“My Struggles”: Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead

kingsolverPractically from our first meeting, she’d been after me to write a recovery journal. I told her I don’t write, I draw. She said this would be for myself only. I could share it, but only if I chose to do so. The idea being to get clarity and process some of my traumas. On that particular ball of yarn I didn’t know where to start. She suggested pinpointing where my struggles had started with substance abuse, abandonment, and so forth . . . I’ve made any number of false starts with this mess. You think you know where your own troubles lies, only to stare down the page and realize, no. Not there. It started earlier. Like these wars going back to George Washington and whiskey. Or in my case, chapter 1. First, I got myself born. The worst of the job was up to me. Here we are.

For a novel that has (more or less) exactly the same plot and (more or less) the same characters as David Copperfield, Demon Copperhead is remarkably unlike David Copperfield. This confused me a lot when I read the first half of Kingsolver’s novel back in January—confused and also alienated me, to the point that I not only put it aside unfinished but wrote plaintively to my book club asking if maybe we could choose something else for our next read. I’m glad now that other members said they were enjoying it and so we stayed the course: with our meeting to talk about it finally looming, I picked it up again yesterday and ended up reading right through to the end in a few hours. I was not delighted by it, but I became engrossed in it, and though overall I am still disappointed in it as a revision of Dickens’s novel, as its own novel Demon Copperhead is, I think, actually pretty good.

It is tempting but probably pointless to track through Demon Copperhead comparing its main ingredients to their counterparts in David Copperfield. On the other hand, some comparison is irresistible, if only to illustrate how Kingsolver both does and doesn’t do what Dickens does. “First, I got myself born,” her novel begins. Here, in contrast, is the famous opening of David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

copperfieldKingsolver jumps right into the action, and really, it never stops, for the next 500+ pages. Demon Copperhead is a rush of narrative—a copious, colorful, fast-moving torrent of words. Although it is clear by the end of the novel that it is, like the original, retrospective, it has none of the layers of David Copperfield, which is complicated and enriched by foreshadowing and dramatic irony. It is perhaps surprising, given his reputation for exaggeration and hyperbole, that, on my reading anyway, Dickens is by far the more subtle and nuanced author of the two. Kingsolver (or, properly, her first-person protagonist Damon Fields) just keeps going and going and going, a kind of tireless Energizer Bunny of grim revelations about the hardships of life for a child born in poverty in Appalachia and growing up through the worst of the opioid crisis. At a time when the idea that fiction should have a purpose is (in elite circles, anyway) often dismissed as incompatible with real art, Demon Copperhead is, unapologetically, a fully committed ‘social problem’ novel: it has more in common, in that respect, with Mary Barton, or even with Bleak House, then with David Copperfield, which is, as its opening line tells us, a story about moral development—an individual story, a Bildungsroman. Its action is always, more than anything else, about David’s character, and especially about his tender, loving heart.

As novel about Appalachia and the opioid crisis, Demon Copperhead is quite compelling, although it is also pretty heavy-handed. (I might not have thought this about the novel if I hadn’t recently watched the excellent series Dopesick, which covers a lot of similar sociological territory and hits some of the same beats, in terms of storytelling.) What I figured out, when I returned to the novel after my long hiatus, is that the David Copperfield framing is a red herring, perhaps based on a misunderstanding or a misapplication of the kind of novel Dickens wrote. This point really clicked for me when I reached Kingsolver’s Acknowledgments, at the end of Demon Copperhead:

I’m grateful to Charles Dickens for writing David Copperfield, his impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society. Those problems are still with us. In adapting this novel to my own place and time, working for years with his outrage, inventiveness, and empathy at my elbow, I’ve come to think of him as my genius friend.

kingsolver2It’s notable to me that the rest of her acknowledgments are to people who helped with expertise related to social problems (“foster care and child protective services . . . logistics and desperations of addiction and recovery, Appalachian history” etc.) – not to Dickens or David Copperfield. It isn’t that David Copperfield is not about child poverty and harsh social conditions; it’s that (I would say, anyway) these circumstances are incidental in David Copperfield to David’s perceptions of his experiences, and to Dickens’s own preference for addressing material conditions as external manifestations of moral and imaginative conditions. At best, Kingsolver is taking Dickens more literally than is usually appropriate; at worst, she is entirely overlooking his preoccupation with David’s inner life.

One of the costs of Kingsolver’s approach is prose that is also excessively literal, chock full of vivid, concrete details but leaving very little to—or providing very little stimulation for—our imaginations. Something I often discuss with my classes is the way Dickens’s writing itself creates in us, as we read it, the kind of mental activity he fears modern life is devaluing and suppressing: the flights of fancy in his language do for us, cultivate in us, what he fears we are losing. He writes in defiance of political economy, of utilitarianism, of facts—at least, of facts reduced to discrete and definitive units of measurement, the way they are in the famous opening of Hard Times:

hardtimesNow, what I want is, Facts.  Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.  You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.  This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.  Stick to Facts, sir!’

Hard Times is Dickens’s most insistent and programmatic condemnation of sticking to “facts,” and also his most dogged but also (I think) rhetorically powerful defense of what he calls “fancy.” But he fights this fight in all of his novels in ways I have talked about here before, including in reference to David Copperfield, at least as much, if not more, through his style as through his explicit content.

I’m not saying Kingsolver’s prose is devoid of fancy. Most of its creative energy seems to me to rest in Damon’s voice, which is blunt and colloquial and observant, but not at all poetic. There is a lot of vivid imagery, although so much of it is in aid of things we’d rather not see that it can be hard to appreciate it as artistic. It’s the other qualities that, to my mind, define “Dickensian” writing that I really miss, though. For one thing, Kingsolver’s novel is entirely unleavened with humor. OK, our introduction to her version of Aunt Betsy and Mr. Dick (here, Damon’s grandmother Betsy Woodall and Brother Dick) is amusing, but oh, how I missed Janet and the donkeys! And though the basics of the plot about Uriah Heep’s malevolent machinations are the same, the exposure of U-Haul has  none of the exuberant joy of Mr. Micawber’s increasingly vehement denunciations:

And last. I am now in a condition to show, by—HEEP’S—false books, and—HEEP’S—real memoranda, beginning with the partially destroyed pocket-book (which I was unable to comprehend, at the time of its accidental discovery by Mrs. Micawber, on our taking possession of our present abode, in the locker or bin devoted to the reception of the ashes calcined on our domestic hearth), that the weaknesses, the faults, the very virtues, the parental affections, and the sense of honour, of the unhappy Mr. W. have been for years acted on by, and warped to the base purposes of—HEEP. That Mr. W. has been for years deluded and plundered, in every conceivable manner, to the pecuniary aggrandisement of the avaricious, false, and grasping—HEEP.

Yes, he goes on like this for pages—and (as Joe Gargery would say), what larks!

