks it into a mangy wan disaster, which confuses them; they can't judge the dazzling badness of this meal, because things around them are so bad and have been so bad for so long, that they don't know how a well-cooked chicken could ever be extorted from the universe, and what would it resemble? Each family member goes through their own private set of events in the book, and they arrive at different ends, but the sum of these characters, collectively, is that they're baffled by any act of creation, the effect they have is that of mould or rot, they can't cook food without spoiling it, they can't make friends with a woman without wrecking her, they are distorted versions of the human being, a making animal, they are the antithesis of civilisation; they are destruction. They're not only financially poor, they're poverty itself -- poverty has made them into poverty -- they are the two children under Christmas Present's robe in A Christmas Carol, Ignorance and Want, and their meal from that chicken is the hellish version of the Cratchits making robust glory out of a cheap goose.

In another part of Dickens, Flora Finching is buying a meat pie for Little Dorrit.

When the 'three kidney ones,' which were to be a blind to the conversation, were set before them on three little tin platters, each kidney one ornamented with a hole at the top, into which the civil man poured hot gravy out of a spouted can as if he were feeding three lamps, Flora took out her pocket-handkerchief.

I haven't read Little Dorrit for months but that detail stayed with me, "poured hot gravy out of a spouted can as if he were feeding three lamps" and so I remember it now, and it comes into my head when I think of Dickens and pies together. How did these things occur to him, I wonder, why embellish the pouring gravy and not the tin platters or the pocket-handkerchief? Why this and not that, why that and not this? In his last Christmas story The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain, why does his imagination leap into gear whenever he gets to the Tetterbys, why does it die whenever he has to write about the lead character Redlaw, who goes through the book like a press-button melodrama robot, being depressed whenever the plot needs him to be depressed, being repentant when the plot needs him to be repentant, exhausted by the weight of the same story that sits so lightly on young Johnny Tetterby, a boy who staggers around with his little sister over one shoulder? He has a baby to carry, Redlaw has a plot, and the plot is heavier.

The plot of the Christmas Carol doesn't need Dickens to tell us that Marley was dead four times on the opening page and digress onto the subject of Hamlet's father. That extrapolation doesn't do anything for the A to B of the story but it is essential if the book wants to be what it is. Evidently each book has a spirit, or what you'd call a soul, not bone, not flesh, but somehow existent. Here's a proposition: that spirit may have originated precisely in those moments when the mind decides that this is the detail that will be written and not another and it will be described this way and not that way, the moment when gravy turns to lamp oil. These are moments illuminated, these are points in time picked out and made to elongate artificially, the writer nails them to that technology called prose but the nail goes utterly through, even the head, and you're left with one wooden board not two together; the prose stays but not the instant. "I myself for instance have written down memoranda of many skies," said Ruskin in his Fors, "but have forgotten the skies themselves." If you extracted all the details from Dickens' books and gathered them together you would have a biography with the characteristics of a constellation.

* But they exist. "I've got to have nourishment," says a man named Fulke in Seven Poor Men of Sydney, chapter five, page one hundred and thirty-four in the Sirius Quality Paperback Edition, and then: "Downstairs Fulke ate steak and kidney pie and Catherine had a bun and a glass of water. When they came out Fulke was glowing with a happy digestion." They walk to the Domain and get rained on.


  1. I haven't read your post yet - I just came over here to give you this link. I liked it and I thought you would, although it's not completely on your topic:

  2. That's terrific. I'm a fan of that peeling sign. It reminds me of an exhibit I went to about ten years ago in Melbourne, the Museum of Modern Oddities, a collection of discarded objects grouped together in a defunct little hardware store, all of its old goods still in place on the shelves, rusty nails, ancient hammers, and so on.

  3. Forgot to respond to your comment re Murnane and Frankston - that sounds serious. I mean, nostalgia - and Frankston? Hmmm. We've got a bad one here, doctor.

  4. Take me there now, and I'd either go to the beach or to the railway station. Las Vegas wants a beach. I came across some online footage two days ago, footage of a shark feeding frenzy off the coast of WA, and I sat there, staring at the sea. "Look at that sea! I want to go swimming! Aw that's a good-looking sea!" And this mass of sharks was ripping ten million tuna to death in it.