Friday, September 2, 2011
Quilp has had his triumph and Kit is in jail. Mr. Richard Swiveller's taken to his bed. The world is out of joint and there's worse, much worse to come. From this point on the story goes quickly; in fact, the plot runs at such a pace for awhile that, like the poor Marchioness, one just has to get on and hold on until it stops. Everything that happens from here, good and bad, happens fast, faster even I should think the second time. One reason I've been going intentionally slow this time, taking my time. I'll finish the book tonight. I have read it before, if I haven't yet made that clear. This time though, I'm reading it to a different end, so to say. In fact, this time, I read the ending first, the way some people insist on reading mysteries, a practice of which I do not approve, generally. This time I've actually read the book just to get to where I am now, to just what comes after this, to see for myself what I now think of the book, its end, and what came after. I'm reading the book that slowly, as slowly as I've ever read a novel by Dickens, because this time I'm trying to read it as it might have been read that first time, in parts. I want very much to see for myself if I might be made to understand the end as the Victorian reader did, as readers as different as Poe and Carlyle read it. I want to see, now I'm older than Dickens was when he wrote it, if, as was true when I first read the book as a teenager, I am still with Oscar who famously said that "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears...of laughter.' We shall see. I'm nearly there again. The Old Curiosity Shop is nearly done.
Earlier this year, I reread Hard Times for the first time. I specifically undertook to read one of the novels of Dickens I'd liked the least when I read them first. Likewise, The Old Curiosity Shop. The former seemed to me a better book than I'd remembered, but still far from likely to ever be a favorite. It was too dry, too hot, too brick-hard. Its comparative brevity could not make it any better. But I was glad to have read it again, as an adult, when I could, I think, better appreciate the rhetorical skill with which Dickens made a sermon, not so much of the sins of the mills as I was taught, but of the neglect of imagination, of story, of joy, and the peril of denying these things to anyone, high or low, rich or poor. I don't know that I will ever need to read Hard Times in its entirety again, though as I've said, I'm glad I did. I think now, I will read The Old Curiosity Shop again. I can see myself, given sufficient time, reading it again more than once. I am amazed at it, and at myself for having avoided it so long.
I had thought to make this my assignment, as it were, when I took my annual trip back East to see the elderly parents. The dates for that trip became confused and impossible until now. As a result, I started the book sooner than I had intended, and now I rush to finish it again before I have to leave. What started then as a task, has become a pure pleasure. Imagine that.
Years ago, I worked in another bookstore, now gone, with a gentleman of middle years, Southern to the point of parody, very funny and very arch, who nonetheless loved Dickens. My coworker could be unkind, in that lilting Southern way that always seemed to express in equal measure a genuine concern with a withering disdain. He most certainly did not approve of all the stuff he saw me reading then. For philosophy and religion, he had no time at all. For much of anything modern he had no patience. Science he respected, and read, but most of what was new he saw no need of otherwise. I was a puppy then and something in my noisy precocity appealed to him, though he never hesitated to correct what he quite rightly saw as more bark than bite in my conversation. He was, curiously enough, the first champion of a new fangled thing called the internet, and the first truly computer-savy person with whom I'd ever worked. He tried very hard to make me take all that seriously, and to show me something of the possibilities he saw in the new technology. I'm afraid it all went right by me. For fun, one of the activities in which he participated with other like-minded users back then was an ongoing project online that involved tracing and annotating various references and particulars in Dickens. Beyond this admirable business, done in his own time, he also was part of an ongoing game in which the life of certain characters, including Nell Trent, were extended beyond the stories in which they had lived and died. He brought little Nell to America, I remember. As a joke, I would sneak onto his computer when he wasn't in his office, and alter his story in cruel and vulgar ways, meant to outrage him and hopefully make him laugh. I'm afraid I did to poor Nell what many modern critics have assumed the limitations of either Dickens or the Victorians in general had refused to do: I exposed her to every kind of sexual and moral outrage, had her working in all innocence in a New Orleans brothel, for instance, and abandoning her Grandfather temporarily to score dope for a new friend, etc. His fury when he discovered this was hilariously overblown -- though he stuck to the rules of the game and allowed for this, admittedly uninvited collaboration. Rather than delete what I'd added, he would write furiously to correct the misapprehensions I had made of both Nell's character and circumstances. On this went, this battle for the soul of Little Nell, for some weeks, as I remember it. General amusement reigned until he could take it no more. When I finally hinted at syphilis as the possible source of Nell's renewed ill health, he drove me from his desk and forbade me the use of his computer. It was all great fun.