Dickens PortraitWhat I missed most of all in Demon Copperhead was the melancholy tenderness that suffuses David Copperfield, and the way Dickens shades David’s highs and lows with his profound understanding of both the necessity and the heartbreak of losing our childhood innocence. The David that worships Steerforth and adores Dora is so loving and lovable: he is wrong, of course, in both cases, but Dickens is so good at making us feel to our core the cost of outgrowing mistakes like these, of becoming someone too savvy and knowing and suspicious to follow our hearts without question.

There’s also just nothing in Demon Copperhead that rises to the level of Dickens’s sheer virtuosity as a writer in David Copperfield. The scene in which Kingsolver’s Steerforth (Fast Forward) comes to his end is dramatic and suspenseful but it has neither the rich pathos nor the glorious prose of Dickens’s chapter “The Tempest”:

The tremendous sea itself, when I could find sufficient pause to look at it, in the agitation of the blinding wind, the flying stones and sand, and the awful noise, confounded me. As the high watery walls came rolling in, and, at their highest, tumbled into surf, they looked as if the least would engulf the town. As the receding wave swept back with a hoarse roar, it seemed to scoop out deep caves in the beach, as if its purpose were to undermine the earth. When some white-headed billows thundered on, and dashed themselves to pieces before they reached the land, every fragment of the late whole seemed possessed by the full might of its wrath, rushing to be gathered to the composition of another monster. Undulating hills were changed to valleys, undulating valleys (with a solitary storm-bird sometimes skimming through them) were lifted up to hills; masses of water shivered and shook the beach with a booming sound; every shape tumultuously rolled on, as soon as made, to change its shape and place, and beat another shape and place away; the ideal shore on the horizon, with its towers and buildings, rose and fell; the clouds fell fast and thick; I seemed to see a rending and upheaving of all nature.

The ending of the chapter is in a different register altogether from the extravagance of that description: quieter, sadder, and resonant with everything that David has known and been and loved and lost:

As I sat beside the bed, when hope was abandoned and all was done, a fisherman, who had known me when Emily and I were children, and ever since, whispered my name at the door.

‘Sir,’ said he, with tears starting to his weather-beaten face, which, with his trembling lips, was ashy pale, ‘will you come over yonder?’

The old remembrance that had been recalled to me, was in his look. I asked him, terror-stricken, leaning on the arm he held out to support me:

‘Has a body come ashore?’

He said, ‘Yes.’

‘Do I know it?’ I asked then.

He answered nothing.

But he led me to the shore. And on that part of it where she and I had looked for shells, two children—on that part of it where some lighter fragments of the old boat, blown down last night, had been scattered by the wind—among the ruins of the home he had wronged—I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.

Honestly, it seems kind of unfair to point out that Kingsolver doesn’t—perhaps can’t—write like that. There’s a reason Dickens was called “the Inimitable!” No doubt, too, there are some of you who prefer what she does to what Dickens does. (To each their own, of course, but also, you’re just wrong!) To invite comparison with the greats is to set yourself up for failure, and I definitely wouldn’t say Demon Copperhead is a failure. I doubt I’ll read it again, though, whereas I am wholeheartedly looking forward to rereading David Copperfield again this fall with my students.


Crying Over Bleak House: My Sentimental Journey

RichardIIITomb.jpgThe George Eliot Bicentenary Conference was the main reason for my recent trip to England, but of course I took advantage of having crossed the pond to do a bit of sightseeing. I spent a couple of days in London on either side of the conference, and I also traveled to Leicester a day ahead of time so I could visit the Richard III Visitor Center and Richard’s new tomb in Leicester Cathedral.

My 2012 essay “All the World to Nothing” in Open Letters Monthly explains my longstanding fascination with Richard III and includes a delightfully (or mortifyingly) geeky photograph of a much younger me beside his statue in 1986. I could not quite recreate that picture on this trip, but I did take a selfie next to the model of his head made by experts in facial reconstruction after his skeleton was discovered under a parking lot and then confirmed as his. (It’s a remarkable story; the documentary about it is available here if you’re interested.) The excavation site was protected when the parking lot was repaved and you can see where he was actually found, under the floor of the long-gone Grey Friars Church. Even the intrusively chatty volunteer stationed by it could not completely dispel the haunting feeling of actually standing where his ruined body had lain for 500 years. (Bless her heart, she was just enthusiastic, but she would keep telling me things I already knew!)Burial-Site

I expected to be moved by seeing Richard’s grave, and I was. It has been a long time since I felt the warm partisanship on his behalf that Tey’s The Daughter of Time once sparked: it wasn’t fervent Ricardianism in real time that made this visit emotional so much as being reminded of how ardently I was once involved in it all and feeling connected, through these remarkably concrete (no pun intended!) links between past and present, to my own history. Walking through the exhibit, viewing the burial site, visiting the Cathedral–I was paying my respects to Richard’s memory but also to the person I used to be. It renewed a kind of personal continuity that can seem, living as I do far from my family, away from the sites and landmarks of my own past, disconcertingly fractured. “Where did she go, that girl?” I sometimes wonder; perhaps oddly, there among the stones and relics of a place even further from my old home, I felt sure she was still there.

WindsorThat sense of reconnecting with my former self is part of what always makes time in London feel so special to me. After my trip there in 2009, I also remarked that I felt “renewed” by the experience. This time too I was, as I wrote then,

most moved by those [sights] that most vividly reminded me of Carlyle’s words about Scott, that he had “taught all men this truth … that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies and abstractions of men.”

On this visit I returned to some of the same places I went to in 2009 and also in 2011, when I was in England for a conference in Birmingham–including (of course!) most of the same bookstores. I especially enjoy wandering the streets and squares of Bloomsbury, which in their shabby elegance feel strangely homey to me: it’s easy to imagine not just Woolf and her cohort but Brittain and Holtby striding along or settling on a shady bench deep in conversation. I visited Windsor Castle for the first time on this trip, and it is grandiose and impressive; it was thrilling to walk between the towering walls that housed so many historical icons and breathtaking to look down in St. George’s Chapel and see that Henry VIII was buried below my feet. But it felt more personally meaningful just to sit in Gordon Square and be myself for a while, temporarily unencumbered by external obligations or expectations about who I am or what I should be doing, now or next. That freedom is one of the great luxuries of any holiday, of course, and it’s as risky as it is easy to fall into the fantasy that if you could only stay somewhere else, you could magically be someone else, someone you might like a little better, someone who lives (and writes) better than the person you are when you’re at home.

Gordon Square

One of the repeat visits I made on this trip was to the Dickens Museum, which I had visited with my mother in 2009 but not since. I wanted to go back because in the intervening decade I have spent so much more time reading and thinking about Dickens’s novels. In the meantime, too, the museum has acquired the writing desk Dickens used in his house at Gad’s Hill Place:


To many of us, this desk and chair are familiar from Luke Fildes’ “The Empty Chair,” painted in 1870 after Dickens’s death:


Seeing this desk was the first of what turned out to be several occasions when I found myself unexpectedly tearing up. Another was when I stumbled across some original monthly issues of Bleak House at the V&A:


Another was as I strolled the lovely grounds of Arbury Hall, the manor house on the estate George Eliot’s father Robert Evans managed:


We visited other places on our George Eliot tour–a highlight of my trip overall–but for some reason this was the one I responded to most emotionally.

