Monday, June 27, 2016


Reading the Dickens portion of the Epsom article, you notice that he is not stimulated by horses or by racing but by the spectacle of human mass. “Never, to be sure, were there so many carriages, so many fours, so many twos, so many ones, so many horsemen, so many people who have come down by ‘rail,’ so many fine ladies in so many broughams, so many Fortnum and Mason hampers, so much ice and champagne!” There is the wonderful moment when the writing pretends to be the crowd so that it can describe the crowd’s actions compressively; but what is it saying – it is not the crowd – it has something to say about the crowd – it does not only observe the crowd – it wears the crowd’s voice -- the people watching the race are saying “What is the matter?” and there is an omniscient party that shows itself to witnesses with the words, “Another roar,” –

Amidst the hum of voices, a bell rings. What’s that? What’s the matter? They are clearing the course. Never mind. Try the pigeon-pie. A roar. What’s the matter? It’s only the dog upon the course. Is that all? Glass of wine. Another roar. What’s that? It is only the man who wants to cross the course, and is intercepted, and brought back. Is that all? I wonder whether it is always the same man and the same dog, year after year!

and, as a complete aside, the other Dickens races that I can think of at this moment, in the Old Curiosity Shop, 1841, are all narrated in that omniscient roar voice, and everything there is different: the glad crowd of Epsom in “so many carriages, so many fours” is, in Shop, a group of selfishnesses who neglect the desires of the poor entertainers and flower-sellers such as Nell (“Now, all the variety of human riddles who propound themselves on race courses, come about the carriage to be guessed,” says Epsom, meaning the same kind of poor people), the adventurers who travel with the girl and her grandfather to the track are sinister; the child, with a bad feeling, leaves in a way that feels like an escape from danger, and decides that she enjoys being alone in a churchyard where death and solitude are the keynotes; they are both forms of peace, it seems, which she will attain, Nell will, eventually, her life being motion and harassment. You note that Epsom is about motion and pleasure: “And now, Heavens! all the hampers fly wide open and the green Downs burst into a blossom of lobster salad!” A woman who has been tending the grave of her husband for more than half a century tells the little girl a story.

Then growing garrulous upon a theme which was new to one listener though it were but a child, she told her how she had wept and moaned and prayed to die herself, when this happened; and how when she first came to that place, a young creature strong in love and grief, she had hoped that her heart was breaking as it seemed to be. But that time passed by, and although she continued to be sad when she came there, still she could bear to come, and so went on until it was pain no longer, but a solemn pleasure, and a duty she had learned to like. And now that five-and-fifty years were gone, she spoke of the dead man as if he had been her son or grandson, with a kind of pity for his youth, growing out of her own old age, and an exalting of his strength and manly beauty as compared with her own weakness and decay; and yet she spoke about him as her husband too, and thinking of herself in connexion with him, as she used to be and not as she was now, talked of their meeting in another world, as if he were dead but yesterday, and she, separated from her former self, were thinking of the happiness of that comely girl who seemed to have died with him.

Proustian convolution. You notice that Dickens puts her outside herself, so that she is like David Copperfield watching his own red eyes in the mirror ("If ever child were stricken with sincere grief, I was. But I remember that this importance was a kind of satisfaction to me," in Copperfield), she wants her impressions and her body to coincide, “she hoped her heart was breaking as it seemed to be” (wishing, like Nell, for death) but her growing physical, ageing weakness means the separation and confusing of one and the other, and if this anecdote had flowed open (instead of being closed at the end into a story) then there is the possibility that she might have split into more and more people as she went on: so, then, eventually -- eventually, you see -- she could have been every Dickens character (in secret); she could represent the lady in the carriage who gives Nell a coin, the gypsy with the silvery voice at Derby Day in Epsom, the ventriloquist, the lobster salad in the Fortnum and Masons hampers, Mr Micawber, and all of the horses. Probably that is true, and this woman is all of Dickens’ characters, but how would I know, I’m not an expert.


  1. me neither... i like the "Prroustian convolution": stringing out words to cover an instant. so many levels: the person, the observer looking on, the cemetery backdrop, the planet, the roaring masses(like the ocean surging), lobsters being drowned in mayonaise... i guess the number of levels is determined by the reader; perhaps every word is another level at some perceptual range; in that case, what is a novel but a collection of leaves, an infinity of germs, mammals, insects, atoms, quanta, all with their own level, churning away in a massive sea of discrete plots, story lines... the mind boggles...

  2. Oh definitely.

    I was thinking of the way that the passage of time in Proust will cycle each person through a series of different identities, some of whom can be alien to one another.