Weekend Reading: I laughed, I cried, I’d read it again!

And that was just the first book I read this weekend …

Maclise DickensI was right that David Copperfield not only gave me great pleasure while I was reading it but restored my flagging enthusiasm for reading more generally. I finished it over the weekend and loved almost every minute of it.

The big setback for me is always Agnes. Dora is insufferable, but the poor thing is set up as a mistake, not an ideal, which is some compensation — and her final chapter still makes me cry, which is kind of embarrassing, but there we are. Agnes, on the other hand, with that damn finger pointing ever upwards: what kind of an alternative is that? Agnes had me wondering, actually, where the (good) sexy is in Dickens. He’s good at lechery, here exemplified by the horror that is Uriah Heep (and there’s the pedophiliac Bounderby in Hard Times as another example of just how creepy Dickens can make lust). He’s good at treachery, here epitomized by Steerforth’s fatal seduction of Little Emily. And he’s brilliant at childish innocence (Dora) and shining purity (Agnes). But healthy adult sexual desire (you know, the kind both parties are pretty excited about) is harder to spot. It’s pretty broadly hinted at that Agnes is wounded by David’s long insistence on seeing her as a sister, but there’s nothing like Dinah’s blush to make sure we understand the nature of her feelings, while David’s feeling for Agnes never seem other than worshipful admiration. Even though they seem better matched than David and Dora, there’s still something awkward about them as a married couple.

However. Whatever reservations I had about the women in David Copperfield were more or less overwhelmed by the many hilarious and touching and vindictively gratifying parts we are treated to as the novel draws to a close–Mr. Micawber’s denunciation of Uriah Heep, for instance, which (like so much in Dickens) is absolutely best read aloud. And the chapter “Tempest” is just splendid, with no “Dickens being Dickens” apologia required.

Unfortunately, though I was energized by David Copperfield to do a lot more reading this weekend, it was just this book that really excited me. I skimmed through Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which I had picked up at the library because it is supposed to be very funny and at the time I felt I could use a good laugh. Meh. At most I got a couple of chortles out of it. Since I have never liked Saturday Night Live and never been tempted to watch 30 Rock, I guess I should have known better.

faultinstarsThen I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. It went very quickly and I quite enjoyed it: I was engaged from the beginning by the narrator’s voice and the quick pacing and the blend of humor and pathos. But though I thought it was quite good, it also seemed to me a little too self-consciously smart — not just Hazel and her hyper-articulate friends (after all, such teenagers do exist — around here, most of them end up enrolling in the King’s Foundation Year Program, where they continue to talk pretty much like Hazel and Augustus) but the novel as a whole, including the metatextual interaction with An Imperial Affliction. That layer (along with the wry humor of the characters) kept the book from descending into bathos, but it also kept me at kind of an emotional distance: I was not one of those who wept copiously through the final chapters. In fact, a bit to my surprise it didn’t make me cry at all, and here I’ve just confessed to crying over Dora! After I finished it I reread a lot of the discussion of it in this year’s Tournament of Books. I haven’t read many of the other contestants, but I admit I share the feeling expressed by some commenters there that YA literature, however good of its kind and for its intended audience, shouldn’t really compete in the grown-up leagues. And yet it made it to the finals, so what do I know, right?

Finally, I tried a few more chapters of May Sarton’s The Magnificent Spinster. Though I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Sarton, it just has not been going very well: I’ve been finding it prosy and portentous. The narrator insists a great deal that Jane, the spinster of the title, is magnificent, but I’ve been getting no authentic sense of that myself. I like the formal conceit, with the attention to Cam’s problems writing Jane’s life story as a novel. And I like the idea of taking us through so many important historical moments from the perspective such an unusual and individual experience. But with my time running out for summer reading, and with the new term looming along with deadlines for reviews and essays and book clubs, I’ve decided to put this one back on the shelf for now. It’s just not ripe yet (or I’m not). I’m certainly not giving up on Sarton, though: I long to get my hands on Journal of a Solitude.

Saved by the Inimitable!