GE-PlaqueBut why? Not just why did seeing Arbury Hall move me so much but why was I so emotionally susceptible to seeing those bits of Bleak House or standing next to Dickens’s desk? I am used to feeling excited when I see things or visit places that are real parts of the historical stories I have known for so long, but I have not previously been startled into poignancy in quite the same way. Is it just age? I do seem, now that I’m into my fifties, to be more readily tearful, which is no doubt partly hormones but which I think is also because of the keen awareness of time passing that has come with other changes in my life, such as my children both graduating from high school and moving out of the house–an ongoing process at this point but still a significant transition for all of us. Also, as I approach twenty-five years of working at Dalhousie, and as so many of my senior colleagues retire and disappear from my day-to-day life, I have had to acknowledge that I am now “senior” here, and that my own next big professional milestone will also be retirement–it’s not imminent, but it’s certainly visible on the horizon.

Silas-First-EdPerhaps it’s these contexts that gave greater resonance to seeing these tangible pieces of other people’s lives, especially people who have made such a mark on mine. Though I have usually considered writers’ biographies of secondary interest to their work, there was something powerful for me this time in being reminded that Dickens and Eliot were both very real people who had, and whose books had, a real physical presence in the world. People sometimes talk dismissively about fiction as if it is insubstantial, inessential, peripheral to to the “real world” (a term often deployed to mean utilitarian business of some kind). But words and ideas and books are very real things, and they make a very real difference in the world: they make us think and feel differently about it and thus act differently in it. Another of my London stops this time was at The Second Shelf , where I held first editions of Silas Marner and North and South in my hands (very carefully!). I described this on Twitter only slightly hyperbolically as the closest thing I could have to a religious experience. In the presentation I gave at the conference, I quoted from George Eliot’s poem “O, may I join the choir invisible”:

O, may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence …

There’s no question that she lived up to this wish. It’s hard for me not to feel a bit as Dorothea does, though with a more deserving object: “what a work to be in any way present at, to assist in, though only as a lamp-holder!”

Even so, I’m still not entirely sure why it kept making me cry to be in proximity to what one person I spoke with about it aptly called the “materiality” of these writers’ lives. But it seems right to give Dickens the last word on this: “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”

South Farm, Arbury Estate.
George Eliot was born in the upstairs room
November 22 1819


“What was a girl to Dombey and Son!”

dombey-oupThey had been married ten years, and until this present day on which Mr. Dombey sat jingling and jingling his heavy gold watch-chain in the great arm-chair by the side of the bed, had had no issue.

–To speak of; none worth mentioning. There had been a girl some six years before, and the child, who had stolen into the chamber unobserved, was now crouching timidly, in a corner whence she could see her mother’s face. But what was a girl to Dombey and Son! In the capital of the House’s name and dignity, such a child was merely a piece of base coin that couldn’t be invested–a bad Boy–nothing more.

I have finished making my way through Dombey and Son. I admit, it was a bit of a struggle at times–not (or not just) because it is, indeed, very long, but because I read it cold, without critical preparation. This is my preference for most books on a first read, so that I avoid carrying someone else’s interpretation with me, but it is also a calculated risk because interpretive expectations provide guidance and filters. For Dombey and Son, which is diffuse and stuffed full of characters whose purpose or importance is often not clear at first meeting, I think a bit of preparation would have helped me, even if it might also have spoiled some of the effects. My experience with the novel actually reassured me, in fact, that my own pedagogical approach to door stoppers of this kind is probably about right: I do my best to set up patterns and themes for my students to follow, so that they can sort and focus, but I also try not to give the game away, so that they can still enjoy figuring things out and also being surprised by what happens next.

dombey-penguinThat said, I think that if Dombey and Son were a better novel, I might have been fine on my own and not fallen, as I sadly did, into occasional fits of boredom, impatience, or irritation. Though obviously a first read is almost by definition an imperfect one, some books nonetheless make their greatness clear pretty promptly, and I didn’t think Dombey and Son ever did. It lacks the joyousness of David Copperfield: its children have all the pathos and none of the fun, its villains are more cardboard, its eccentrics are less quirky and more repetitive, its heroes and especially its  heroine are much duller (imagine, a heroine who makes Agnes look subtle and complicated!). Though there is something impressive in the portrait of Mr. Dombey and the destructive vortex of his pride, Dickens does not take that critique and radiate it outward with anything like the breathtaking audacity of Bleak House, with its many variations on its central themes. The fairy tale quality of Florence’s story, with its long emotional exile as she is, so paradoxically, held captive by her father’s neglect, loses a lot of its impact as it drags on with its one repetitive idea: Louisa Gradgrind’s story has some of the same qualities but is so much more intense, and also so much more interesting because, unlike Florence, Louisa is capable of anger.

Edith, on the other hand, seemed to me a worthy cousin of both Louisa and Lady Dedlock: she sees who she has been made into and by what and for whom, and her furious rejection of it all gave the book some welcome drama. The high register of her part seemed almost incongruous, given how much of the rest of the novel consists of moping of one kind or another, but in her carefully cultivated value as a material acquisition she functions as a good foil to Florence, whose true value her father only very belatedly is able to acknowledge. Still, their actual relationship did not reverberate thematically the way Esther’s and Lady Dedlock’s does in their novel. Similarly, Walter and Florence’s romance was sweet, if painfully obvious, but didn’t seem to mean much. The business aspect and especially the recurrent emphasis on modernization was interesting, but Little Dorrit seems to me to do more thought-provoking things with commerce and innovation.

bleak-housseAnd so it went for me, really, throughout Dombey and Son: it kept reminding me of other Dickens novels but the comparison was never in its favor. I flagged a lot of bits I liked, and over its 900+ pages there were certainly moments I found sad or funny or even great in that way that only Dickens can be great. I was pretty fond of Captain Cuttle by the end! But at the same time, overall it felt cluttered and it took (yes) a bit too long to get us to the one result that really mattered, namely Mr. Dombey’s realization that his daughter was always already the child he needed. In Novels of the Eighteen-Forties Kathleen Tillotson notes that “Dombey and Son stands out from among Dickens’s novels as the earliest example of responsible and successful planning; it has unity not only of action, but of design and feeling.” I suppose, then, that you could consider it practice for the masterpieces that would follow, a lesser but valuable trial run. I can’t imagine choosing it as a teaching text over any of the ones I usually assign.

Dombey and Son Is Pretty Long

dombey-oupI’m 337 pages into my Oxford World’s Classics edition of Dombey and Son. It ends on page 925, which means I’ve read just over a third of the novel. Not all that much has actually happened–a birth, a few trips and some time at school, a misadventure or two, a death–but all of it has has happened at great length.