In truth, my older friend's reverence for Dickens, and for the novelist's most famous saintly child, seemed as much an affectation to me as his cigarette holder and his persistent drawl after decades in San Francisco. I had come of age as a reader studying the high Moderns, critics and novelists alike. James was my God. I adopted his disdain for Dickens, and for the Victorian novel in general, as a thing self-evident. Nothing was sacred to me then, except perhaps the perfection of The Golden Bowl, a novel and a novelist not among the favorites of my friend.
If he should ever happen to find this and read it, I offer my sincere apologies for being such an irreverent little monster. He took it all in good humor, but about Dickens he was right, and I was then more ignorant than I would ever have been willing to admit. (I think he understood even then that it was natural in the young to disdain anything revered by their elders, and cut me more slack than I would now should I find myself in similar circumstances. Another instance of the good teachers I've met along the way, and yet another example of why I would make a bad one.)
I won't attempt just here to answer all the criticism of Dickens' most sentimental novel. It is that, supremely so, and only now perhaps can I appreciate it as such, and see that that might indeed be a good. I undertook to read just the famous death of little Nell, after I'd made myself read Hard Times again, just to see if indeed it was as bad as so many had since made it out to be, or as bad as I'd accepted it to be all those years ago. It certainly is everything it was said to be, good and bad, as is the novel in which it is the crowning achievement. The exception I now take to Oscar's witticism is not that it was unfair, but that laughing at such writing as these scenes in The Old Curiosity Shop, while understandable, is itself embarrassing in even a genius of Wilde's rank. It is unseemly to think so little of the sincerity, and very real emotion of so supreme an artist as Dickens. I can assure you, Dickens, whatever he is in this book, is never less than true. Oscar, of anyone, should have been able to appreciate this. If nothing else, the one should have at least shown some respect for other as a writer who had mastered his craft. Oscar, bless him, should have been so lucky. On careful reading, I can say with surprising confidence, there has never been and will probably never be again a writer who could make such a scene with such economy, so little excess or waste, and with such genuine sympathy as Dickens did.
Don't believe me? Try, as I've done, to read that book without indulging in the usual preconceptions about the extravagance of Dickens' emotion. Go on. See for yourself, on reading the whole book up to the point when Nell dies, if any of it feels false or put on or merely conventional. See if the homelessness of an old and confused man, and the innocence and unswerving loyalty of the child who leads him through one hell after another, does not ring just as true. Assume a better acquaintance with the modern pathologies of gambling and the sociology and psychology of poverty, and see if Nell seems over-idealized or false in any particular. The kindness with which the travelers are treated may seem less likely than their suffering, but again, I did not find that forced or false.
For me though, the real test is the famous scene itself, and what comes after it and as a consequence. Without the religion that consoles so many in the book, I can say honestly that I found nothing ridiculous in all the talk of angels and the consolations hereafter. The suggestion that Nell is passive is absurd. Few heroines in literature have been more obviously active, have walked so far, and tried so hard, and trusted so much not just to providence but their own wits to keep body and soul together. The complaint that Nell's is not a truly heroic virtue for never really being tested is grotesque! What more than starvation, exposure and death is required to make this girl's sacrifice seem real, or her death moving? What modern sadism insists that she should end other than she does? That she deserves no friends to observe and try to ease her passing? Is that then what offends the modern sensibility. not her admirable qualities, but the respect they earn in the book?
I tell you frankly, the penultimate chapter, when Nell is gone and all that that means for those she leaves behind is described, is among the best things I have ever read. It is every bit as beautiful as any scene I've ever read.
But here I am doing something of what I specifically did not mean to do. As the bicentennial celebration of Dickens birth approaches, I am determined to do some small service to the great novelist's memory. Reading The Old Curiosity Shop again, on a personal level, and for my own pleasure, I intend a better understanding of his achievement than I had before, and a deeper appreciation of all that he did, and did so supremely well, including the pathos for which later generations would so often seem to have scorned him. All I meant to say here, publicly if to a very small audience, is that I have yet to find a novel by Charles Dickens that is not worthy of another reading. Think of that! Try reading this one, if you still don't believe me. Try reading it without all the accumulated critical reputation and comment, without reference to the quips and dismissals and see for yourselves if there isn't more genuinely good writing in even the most sentimental scenes he ever put to paper, and perhaps the most celebrated and abused novel he ever wrote, than might be imagined by even a seasoned reader of his fiction.
The man amazes me.
I will, I think, be reading the last chapters but one of this book somewhere come the great man's birthday next year. That's what I've already decided. See if I don't. And see, should you be so kind then as to come and hear me do it, if it isn't better than I ever thought it might be. Just you wait and see.