Judging from a few recent blog posts and twitter updates I’ve seen, a lot of us have fallen into reading slumps lately. I blame my own partly on a phase of duty reading: I was sampling books with an eye to assigning them for a course, which means a lot of them were books I would probably not have picked up otherwise, and while that can lead to some exciting discoveries, it can also just be frustrating, which is what I was finding. As a result I was putting down a lot of books unfinished, which always makes me feel a bit shabby. I have had some fun with a couple of lighter books, including Cotillion, but I’ve been hoping for a book to exhilarate and challenge me the way, say, The Once and Future KingThe Paper Garden, or the Patrick Melrose novels did last summer, and this summer seems to have been light on that kind of reading. I thought May Sarton’s The Magnificent Spinster might be the magic bullet, but I’m about half way through and frankly, it’s kind of dull and prosy so far.

copperfieldWhat a fool I’ve been. It turns out that the solution was right there next to my reading chair all this time: the handsome Oxford World’s Classics edition of David Copperfield I’ve ordered for my fall class on the 19th-century novel. This too is duty reading — or, properly, rereading, as of course I haven’t made it this far without having read it before (including out loud to my husband, years ago when this was the kind of thing we did). But I haven’t read it in a long time, and I’ve also never actually assigned it for a course. My go-to teaching Dickens has been Great Expectations (it’s very good, after all, plus it’s short, for Dickens), with Hard Times a frequent alternate and Bleak House a favorite in terms when I’m not also assigning Middlemarch. Oh, and once or twice, A Tale of Two Cities. But I finally felt kind of tired of Great Expectations, and I did Bleak House last term, and it seemed like a good time to mix things up a little, so I put David Copperfield on the book list for next term and on my summer reading list so I could get started on my class prep. It’s been sitting there looking reproachfully at me for weeks (I mean, look at that cover — it practically screams “you’re not doing your duty!”) and I’ve puttered away at it a little, but only yesterday did I put everything else aside and just read it for a few hours — and I feel all my reading mojo coming back.

I’ve never been personally passionate about Dickens the way I am about George Eliot. If for some strange reason I had to choose between them, no question: she gets my vote. But happily, as I’ve said before, literary greatness is not a zero-sum game, and it’s also not something for which there are or need to be common measures or standards. (There are also people who don’t think either of these writers is great — and while I feel kind of sorry for those people, I’m sure they are perfectly happy with their Proust or their Henry James or their Virginia Woolf or their precious Jane Austen, and we’ll just leave them be.) For me personally, Dickens is fabulous precisely for all the things he does that aren’t what Eliot does, and that’s the magic of it all. Dickens is fantastic at being Dickens, and if you get caught up in that Dickensian spirit (which, I know, not everybody does) it’s sheer delight. And sheer horror. And sheer pathos. And … well, you get the point — his is not a particularly subtle world, but gosh, it’s such a lot of fun.

That’s what I’m recovering with the help of David Copperfield: the sense that reading is about how fun it all can be. Even if you aren’t a Dickens-lover, I think you have to admit that his books radiate delight in words and stories and imagination. Their excess is not a mistake: it’s the point. As Nick Hornby says, these days we seem to take it as given that “spare is good,” but why?

Where would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes? Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where.

What a loss that would be! Not a loss to the tautness of the storyline or the unity of the themes, but if that’s what you’re reading Dickens for, you need a little re-education. (OK, yes, I don’t want to underestimate the unity of his themes, but brilliantly coherent as they can be, both conceptually and aesthetically, still, I think we all get the point long before we’re done with the novels.) Hornby’s example is a great one: “Dickens being Dickens, he finds a bit part for a real rogue of a secondhand clothes merchant, a really scary guy who smells of rum and who shouts things like ‘Oh, my lungs and liver’ and ‘Goroo!’ a lot.”

One thing I’d forgotten is just how laugh-out-loud funny David Copperfield is. I cherish Eliot’s humor, but my marginalia in Middlemarch, though it frequently includes little smiley faces, rarely says “LOL.” There are a few really funny bits in Great Expectations (Joe’s hat on the chimney piece  being one) — none, though, in Hard Times. Aunt Betsy and the donkeys, though? Hilarious! Barkis’s courtship of Peggotty? Spit-take warning: not safe for e-readers! Mr. Dick and Charles the First — irresistible.