When people don’t like Dickens, a common complaint, in my experience, is the length of his novels. Just a few days ago–on Dickens’s birthday, in fact–someone I follow on Twitter said decisively that he thinks they are “too long.” I took a deep breath and obeyed Internet Rule #2 (You Don’t Have to Weigh In). I really wanted to, though, because like the question “but is it any good?” the assertion “it’s too long” seems to me to need a lot of unpacking before it means much. Just as “good at what” is the essential follow-up question to the former, surely “too long for what?” is the obvious follow-up question for the latter. Too long for our dwindling attention spans, perhaps? Too long to get through in the time we are able to allot to it? Too long to leave time for all the other books we want to get to? Too long to keep our interest? Aha: now we are moving away from things that might be wrong with us to things that might be wrong with the book itself!

The best kind of explanation for judging a book “too long” is that it is longer than it needed to be to accomplish its own purposes. This doesn’t end the matter, of course, since now we have to explain what we think those purposes are in a way that somehow disentangles them from the only form in which we have ever and will ever encounter them: the novel as is. Still, I think when most of us call a book “too long” (as I’ve certainly done myself) that is what we mean, or think we mean, or want to mean. We’d like to think we would never be negative about a long book just because we aren’t up to the job of reading all of it. No: if we’re finding it too long, if it feels too long to us, it’s the author who has come up short.

bleak-housseI actually don’t know yet if I think Dombey and Son is too long for its purposes. I hardly know what it’s about yet! Reading it, however, especially after seeing that emphatic criticism tossed out on Twitter with such confidence, I have felt very aware of its length. I’ve been thinking about the strategies I suggest to my students when we read Bleak House, which is even longer (976 pages), many of which have to do with managing the information overload that comes with a first exposure to so many characters before you know who really matters or how they are connected, and with multiple unfolding plots that don’t yet have a known shape. My first class or two for any long novel is usually spent providing what I hope will be useful and widely applicable guidelines: look for variations on this theme, think about these kinds of contrasts between characters, pay attention to who does this and who does that. Students need what one critic calls “rules of notice.”

OUP MiddlemarchWhen I taught David Copperfield in the fall, I addressed its length explicitly (the OUP edition is 944 pages). I always talk about length when teaching Middlemarch. “I don’t see how the sort of thing I want to do could have been done briefly,” Eliot wrote: that’s a good starting point for discussion about what exactly she is doing and how those purposes make the novel’s scale an important element of its form. (Interestingly, at least in the OUP edition Middlemarch, at 904 pages, is shorter than any of these Dickens novels, though I don’t know if the font size or page layout is standard. It reads longer, I think, perhaps because it demands scrupulous attention in a way that Dickens’s exuberant excesses may not appear to.) With Bleak House, we usually tie the novel’s multiplicities to the scale of its critique: it isn’t about one house or one family or one sad crossing sweeper but about a whole society.

coppefieldWith David Copperfield, though, I found myself wanting to add another consideration, which is the particular ways Dickens makes his novels so long–when he does, because of course he doesn’t always, which is another reason to think about their length as meaningful rather than haphazard or (as those who object to Dickens’s novels as “too long” seem to imply) artistically lazy or inept. A lot of the length in Dickens’s fiction comes from what we might call “riffing.” (Merriam-Webster defines “riff” as “a rapid energetic often improvised verbal outpouring.”) If you’re going to get impatient with Dickens, it is likely to be when he has clearly already made his point, or described his character, or played that particular rhetorical note, but he just keeps on going. And going. And going. “He just can’t stop himself!” expostulates the irritated reader; “I wish he’d just get on with it!”

But why should he stop himself? Dickens is not my favorite novelist, but my favorite thing about him is that it is everywhere obvious in his fiction that he is in love with words: he relishes them and their effects. He has so much fun with them! Think about his description of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner.” Any one (or maybe two) of these adjectives would have done the job, but all seven of them together make such an irresistible mouthful. In my classes on David Copperfield, we considered how his verbal excesses can be seen not just as pleasurable in this way but as representing an anti-Utilitarian aesthetic that values joy and abundance and inclusion over efficiency, that refuses to travel with the ruthless efficiency of a railway straight from Point A to Point B but revels in wandering byways and seeing the sights and having as much fun as possible along the way. It is a critical truth widely (though certainly not universally) acknowledged these days that less is more–but why? “Anyone and everyone taking a writing class,” Nick Hornby wrote (reflecting on his own experience of reading David Copperfield)

knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress. What’s that chinking noise? It’s the sound of the assiduous creative-writing student hitting bone. You can’t read a review of, say, a Coetzee book without coming across the word “spare,” used invariably with approval; I just Googled “J. M. Coetzee + spare” and got 907 hits, almost all of them different.

“Where,” he demands, “would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes? Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where.” What a shame that would be! That Dickens’s novels are too long is a feature, not a bug.dombey-penguin

I used a railway as my metaphor above because one of the most strikingly redundant but also most remarkable passages of Dombey and Son that I’ve read so far is set on a train. It is not a comic passage, and yet even here, where the subject is grief and selfishness and futility, there’s a quality of joyful exuberance in the writing that carries us–or me, at least–right along:

[Mr Dombey] found no pleasure or relief in the journey. Tortured by these thoughts he carried monotony with him, through the rushing landscape, and hurried headlong, not through a rich and varied country, but a wilderness of blighted plans and gnawing jealousies. The very speed at which the train was whirled along, mocked the swift course of the young life that had been borne away so steadily and so inexorably to its foredoomed end. The power that forced itself upon its iron way—its own—defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.

Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, from the town, burrowing among the dwellings of men and making the streets hum, flashing out into the meadows for a moment, mining in through the damp earth, booming on in darkness and heavy air, bursting out again into the sunny day so bright and wide; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, through the fields, through the woods, through the corn, through the hay, through the chalk, through the mould, through the clay, through the rock, among objects close at hand and almost in the grasp, ever flying from the traveller, and a deceitful distance ever moving slowly within him: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!

Through the hollow, on the height, by the heath, by the orchard, by the park, by the garden, over the canal, across the river, where the sheep are feeding, where the mill is going, where the barge is floating, where the dead are lying, where the factory is smoking, where the stream is running, where the village clusters, where the great cathedral rises, where the bleak moor lies, and the wild breeze smooths or ruffles it at its inconstant will; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, and no trace to leave behind but dust and vapour: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!

Breasting the wind and light, the shower and sunshine, away, and still away, it rolls and roars, fierce and rapid, smooth and certain, and great works and massive bridges crossing up above, fall like a beam of shadow an inch broad, upon the eye, and then are lost. Away, and still away, onward and onward ever: glimpses of cottage-homes, of houses, mansions, rich estates, of husbandry and handicraft, of people, of old roads and paths that look deserted, small, and insignificant as they are left behind: and so they do, and what else is there but such glimpses, in the track of the indomitable monster, Death!

Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, plunging down into the earth again, and working on in such a storm of energy and perseverance, that amidst the darkness and whirlwind the motion seems reversed, and to tend furiously backward, until a ray of light upon the wet wall shows its surface flying past like a fierce stream. Away once more into the day, and through the day, with a shrill yell of exultation, roaring, rattling, tearing on, spurning everything with its dark breath, sometimes pausing for a minute where a crowd of faces are, that in a minute more are not; sometimes lapping water greedily, and before the spout at which it drinks has ceased to drip upon the ground, shrieking, roaring, rattling through the purple distance!

Louder and louder yet, it shrieks and cries as it comes tearing on resistless to the goal: and now its way, still like the way of Death, is strewn with ashes thickly. Everything around is blackened. There are dark pools of water, muddy lanes, and miserable habitations far below. There are jagged walls and falling houses close at hand, and through the battered roofs and broken windows, wretched rooms are seen, where want and fever hide themselves in many wretched shapes, while smoke and crowded gables, and distorted chimneys, and deformity of brick and mortar penning up deformity of mind and body, choke the murky distance. As Mr Dombey looks out of his carriage window, it is never in his thoughts that the monster who has brought him there has let the light of day in on these things: not made or caused them. It was the journey’s fitting end, and might have been the end of everything; it was so ruinous and dreary.

Is the passage too long? Absolutely, and it’s also extraordinary. There’s something breathtaking, audacious, exhilarating, about its resistance to any economy of words: if you removed “every superfluous word” from these pages, there would be nothing left at all.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Samantha Silva, Mr. Dickens and His Carol

Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was first published on this day in 1843, so it seems like an apt time to say a little about Samantha Silva’s homage to that holiday classic, Mr. Dickens and His Carol. I actually read Silva’s novel with the intent to review it more formally, but two different plans for that fell through. Frankly, I was relieved both times, because I didn’t–don’t–have that much to say about the novel! It’s inoffensive. It’s moderately diverting. It’s a nice idea. You should reread A Christmas Carol instead.

The thing is, they called Dickens “The Inimitable” for a reason. Love him or hate him, he’s a writer who absolutely revels in what words can do, and who takes risks and leaps with them, who frolics and freaks out with them, who tries every trick he can think of to make us laugh and tremble and cry with them. His is an aesthetic of excess, of extravagance, both structurally and emotionally, and I know plenty of readers who get impatient with it, or worse. I myself am actually a late convert–and there’s still plenty of Dickens I haven’t read–but I’ve come to cherish him for just that sense that he’s absolutely throwing himself into his writing, giving it, and thus giving us, everything he’s got. As I wrote a few years ago, when David Copperfield saved me from a reading slump, “his books radiate delight in words and stories and imagination.” It can be intoxicating.

Nothing about Mr. Dickens and His Carol is intoxicating. It’s a perfectly fine story in which the writing of A Christmas Carol itself becomes the means of saving both Dickens and Christmas. Inevitably, Silva’s writing is pedestrian by comparison with her predecessor’s. When at long last the redemptive tale is written and then read aloud to the rapturous delight of Dickens’s audience,

Dickens bowed, long and low. His heart was thundering inside him, too, louder than all the clapping, which seemed not to subside at all. He needed the moment. It was as if he’d come to the crest of a great mountain peak and, though panting and spent, could see all the world. And how vivid a view. Even the Turkish carpet under his feet was every color imaginable, an alchemy of alum, copper, and chrome mied with madder root, indigo, poppy, and sage. What magic there was all around him. Words were inadequate, but all he had. He didn’t know where they came from or why, but it was how we told one another what the world was and might be. Who we were, and might become. It was the only magic he had. Everything else was faith.

Fair enough. But here’s an example of the real magic he had:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and on his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperatures always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, nor wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purposes, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. . . .

I could go on–Dickens certainly does (“and on and on and on,” I imagine the nay-sayers muttering)–but I’m sure you already see the difference. One writer is competently telling a story; the other is having a grand old time. “I know that of late I’ve pitied myself a poor man,” says Silva’s Dickens to his long-suffering wife Catherine,

–poor in love, in riches, in prospects. But I’ve learned, in these days of your absence . . . that whatever I suffered was a poverty of my own vision.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart,” exclaims Dickens’s redeemed miser,

and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!

And then discovering he does indeed have a precious second chance, he is “checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had every heard”:

Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

Running to his window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!

Only one of the two novels feels like a revelation.

It is of course not fair to insist that someone writing about Dickens should try to write like Dickens. The results would probably be pretty awful, actually, so Silva was almost certainly wise just to write her own novel in her own way. I don’t think it’s unreasonable, though, to expect that a novel so heavily invested in another writer’s work will engage with it in some transformative way: even if that endeavor too is likely to fail (or at any rate I don’t know of many great examples, and I can think of some really dreadful ones) at least the attempt will be more interesting–and I just didn’t find Mr. Dickens and His Carol particularly interesting. There are aspects I would have tried to make more sense of for a more formal review, such as how consistent it is to make the story of Dickens’s Christmas redemption turn as much on the commercial success of his new book as on any spiritual revelation–but I don’t think much would really have come of that exercise.

On its own terms, though (and I honestly don’t mean to be damning it with faint praise) Mr. Dickens and His Carol is readable and kind of charming, and it has stretches of prose that, if not truly Dickensian, are still wonderfully tactile and evocative:

The night was an embroidery of stars on a taffeta sky so blue it bled all the black away. No more drab-colored December fringed with fog. The even of Christmas week burst into the world, clear and dry, the streets one continuous blaze of ornament and show. . . . Shops sat in their best trim under bright gaslights turned all the way up, with evergreen plumage four stories high, like a great forest canopy. There were great pyramids of currants and raisins; brown russet apples and golden bobs, Ribston Pippins and huge winter pears; towers of jams, jellies, and bonbons; solid walls of sardines, potted meats, bottled pickles, drummed figs. . . . Over grappling horses’ hooves, roaring drivers, and chaffering dealers, rose the harmonies of an oboe, French horn, and flute, warbling a pastoral Christmas tune.

All of London seemed set upon suffering gladly a sprinkle of brotherly this and that, but cheer most of all.

And the novel is sometimes even touching, as Dickens struggles through his writing slump and emerges–thanks to some visitations of his own and some hard-won insights into his own life–renewed and filled with the spirit of Christmas: “He turned his face to the star-kissed winter sky, from which tiny, glittering snowflakes began to fall. He couldn’t have been happier had he been transported to Paradise.” Silva says in her Author’s Note that “the book is, most of all, a fan letter”–and the sincerity of her appreciation for Dickens and his brilliant little Christmas ornament of a book is palpable and more than a little heartwarming.

This Week In My Classes: Social Justice and Warriors

Although it is often difficult to concentrate on reading fiction right now, amidst the clamor of current events, it is also the case that current events have their usual uncanny way of making some of the novels I’m reading seem more important than ever.

