Monthly Archives: September 2009

Why the Dickens?

In every Dickens novel there is always at least one Angel of the House, and, amidst the cruel masters, deceitful avaricious lawyers and crazed reverends, lots of goodly folk hanging about ready to good deeds without a thought for themselves. The novels are heavy with what could be termed as melodrama, farce, improbable and at times wildly exaggerated situations, all underpinned by strong Christian morality. So why are the novels of Charles Dickens so endlessly engaging, such masterworks? (I sometimes wonder this when I’m actually reading the novels… why am I enjoying this so much? But I am all the same.) The reason I started thinking about this at all was that I stumbled upon a blog on the Guardian website entitled, ‘Why are we still reading Dickens?’ (In a sense, it’s a silly question – why shouldn’t we all carry on reading the best works of English literature? Is there a best before date? But it’s one of those questions that is asked a lot, and is always interesting to consider.)
The author of this particular blog, Jon Michael Varese, is a Dickens scholar and must be incredibly knowledgeable about the man, but the reasons he came up with for why we still read Dickens were somewhat disappointing. Various clichéd reasons and talk of us all being Oliver, David and Esther, etc eventually culminated in this epiphanic realisation: ‘I began to understand more about why I was who I was because Dickens had told me so much about human beings and human interaction.’
I would refrain from calling Dickens sentimental, but I find the reasons Varese gives for reading Dickens sentimental. What Varese’s comments lack – and in fact what a lot of modern-day journalism and fiction-writing lacks – yet what can be found in all Dickens’ works, and in any work by a great writer of fiction or non-fiction, is wit, satire, a sense of the ridiculous… That is, humour of the most sharply observant kind must be at the heart of everything.
Such sincere talk also ignores how strange and unsettling Dickens’s writing is. How even when all ends of the narrative are seemingly tied up, like a ribbon atop a Victorian chocolate box, the reader – or at least this reader – does not feel exactly comforted. There is always unease, anxiety, guilt, ill-advised hope, happiness that is too perfect to give comfort.
Dickens likes to start his books with something startling – he grips his readers at once and will not let them go. One of my favourites is the scene at the start of Our Mutual Friend – the man and girl trawling the Thames for dead, her face fixed by horror and fear. Or take the famous introduction to Bleak House:

‘London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.’

Or the ridiculous introduction to Pip on the first page of GE:

‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.’

Phillip Pirrip is thus introduced, one of the great literary creations and most powerful first-person voices. And he is virtually introduced as a joke!
Dickens can tell you everything in a very short few sentences, and almost every sentence is as good as the last. I love this description of Pip’s first visit to Satis House when Miss Havisham asks him to call Estella: ‘To stand in the dark in a mysterious passage of an unknown house, bawling Estella to a scornful young lady neither visible nor responsive, and feeling it a dreadful liberty so to roar out her name, was almost as bad as playing to order. But, she answered at last, and her light came along the dark passage like a star.’
On the same afternoon I read the Dickens article, I read an interesting article about Roald Dahl in the Times and it was asking a similar question: why is Roald Dahl getting more and more popular… shouldn’t he have gone out of date by now? The answer was given that readers – adults and children alike – love the ‘cruelty, misanthropy and mischievous fun’ of Dahl’s storylines and his characters. That rather reminded me of Dickens, and I think there are certain comparisons between the two men’s fearsome energy and aggression both on and off the page, as well as their idiosyncratic styles: you could pick passages from both Dickens and Dahl out of an anonymous literary line-up without too much trouble. The key is their distinctive use of language – their voice – but also their ability to understand their readers perfectly and thus to engage them utterly.
To return to Varese’s reason for reading Dickens, I would turn it on its head. We don’t understand ourselves better by reading Dickens, we read Dickens because he understands us too well. This possibly has the same results as Varese suggests – a greater understanding of humanity’s lot – but to me it’s a necessarily different way of looking at it. And just like Dahl’s Mr and Mrs Twit, the most memorable characters from Dickens are the really bad eggs – 1 out of 10 in the morality stakes – like Uriah Heep and Fagin and Silas Wegg. Do people really like reading these characters because they’re consciously learning something about themselves?
I reread the introduction to an old Penguin edition of Great Expectations by Angus Calder and found some more interesting ideas to the question of what makes Dickens great. Regarding the audacious energy of his prose, and his extensive output Lionel Trilling is quoted as remarking that ‘“the mere record of his conviviality is exhausting”’, and you can feel the energy of Dickens’s pen on paper ricocheting off the pages of his novels. (One thinks, for eg, of the talking chair in The Pickwick Papers! One of my favourite moments.) Calder goes on to mention that Dickens sported ‘flamboyant dress and a hint of vulgarity in his manners, but he had powerful, magnetizing eyes and overwhelming charm.’ In some crude way, that description gets to the heart of his novels. And I love Graham Greene’s insightful comment about Great Expectations; that there is a ‘sense of a mind speaking to itself with no one there to listen’, and that the novel is constructed from ‘delicate and exact poetic cadences’.
There is so much to consider in Dickens, and I’m only scratching the surface like a restless child, so I will let George Orwell end, as he more successfully gets to the heart of Dickens’s enduring appeal from his essay on the author: ‘Dickens’s imagination overwhelms everything, like a weed.’

