Saturday, June 19, 2010

Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers (1837)

Some details. It was actually serialized between 1836 and 1837, so that, properly, should be the publication date. That it was serialized is important: you can feel it in the rhythms of the chapters, and the way the story changes as you go through it. It was, largely, improvised, month to month, and it shows. In a good way. Also, the actual title (which you won't often see on the covers of modern editions) is The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which is an infinitely better title than the one it's commonly known by. Not only does it have that glorious alliteration (not just the four p's but also the ck's in the penultimate word, leading into the hard c of Club), it has a grandiosity that tells you what to expect. The popular title, Pickwick Papers, is a bit of a cipher.

I noted that the story changes. I read the Signet Classic edition (three bucks at Smith Family Bookstore - can't beat that), and Steven Marcus points this out in his afterword, so this is no great discovery of mine, obviously. But it's one I was glad I picked up on. How does it change?

It starts out in mock heroic mode, presenting the thoroughly trivial doings of some harmless middle-aged men as if they were the daring adventures of some accomplished personages. What Dickens is sending up here - it may not be apparent to every modern reader, since he's really writing for contemporary Londoners, more than in most of his books - is the kind of amateur philosopher (in the old sense of naturalist and/or scholar) that Jenny Uglow profiled so brilliantly a few years ago in The Lunar Men. The ones Uglow writes about really were quite sharp; Dickens' joke is to make these inquiring minds cheerfully clueless. They think they're discovering the world and all its principles anew, but really they're the last to understand what's really going on.

This is amusing, as far as it goes, but luckily it doesn't go far: very soon Dickens decides he'd rather do something else. Maybe it's that he develops a soft spot for Pickwick himself, because he very quickly is transformed from buffoon to someone whose eccentricity proceeds from his virtue, an unworldliness that is almost unbelievable. Almost - what makes Pickwick endearing is that his virtue is never expressed in preaching, or lordliness, or even much in the way of indignance, and it never raises its possessor above having a good time. So Pickwick emerges not only as one of the truly Good Men of literature (Marcus says Dostoevsky liked him), but also as the somewhat unlikely life of the party. Everybody wants to have a beer with this guy - and quite a few of the characters do. Or at least a rum punch.

All that's well and good, and a fine reason to read the novel. So too is its plot: a bit of a shaggy-dog story, to be sure, with digressions so frequent as to be almost maddening, but once you get onto its wobbly wavelength, the story moves right along, and is fairly satisfying.

But what really gave me pleasure was the prose. I've made it clear elsewhere that my turn, in the last few years, to 19th century literature is largely a matter of discovering the beauties of the way English used to be written. Jane Austen, Walter Scott, and in very different ways Thomas Hardy and Herman Melville all had at their command resources of expression that seem lost to us today. Dickens has it too, but again, in a very different way. I seldom found myself admiring his sentences or paragraphs for their beauty, their musicality or elegance; not in the way I can luxuriate in Austen or almost sing along with Scott. But I did find myself wondering at the incredible complexity of nuance that Dickens could pack into a sentence.

Here's one chosen more or less at random, from Chapter 41:
There is no disguising the fact that Mr. Pickwick felt very low-spirited and uncomfortable; not for lack of society, for the prison was very full, and a bottle of wine would at once have purchased the utmost good-fellowship of a few choice spirits without any more formal introduction; but he was alone in the coarse vulgar crowd and felt the depression of spirit and sinking of heart naturally consequent upon the reflection that he was cooped and caged up without a prospect of liberation.
The action this sentence narrates is the simplest. Mr. Pickwick, being in prison, is depressed. It's a simple circumstance, and a sober one: no laughing matter. But along the way Dickens manages to find time to joke about the crowded conditions of the prison, the class of people incarcerated there, the susceptibility of all men to drink, the shallowness of good manners, and indeed Mr. Pickwick's own propriety and the incongruity of him being where he is. Mr. Pickwick is a gentleman through-and-through, and so when Dickens talks about him, or when as here he describes the world as Mr. Pickwick experiences it, it's always with the assumption of gentlemanly ways - that, for example, intimacy will only proceed from a formal introduction, or that low spirits might be best hidden beneath a veneer of gentlemanly sociability. Mr. Pickwick is not only depressed about where he is and who he's with, he's depressed that he's allowing it to depress him. And Dickens is concerned not only with telling us that he's depressed, but with delivering to us the particular flavor of depression as it exists for a gentleman as good natured as Pickwick, and also with making sure that all this information is presented in a tone that both captures the solemnity of the moment and preserves the comic aspect of the narration.

I'm not even sure I've got it all right, but you get the idea. There's a lot going on here. It's a rich sentence. And the book is full of 'em.

It's been over twenty years since I read any Dickens, and twenty years ago I wasn't digging writing like this. That's why I'm going on at such length about it now. It's a recent enthusiasm of mine.

1 comment:

g dawg said...

Well, you've certainly got the Dickens' writing style going for you!