Take Bleak House, for instance, which we have just wrapped up in 19th-Century Fiction. As I mentioned in my post about teaching Hard Times last March (remember last March, when the possibility that Mr Bounderby would actually win the U.S. presidency seemed absurd?), there are plenty of reasons to look skeptically at Dickens’s approach to the problems of the day. Jo is every bit as safely pathetic a focus for our reforming zeal as Stephen Blackpool, for instance, and as much an argument for preserving ignorance and poverty (so as not to spoil instinctive virtue) as Joe Gargery in Great ExpectationsBleak House may focus eloquently on dysfunctional systems, but it returns us repeatedly to well-meaning individuals as our best hope for change, keeping its political radicals securely on the margins (in the form of, for example, Mrs. Rouncewell’s son, the insufficiently respectful ironmaster) while idealizing benevolent paternalism (in the form of, among others, Mr. Jarndyce — who is never held accountable by anyone for his enabling of the odious Mr. Skimpole). It mercilessly satirizes women who care about causes more than about their children — and that’s not all.

Yes, yes, I am well aware: for all these reasons and more, Dickens is not the ideal standard-bearer for today’s resistance. (And that’s just with respect to his fiction, without even getting into his moral failings as an actual man and how they ought to figure in our reading of his novels.) But (as I also said about Hard Times), I think there are things about both the arguments and the affect of a novel like Bleak House that could (maybe even should) trump those objections — especially now. I’m not saying these are just petty quibbles, but there are times when picking fights with people who in their own way are fighting on your side can seem counterproductive. As a friendly cynic standing next to me at the recent Women’s March rally said during one of the speeches, “That’s the thing about coalitions: you probably won’t all agree on everything.”

Bleak House, for instance, is eloquent about the ethical obligations of both a shared society and our common humanity. One particularly brilliant thing about the novel is the way it formally enacts the interconnectedness of even the most seeming disparate elements of its complex and widely dispersed universe. “What connexion can there be,” asks the third-person narrator, at once coy and portentous,

between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world who from opposite sides of great gulfs have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!

The answer Bleak House makes over and over is not just that everyone is connected but that it is both morally and practically destructive to act is if they aren’t — to pursue only narrow self-interest, or single-minded partisanship. Dickens may wring every possible tear out of Jo’s story, but his cry that such children are “dying thus around us every day” is meant to compel his readers out of their comfortable chairs and into constructive action. Esther may be a cloying embodiment of every Victorian cliché about woman’s nature, but Lady Dedlock’s story is a devastating indictment of some of those very ideals, some of which (such as the sexual double standard) are not ones we can complacently claim to have left behind. Bleak House is a novel obsessed with getting us to care about how other people — people unlike ourselves — live, and how they die, and what we might have to do with them. It champions the vulnerable, the persecuted, and the unloved; it makes us feel, over and over, that the best thing anyone can possibly do is — quietly, unassumingly, tenderly — offer whatever help they can, whenever they see the need.

Bleak House is and does more than this, of course. It is a dramatic detective novel, a shameless melodrama, a somewhat peculiar and repressed romance, a vast compendium of images and objects and whimsy and tragedy and sheer, delirious delight in language. It contains multitudes! What moved me particularly about it this time, though, is something not quite reducible to its many component parts, to its characters and events … something like its spirit, or its heart. Heartsick as many recent events have made me, I’ve never felt less inclined towards a hermeneutics of suspicion, whatever its justifications. Maybe Dickens hadn’t worked out the best way to make the world a better, fairer, more compassionate place, but reading Bleak House you can sure tell that’s what he wanted to do, and wanted us to do. Right now, I’ll take it.

valdezThe other novel I’ve been working on for class is Valdez Is Coming. It is a pretty different reading experience in almost every way, but it too turns on questions about what’s right and what’s fair, and about when and where to draw the line in the face of an injustice. “Why do you bother?” Valdez is asked about his quest to get restitution for a widow whose fate nobody else cares about because she’s Apache and her dead husband (though shot by Valdez himself) was the victim of their unrepentant racism. “If I tell you what I think,” he replies, “it doesn’t sound right. It’s something I know.” By that time we know too why standing up to the men who mocked him, shot at him, then crucified him when he asked for justice is something he has to do. It’s about not letting them win, yes, but that outcome matters because of who they are, and who he is — and, if we’re on his side, who we want to be, and how we want the world to be. “You get one time, mister, to prove who you are” he tells his antagonist during their final showdown. Valdez (true to his genre) proves who he is through action, including a lot of violence. (I wouldn’t like this novel as much as I do if this violence were treated differently — simply as action, for instance, or drama — but Leonard imbues it with moral and even existential meaning.) A lot of us are thinking, now, about what actions we can take, in our world and in our own quieter way, to prove who we are.

This Week In My Classes: Ups and Downs

The past couple of weeks have felt pretty hectic to me, mostly because any time you teach a new course, or just new material, you have to build up all its materials from scratch. This term it’s Pulp Fiction that needs, well, everything! Not only do I not have any lecture notes to draw on for most of the readings (but boy, am I looking forward to our weeks on The Maltese Falcon, which I have taught before!) but I have no pre-existing handouts, worksheets, tutorial plans, or essay topics, and also not many strong instincts about what kinds of exercises or discussion questions or essay topics will get good results. You can only find that out by making some stuff up and seeing how it goes, which means inevitably there are some hits and some misses. I never usually finalize a lot of course materials in advance, because I want them to develop organically — to be responsive to discussion, and to my ongoing discoveries about what’s interesting or useful, but at this point I have a lot of files I can draw on for ideas for my standard teaching assignments. All I have for Pulp Fiction is my preparatory research and my best guesses!

That said, I think it’s going reasonably well, especially now that the initial anxiety of the start of term has faded and I’m trusting myself and the class more to generate ideas and work with them together. I lectured a bit too much at first, but our last couple of sessions have been about as lively as I usually expect from a class at that level and of that size (it’s settling down to about 80 students). So far we’ve read four short stories, three of them westerns, and today we start work on Valdez Is Coming, which will also be the focus of their first longer assignment. One pedagogical challenge for me is that the characteristic style of the western does not lend itself very well to the kind of close reading strategies that I usually focus on in introductory courses. I’m not saying it’s impossible — just that it has been harder to find passages that seem likely to reward that kind of attention, mostly because the prose is very terse and often very literal, and the stories are quite action- and character-driven. Usually by this point in the term I would have spent quite a bit of time on figurative language, and so far all we’ve really seen examples of is a bit of potential symbolism and some strong imagery, especially of the landscapes. I suppose this is more revealing about what I’m typically reading (or urging them to read) for than anything else: I am having to retrain myself to think about action and dialogue more, and about things like sentence length and rhythm and pacing.

In 19th-Century Fiction we are nearly through Bleak House. They seem to be hanging in there! In this class too I have felt myself falling into too much lecturing, but I have been consciously working on balancing that out with some much more open-ended sessions. I feel as if lecturing in a more orderly way can be an important part of our work on a novel as long and complex as Bleak House, where a risk for newcomers to the novel is getting overwhelmed by minutiae: I try in my lecture segments to give them big grids or maps on which they can later place specific characters or incidents as they arise, or rise to prominence. I also try to plant interpretive seeds in the form of questions to be followed up on as they read further. That way, when we do approach topics through discussion, they will already have been thinking about some of them on their own — which usually seems to work!