Back to Noir

PP readers may already know of my obsession with Erle Stanley Gardner, in particular his Perry Mason books. I really need to try out some other stuff like Raymond Chandler (who, was influenced by Erle Stanley Gardner as it happens) – I’ve had The High Window (1942) on my table for about six months – Elmore Leonard, and James Cain, et al, but I just keep buying more good-looking ESG titles and devouring them in approximately four hours.

It’s true that when I emerge from one of these mysteries, be it The Case of the Dangerous Dowager, or my first ESG, and still my favourite, The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink, I would struggle to explain out-loud the exact plot details. This is usually because it all gets a bit silly towards the end, but also because I don’t concentrate that hard – the plot is not as important to me as the brilliance of the writing.

I know that’s slightly odd, as the plot is all in these things, and the reason you race towards the end is to find out what happened. But I’ve realised that essentially I really don’t care whodunit or whatever. It’s just the thrill of narrative chase, as it were, the thrill that ESG creates with the forward movement of the sentences and words, more than whether it was that dame or that disowned oil scion wot did it.

I found a quote on crime writer Duane Swierczynski’s cheerfully named blog: Secret Dead Blog on which he quotes the editor of Gallimard’s famous Série noire Marcel Duhamel’s advice to novelist Chester Himes:

Get an idea. Start with action, somebody does something – a man raches out a hand and opens a door, light shines in his eyes, a body lies on the floor, he turns, looks up and down the hall.. Always action in detail. Make pictures. Like motion pictures. Always the scenes are visible. No stream of consciousness at all. We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what – only what they’re doing. Always doing something. From one scene to another. Don’t worry about it making sense. That’s for the end. Give me 220 typed pages.

It couldn’t sound more like a Perry Mason novel if it tried. These are normally about 220 pages, or, in fact, a little shorter. Enter some vintage ESG and the to give an example, and to show how to get a plot moving in 3 pages from the opening of The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde:

Perry Mason drew his secretary to one side. ‘A blonde with a black eye, Della, is intriguing to say the least – unless she’s the type who would have been in a brawl. Is she?’

‘Definitely not; but she’s frightened to death about something. I can’t quite make her out. Her voice is unusual – almost as though it had been trained.’

‘And you’ve put her in the law library?’

‘Yes. She’s waiting there.’

‘How’s she dressed?’

‘Black shoes, no stockings, a fur coat, and I caught a glimpse of something under the fur coat that I think may be a black house coat, or a robe of some sort, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if that was all she had on.’

‘And a black eye?’

‘A beauty.’

[…]

‘What’s her name?’

‘Diana Regis.’

‘Sounds phony.’

‘She insists it’s her real name. She’s terribly excited and nervous. Altogether, I’d say she was pretty unstrung.’

‘Been crying?’

‘I don’t think she has. She seems nervous and frightened, but isn’t doing any weeping.’

