Friday, November 2, 2012

A Hike Through Dickens

From The New Yorker:

If your bookshelf speaks to you, it’s likely to be uttering reproaches. Or so my experience runs. All those unread books!—the must-reads of last year, or the year before, hot débuts of young novelists, frosty farewells from the aging and once hot, books whose catchy titles beguiled you into buying them, books that will (so their blurbs promise, or threaten) change your life forever. They address us in the voices of aggrieved friends, saying, Why don’t you call me? Or, Why don’t you ever pay me a visit? Or, ultimately, Why are you neglecting me?
But the bookshelf offers other voices of reproach—deeper and more solemn voices. These speak less like friends than like grandparents, whose stern, measured cadences will not be stilled by any jocular protests of good intentions. They ask you, When will you get serious? They ask, When will you grow up? These are the voices issuing from the weightiest projects in your library.
. . . .
My most recent big literary undertaking has been, in terms of sheer pages, the most sizable of all: Dickens’s complete fiction. It comes to something like nine thousand pages, and I’m nearly finished; only “The Old Curiosity Shop” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” remain. I don’t know what to think on discovering that my favorite Dickens is mostly the world’s favorite Dickens. It feels appropriate, anyway, that this writer who so stoked and revelled in his international popularity should be fairly, representatively epitomized by his most popular books.
Three of these books seem to me all but flawless in their chosen genres. “A Christmas Carol” must be English literature’s finest story of redemptively benign ghosts (just as its dark twin, Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw,” is the greatest display of damning malignant spirits). And “A Tale of Two Cities” is the most satisfying thriller I’ve ever read. If we’ve mostly accepted the notion that the thriller belongs to Hollywood, this is our loss. The artistry in “A Tale of Two Cities” (the deft transitions, the quick and sure portraiture, the mob scenes, the terse but telling accesses of intimacy) is peerless. And what about that mainstay of the thriller—the chase scene? Has any film of squealing cars or screaming fighter planes surpassed the excitement of the pursuit in which, past “solitary farms, ruinous buildings, dye-works, tanneries,” the Manette family race across the northern face of blood-mad France toward sane, cozy England?
Finally, there’s “David Copperfield.” It was Dickens’s own favorite among his novels and remains for me an achievement beyond the rest. Surely no other novel, ever, has offered a richer cast. Had “Copperfield” introduced no memorable character besides Mr. Micawber, it would still be a book of lasting worth. But in addition we have the oozily unctuous Uriah Heep; the flighty yet staunch-souled Aunt Betsey; the doomed, callow, beautiful Dora, who, before her premature death, comes piercingly to understand her callowness; the justice-obsessed and yet unbearably vicious stepfather, Edward Murdstone…. The list goes on and on.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

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