Today’s installment of Bleak House was Chapters 46-54, which include the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn and then Inspector Bucket’s investigation, culminating in the dramatic “reveal” scene in which we find out that [redacted] is the murderer. In the same sequences, Bucket tells Sir Leicester the story we already know about Lady Dedlock’s past. One of the big surprises of the novel is that these revelations bring out the best in Sir Leicester, who until that moment has seemed little more than a buffoon, a walking anachronism. His one redeeming feature has been his devotion to his Lady, and now we see that this, at any rate, is neither foolish nor superficial, but comes from everything that is best in him. As he looks out the window of his ancestral home, bewildered and hurt at the vision of “thousands of fingers pointing at him, thousands of faces sneering at him,” because of his wife’s disgrace, it is she to whom “he addresses his tearing of his white hair, and his extended arms”:

It is she in association with whom, saving that she has been for years a main fibre of the root of his dignity and pride, he has never had a selfish thought. It is she whom he has loved, admired, honoured, and set up for the world to respect. It is she who, at the core of all the constrained formalities and conventionalities of his life, has been a stock of living tenderness and love, susceptible as nothing else is of being struck with the agony he feels. He sees her, almost to the exclusion of himself, and cannot bear to look upon her cast down from the high place she has graced so well.

And even to the point of his sinking on the ground, oblivious of his suffering, he can yet pronounce her name with something like distinctness in the midst of those intrusive sounds, and in a tone of mourning and compassion rather than reproach.

These are also the chapters in which Dickens gives us one of his most tender and pathetic deathbeds (“The cart is shaken all to pieces, and the rugged road is very near its end”), and I am always touched to tears by it, but Sir Leicester’s yearning heart touches me as much, perhaps because it feels like such a generous moment, not just on Sir Leicester’s part, but on Dickens’s, to allow something so beautiful to come from such a ridiculous source. As much as the stalwart assistance of Mrs. Bagnet in negotiating on Mr. George’s behalf, or the staunch friendship of Liz and Jenny, who have only each other for comfort, Sir Leicester’s compassion reflects the hope that permeates Bleak House — that against the mud and the fog and the bleakness of it all, we can set the equally pervasive possibility of kindness and love.

This Week In My Classes: Hard Times – for these times


Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be! We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn gray and cold.

Dickens’s subtitle for his 1854 novel Hard Times was “for these times.” I can’t remember another occasion teaching this novel when it has felt so much as if it is also for these times: in the U.S., especially, where Mr. Bounderby is running for president, and Gradgrinds dominate state houses and the governing boards of public universities. There’s a lot not to like about Dickens’s approach to the ‘condition of England’ question but my reservations about, for instance, his anti-union stance and the unbearably condescending (if also unbearably touching) presentation of Stephen Blackpool seem less important right now than his urgent call to readers to resist the dehumanizing influences of greed, materialism, suspicion, and general Gradgrindism. Is there a more stinging and eloquent indictment of these tendencies than his memorable description of Coketown in the chapter aptly called “The Key-Note”?

Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The M’Choakumchild school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.

Is there a more despicable figure imaginable than Mr. Bounderby, with his insufferable, dishonest cant about his own prowess?

He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of a coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him. A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples, and such a strained skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open, and lift his eyebrows up. A man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon, and ready to start. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.

“You may cut the piece out with your penknife if you like, Tom. I wouldn’t cry!” exclaims Louisa after Bounderby kisses her on the cheek, and the violence of her antipathy seems if anything inadequate to the rage and disgust we feel on her behalf at his creepily pedophiliac obsession with her. Such a grotesque predator should have nothing, be nothing, count for nothing — and the genius of Hard Times is that it makes us feel how horrible it is that such a man gets any kind of respect, and lets us enjoy seeing him exposed for the repellent bully he is.

The novel also, in more subtle and moving ways, unfolds the tragedy of Gradgrindism, personified in Tom’s dishonor and Louisa’s collapse. Here the conversion of Mr. Gradgrind himself holds the novel’s most significant promise: that the unnatural domination of fancy by fact can be overcome by pity and love — that humanity is greater and stronger and more beautiful than is dreamed of in the Gradgrind philosophy, and that if we can all be brought to laugh and cry together, we can save it.

If only real life gave us the same satisfaction, the same hope. Dear reader — let it be so!


This Week In My Classes: Lots of Reading

It’s not so much that we are doing a lot of reading this week in particular, but that cumulatively by now, in both classes, we have done a lot of reading. I like this middle phase of term: the logistical confusion of the first couple of weeks is behind us, the frameworks for our class discussions have been established, we have a body of completed work to lean on (bounce off?) as we move along — and the end of term is still far enough away that we aren’t distracted by planning for it.

greatexpectationsIn 19th-Century Fiction we’ve finished our first two novels, Villette and Great Expectations. Although Villette is a fascinating novel, I had more fun (rather to my surprise) rereading Great Expectations. I’ve read and taught it so often that my own expectations were kind of low as we started it up, but I fell right into it, especially the climactic confrontation between Pip, Estella, and Miss Havisham after Pip’s world has been up-ended:

‘You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since — on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!’

In what ecstasy of unhappiness I got these broken words out of myself, I don’t know. The rhapsody welled up within me, like blood from an inward wound, and gushed out. I held her hand to my lips some lingering moments, and so I left her. But ever afterwards, I remembered — and soon afterwards with stronger reason — that while Estella looked at me merely with incredulous wonder, the spectral figure of Miss Havisham, her hand still covering her heart, seemed all resolved into a ghastly stare of pity and remorse.

I know some people recoil from Dickens’s rhetorical excesses and emotional manipulation, and when my defenses are up I can feel the same impatience. But he’s also better than any other novelist I know at ripping the bandage off our wounded humanity and creating moments as morally thrilling as this one. There’s also something fantastic (in both senses of that word) about just how fearless his language and his stories are: his relish for both is practically tangible.

I’ve been thinking about Dickens a lot in the context of the ongoing discussions about YA fiction: why, for instance, should Henry James be the touchstone for grown-up reading? There’s a quality in Dickens that runs afoul of that rarefied, over-intellectualized ideal, but Christopher Beha’s description of the rewards of reading James (and other “adult” fiction) describes Great Expectations astonishingly well:

Much is taken from us as we pass out of childhood, but other human beings who have suffered these losses have created great works of art, works that can only be truly appreciated by those who have suffered the same losses in turn. These works are among the great recompenses that experience offers us.