[…]

‘That,’ Mason said, ‘settles it. We’re going to see her, at least long enough to find out what it’s all about. Bring her in, Della.’

Those doling out advice to fiction-writing hopefuls often recommend reading other fiction and non-fiction that is very different from the ‘literary’ novel. To read as much and as diversely as possible is a common suggestion to struggling writers. And I think the advice from Duhamel could be applied to writing in general: if in doubt, don’t over-explain and analyse; drive the narrative forward with the language, rather than pontificating or speculating about character – action, by its very nature, can explain later, and by the constraints of the novel’s form, will normally be compelled to.

A recent BBC 4 documentary, The Rules of Film Noir, explored why the genre was so popular in the forties and then why the hardboiled style became unpopular in the following decade when colour and optimism was the chosen tonic, and the black and white shadowy and uncertain underworlds represented by noir were not the antidote to post-war life the cinemagoers were seeking.

When I was watching this programme I kept scribbling down quotes from the various aficionados and experts who were on the show as it seemed like the stuff of great short stories or novels. For a start the names of the books/films are brilliant: Stranger on the Third Floor; Murder My Sweet; Sunset Boulevard; Double Indemnity; Kiss Me Deadly.

Disconnection seems the most overpowering theme. The ‘American Dream’ is skewed and the characters tainted before they start – the dream is to get whatever you want without cost, the fall out is the bitter resentment when this is not achieved: ‘In rooms, bars, nightclubs – they’re trapped; they can’t get out. They’re trying to rip their way out, but they can’t’; ‘Don’t go to bed feeling comfortable, because there’s nothing to be comfortable about.’ Apologies, I can’t remember who said this stuff on the programme… but they were good whoever they were.]

It sounds like the subject matter of the domestic novel in a way: the sense of disquiet in apparently mundane settings. Yes, here possibly because someone’s holding a gun beneath that suspicious overcoat, but the sense of foreboding and of being unavoidably and inescapably trapped by location and circumstance is the stuff of many narratives.

Watching the programme also made me think I should go a little darker from the relatively clean and nicely sorted-out nature of Perry’s mysteries and investigations. I was reading an interview – and a very good one at that – with John Banville, again in the The Paris Review (which it is becoming clear I am also obsessed with!). He writes crime thrillers under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. I have to say I’ve never been a fan of Banville’s novels but he comes across as rather amusing and pleasingly arrogant in this interview from earlier this year.

He mentions a writer I have never heard of: ‘The impetus for Black came from my having begun to read Georges Simenon […] what he calls his romans dur, his hard novels: Dirty Snow, Monsiuer Monde Vanishes, Tropic Moon, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By. I think they are extraordinary, masterpieces of twentieth-century – I hesitate to use the word, but I will – existentialist literature.’

He even compares these works favourably to Camus and Satre, which is pretty extraordinary. I think perhaps these should be next on my list, ahead of old Chandler and Himes. But I like to hear someone praising noir as a serious literary form. I’m not sure ESG’s novels ever achieve the status of ‘art’, but Banville goes on to say that, ‘One can, with skill and perseverance, give a sense of life’s richness and complexity in noir fiction’, and that ‘High art can happen in any medium.’ And I think that’s worth remembering.

***

And just briefly… the reason I enjoyed Banville’s interview so much was due to his directness and unexpected dry wit. In particular his answer to the question: ‘Do you have sympathy for the characters you create?’ because it always annoys me, and I think it’s become the thing to say, when writers talk about the character ‘taking over’ and the author having no idea what’s coming next. Yes, it is Banville’s style not to be as concerned with character as other novelists, but I still love Banville’s reposte to this:

‘I suppose it’s possible that a writer would have feeling for his characters, but I can’t see how, because writing is such a meticulous, intricate, technical business. I wish I could say that I love my characters and that frequently they take over the book and run away with the plot and so on. But they don’t exist. They’re manikins made of words and they carry my rhythms. They have no autonomous life – surely that’s obvious? I distrust writers who claim to have feeling for their characters. They’re liars or fools.’