Thursday, April 1, 2010

Charles Dickens

April 2010: I bought a discounted copy of Tale of Two Cities in a newsagent in Tamworth (as an aside, though there are many things that make me despair of humankind, the fact that the novels generally known as literary classics also happen to be exactly the ones I consider novels at their finest is very reassuring, and the fact that these books are endlessly reprinted in great masses, and sold at cheap prices all over the place, is one of the wonders of the modern world). I started reading what the anonymous introduction describes as Dickens’s “masterpiece” while I was at the Railway Hotel, Koorawatha; the introduction also deems Barnaby Rudge, which I loved, one of his weakest works, and erroneously claims that Two Citiescontains little of Dickens’s typical humour.

Just as some people’s faces can’t look stern or grim no matter how hard they might be trying to reprimand someone, Dickens simply can’t keep humour out of his writing, no matter how bloody and cruel the subject matter, in this case the French Revolution. As usual with Dickens, I have dog-eared dozens of pages, sometimes simply for a turn of phrase or a passing idea that made me smile:

“The little narrow, crooked town of Dover hid itself away from the beach, and ran its head into the chalk cliffs, like a marine ostrich. The beach was a desert of heaps of sea and stones tumbling wildly about, and the sea did what it liked, and what it liked was destruction...The air among the houses was of so strong a piscatory flavour that one might have supposed sick fish went up to be dipped in it, as sick people went down to be dipped in the sea.”

His descriptions of places and faces are always vivid, and also handy. Because his stories always involve a large cast of characters, and numerous locations, Dickens labels each one with at least one memorable detail. There is the road-mender in the blue cap; there is the wine-seller’s wife with her impassive face and interminable knitting. Our heroine, Lucie Manette, has predictably wavy golden locks and blue eyes; the less morally righteous characters are more interesting physical specimens, such as Jerry Cruncher, with his “spiky hair looking as if it must tear the sheet to ribbons” or else “like an animated bit of the spiked gate at Newgate”. Cruncher, when provoked, cries out, “B-u-u-ust me!”. Towards the end of the book, he is accused of the unsavoury crime of grave-robbing:

“...Mr Lorry looked at Jerry in considerable doubt and mistrust. That honest tradesman’s manner of receiving the look, did not inspire confidence; he changed the leg on which he rested as often as if he had fifty of those limbs, and were trying them all; he examined his finger-nails with a very questionable closeness of attention; and whenever Mr Lorry’s eye caught his, he was taken with that peculiar kind of short cough requiring the hollow of a hand before it, which is seldom, if ever, known to be an infirmity attendant on perfect openness of character.”

Dickens’s stories always work, though sometimes he gets them to work with passages that could almost have a heading - such as, “Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay experience a period of domestic bliss” - that would tell the readers in a sentence all that we find out in a few padded-out paragraphs. Most novels, especially plot-driven novels, have a few of those unnatural ‘snapshot’ passages, or else bits where a contrivance has been inserted and the author does his or her ineffectual best to disguise the entry and exit scars. But in this novel, the drama works - some nights I read Two Cities far longer than I intended to, skimming ahead a page or two to find out what happened. But it wasn’t my favourite Dickens novel. Heroes and heroines freeze up his descriptive powers. Charles Darnay, principal goody, is described merely as “well-grown and well-looking, with a sunburnt cheek and a dark eye”. He doesn’t really do anything remarkable. His counterpoint, Sidney Carton, a debauched drunkard or a “dissipated cat”, is much more colourful. “Those were drinking days, and most men drank hard”; Carton, after a binge, pulls himself together to help his colleague with a law-suit:

“Sullenly enough, the jackal [Carton] loosened his dress, went into an adjoining room, and came back with a large jug of cold water, a basin, and a towel or two. Steeping the towels in the water, and partially wringing them out, he folded them onto his head in a manner hideous to behold, sat down at the table, and said, “Now I am ready!”

“...Two or three times, the matter in hand became so knotty, that the jackal found it imperative on him to get up, and steep his towels anew. From these pilgrimages to the jug and basin, he returned with such eccentricities of damp head-gear as no words can describe; which were made more ludicrous by his anxiety.”

This passage ends with:

“Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”