One of the things we discussed in our last session on Great Expectations is whether it’s worth having made Pip’s mistakes, having suffered as he suffers, because in the end he is capable of narrating the novel — something Joe, for all his admirable qualities, could never do. Dickens, in other words, has built his own novel around just that trade-off between pleasures that can “easily be enjoyed by a child” and hard-won moral and literary maturity. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Beha’s commentary on James (though I’m on record as not finding James that pleasurable to read — for me, he’s more on the mortgage-payment side of adulthood): I’ve just been thinking Dickens has a more interesting role to play in this conversation than he is usually given (in Beha’s essay, a passing reference to him as someone who wrote “inviting, event-packed novels”).Oxford

Next up for us in this class: Middlemarch. As you can imagine, I’m looking forward to this! I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years thinking and talking about Middlemarch, but I haven’t actually reread it patiently for a while. I started on it this morning while the class was writing their short test on Great Expectations, and even as I winced watching Dorothea be so, so wrong, I was reminded all over again how funny the first few chapters are.

Houn-05_-_Hound_of_Baskervilles,_page_24In Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve wrapped up not only The Moonstone but Sherlock Holmes and a sampler of other great detectives as well (we read one story each by G. K Chesterton, R. Austen Freeman, and Jacques Futrelle). Today we started our discussion of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  I enjoy using Christie to spark discussion about canonicity: I point out that despite being possibly the best-selling novelist of all time, she has no literary standing compared to her contemporaries Henry James, Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, which gives me a chance to suggest that modernism set a lot of the terms for discussions of literary merit that we now often take for granted. This means talking about things like linguistic or syntactical difficulty, which on the face of it, Christie is having none of: her prose is remarkably lucid. Next time, though, when all is known, we’ll go over just how tricky she actually is — telling us everything while keeping everything from us. Is this its own kind of difficulty, or is it just trickery, and if so, is that somehow a lower order of skill? To some extent I am playing devil’s advocate in asking why she should be taken any less seriously than Woolf: for me, conversation about Christie flags pretty quickly once the game is played out, and for my money there are other mystery novelists who are a lot more interesting to think about. But she’s excellent of her kind, and I think it’s worth provoking a conversation about whether it makes sense to value some kinds more than others. This is the “genre fiction” version of the YA debates, of course.

Once we wrap up Ackroyd, it’s midterm time in this class, and then we turn to Hammett and Chandler.

This Week In My Classes: Moving Right Along!

We seem to have passed that tipping point past which we hurtle towards the end of term. I feel as if it was only just the weekend, and tomorrow it will be Friday again! Happily, it will also be the Friday before a long weekend, which will give us all time to catch up, or rest up, a bit.

beckIn Mystery & Detective Fiction it continues to be a good term. For whatever reason, I have one of the most lively groups I’ve had in that class, with 15-20 students who pitch in regularly to discussion. In a class of about 80, that’s a pretty good percentage, especially considering that larger classes can themselves be intimidating. It makes the class time go by very fast, and it keeps me on my toes: the closer I stick to the notes I’ve brought in, the less likely I am to be asked a question I can’t answer easily enough, whether it’s about a detail of the plot or a broader issue of interpretation. In my own rereadings I don’t (I can’t) pay equal attention to absolutely everything, and I’m usually focused on the elements that are most important to what I’m planning to talk about. The more open the conversation, the more likely, in contrast, that I’ll discover what I don’t know, or know enough about. I like it, even if it’s sometimes disconcerting. I hope my having to say, occasionally, “Actually, I don’t know,” or “I really can’t remember — can anyone help me out by finding a relevant passage?” doesn’t undermine my students’ confidence in my expertise. Besides, keeping the plot of The Big Sleep straight is hard enough that Chandler himself couldn’t do it, right? This week we’ve wrapped up our discussion of The Terrorists, and tomorrow we start on Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses. In what’s probably becoming a boring refrain about readings for this class, I’ve been wondering for ages about switching it out for one of his longer, richer ones — but Knots and Crosses is usually a crowd-pleaser, and I do enjoy working through its Gothic twists and turns.

In 19thC Fiction from Austen to Dickens we are almost done our time on David Copperfield. It was a rocky start, but the last couple of classes have felt better to me, not just because the level of participation has been higher but because my own sense of what I want us to get out of the conversation is also improving. It has been feeling like a somehow spongier novel to work with than Bleak House or Great Expectations, and though I thought I had a lot of ideas about it, I haven’t been entirely clear in my own mind about how to bring them into focus. The further we read, though, the clearer Dickens’s own patterning becomes, and that has helped. Tomorrow we will have read up to the end of the amazing chapter called “Tempest,” so I’m going to focus on the three major crises of this installment (**spoiler alert**!): Micawber’s take-down of Uriah HEEP, Dora’s decline and death, and Steerforth’s drowning. We’ll talk about them as things that have to happen for David to complete his development — but why? I’ve got some suggestions about Steerforth and Heep as important examples of “not-David”: reflections of David himself that he has to outgrow or reject, figures of what he isn’t, or doesn’t want to be. (There’s plenty of critical writing about this that has been helpful to me as I’ve thought about this, including Oliver Buckton’s essay on ‘Homoerotic Secrets in David Copperfield” and Tara MacDonald’s on ‘race, sexuality, and Uriah Heep‘). As for Dora, I think it’s painfully obvious that she’s not the mature choice for David (some students have already expressed their shock that he actually marries her, instead of realizing his mistake in time). So we’ll talk about his love for her as evidence of his ‘undisciplined heart,’ I expect; I’m interested in why she’s presented with so much pathos and tenderness, too, rather than satirically, given how bad a choice she is. I expect we’ll tie his feelings for her into his love for Steerforth. There is something precious and beautiful in these mistakes, I think: just because childish love is not right (and may even be destructive) doesn’t mean the world would be a better place if we were all smart and knowing and invulnerable to error. My idea for our final class, next Wednesday (after the long weekend!) is to go through some of the claims made for David Copperfield in the context of ethical criticism, looking especially at work by Martha Nussbaum and Marshall Gregory, so trying to get at the value Dickens places on Dickens’s loving mistakes should be good preparation.

Maclise DickensI will be a bit relieved to be done with David Copperfield and on to North and South, which I know much better, but I do relish the challenge of working up a new novel, and I do think, too, that I should assign it again before too long, because teaching it is definitely a learning experience for me as well as for the students. I like the open-endedness of working through a novel without a strong pre-existing interpretation or set of priorities, but it is also hard to lead a discussion without being entirely committed to a particular direction! The ideal class discussion is a good blend of purpose and freedom: next time I think I will get closer to that.

The other major assignment I had this week was presenting to our graduate students’ professionalization seminar, something I also did last year (which prompted this post on whether graduate students should blog). I think it went fine! I have lots to say, and there was plenty of discussion and, as far as I could tell, interest. One thing I found myself stressing that I don’t remember feeling as strongly about last year was that there is exciting literate life outside the academy. My understanding is that the majority of our current cohort of MA students are not heading into PhD programs, and of course PhD students too need to be thinking about non- or alt-academic routes. Lately I have heard from quite a lot of students that they think about doing at least an MA because they want to continue the serious discussion of literature that they have enjoyed as undergraduates. So a new part of my “thinking of going to grad school?” talk is “but you don’t have to be in school to do that”! I don’t think I would have really understood that myself, despite having grown up among passionate readers, if it weren’t for the time I’ve spent among bloggers and reviewers in the last few years.