Sunday, April 1, 2012

Charles Dickens

April, 2012:  I love a beautifully-crafted novel, but if Charles Dickens had slowed down to polish his novels, there would only be six or seven of them, instead of a hundred (please don't correct me, I like to believe there is a lifetime's supply).  The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837) was, of course, written in installments, and it rambles along, just like Mr. Pickwick and his disciples, who set out to see the world very modestly.  I don't think they ever get farther than about twenty miles from London, and their adventures are on a very small scale; much of the fun of Pickwick Papers is derived from depicting insignificant events as momentous, and the homely Mr. Pickwick as a great sage.  There's the chapter titled, 'Too Full Of Adventure To Be Briefly Described': the adventure is Samuel Weller and Mr. Pickwick erroneously breaking into a girls' school, with girls screaming and old teachers getting excited.  Sometimes a chapter is merely an anecdote someone has retailed in a pub.  Dickens always has a pointed message, even when he's having fun: in The Pickwick Papers, his humour flips back on itself, reminding us that in real life, there's nothing insignificant about small-scale events - doing your first back-bend in a yoga class! sending a text message to the wrong person! - and also that Mr. Pickwick's ordinary wisdom is exactly what we need to navigate through our small-scale lives.
While I was reading The Pickwick Papers, I happened to see a friend chasing his hat down Glebe Point Road.  Even Mr. Pickwick loses his hat from time to time, and here's how he deals with it:
There are very few moments in a man's existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgment, are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be precipitate, or he runs over it; he must not rush into the opposite extreme, or he loses it altogether. The best way is to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, to be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head; smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.