(illustration by ‘Phiz,’ scanned by Philip Allingham)

And in contrast, while I hadn’t forgotten how pathetic David’s early childhood is, I hadn’t read about it since I had children of my own, and his loneliness and abandonment and desperate yearning for love hit me really hard this time:

I was not actively ill-used. I was not beaten, or starved; but the wrong that was done to me had no intervals of relenting, and was done in a systematic, passionless manner. Day after day, week after week, month after month, I was coldly neglected. I wonder sometimes, when I think of it, what they would have done if I had been taken with an illness; whether I should have lain down in my lonely room, and languished through it in my usual solitary way, or whether anybody would have helped me out.

And the suspense! Dickens loves his foreshadowing, and it’s pretty heavy-handed, but the mounting sense of dread is still wonderfully effective:

 ‘I’m not afraid in this way,’ said little Em’ly. ‘But I wake when it blows, and tremble to think of Uncle Dan and Ham and believe I hear ’em crying out for help. That’s why I should like so much to be a lady. But I’m not afraid in this way. Not a bit. Look here!’

    She started from my side, and ran along a jagged timber which protruded from the place we stood upon, and overhung the deep water at some height, without the least defence. The incident is so impressed on my remembrance, that if I were a draughtsman I could draw its form here, I dare say, accurately as it was that day, and little Em’ly springing forward to her destruction (as it appeared to me), with a look that I have never forgotten, directed far out to sea.

    The light, bold, fluttering little figure turned and came back safe to me, and I soon laughed at my fears, and at the cry I had uttered; fruitlessly in any case, for there was no one near. But there have been times since, in my manhood, many times there have been, when I have thought, Is it possible, among the possibilities of hidden things, that in the sudden rashness of the child and her wild look so far off, there was any merciful attraction of her into danger, any tempting her towards him permitted on the part of her dead father, that her life might have a chance of ending that day? There has been a time since when I have wondered whether, if the life before her could have been revealed to me at a glance, and so revealed as that a child could fully comprehend it, and if her preservation could have depended on a motion of my hand, I ought to have held it up to save her. There has been a time since-I do not say it lasted long, but it has been-when I have asked myself the question, would it have been better for little Em’ly to have had the waters close above her head that morning in my sight; and when I have answered Yes, it would have been.

    This may be premature. I have set it down too soon, perhaps. But let it stand.

And the betrayal, all the more devastating because we, like David, have been warned:

I was up with the dull dawn, and, having dressed as quietly as I could, looked into his room. He was fast asleep; lying, easily, with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.

 The time came in its season, and that was very soon, when I almost wondered that nothing troubled his repose, as I looked at him. But he slept-let me think of him so again-as I had often seen him sleep at school; and thus, in this silent hour, I left him.

 -Never more, oh God forgive you, Steerforth! to touch that passive hand in love and friendship. Never, never more!

Looking at these excerpts, I can readily see why (to paraphrase Miss Jean Brodie) people who don’t like this sort of thing don’t like this sort of thing. It’s too much! It’s sentimental, and manipulative, and he uses exclamation points! But I’m loving it. What a relief! Like David, I am once again “reading as if for life.”

From the Archives: The Last Time I Taught Bleak House…

bleakhouseoupFor some reason this phrase has been running through my head to the tune of “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” I don’t know why I would be feeling nostalgic about teaching Bleak House, though it was rather a while ago–it was Fall 2008, to be precise. Because we’ve started work on it in my 19th-century fiction class this week, I’ve been reviewing old notes and also old blog posts, which prove (among other things) to be a valuable archive. Because (so far at least) my ideas about the novel haven’t really changed in the meantime, and because a lot of people who might stop by and read this post almost certainly never read my earlier ones, I thought I’d repost a couple of them, starting with this one about the beginning of the novel and the beginning of my class discussions of it.

From the Novel Readings Archives: Fog. Mud. Smoke. Soot. Gas. Fog.

Bleak House Shadows (Phiz)

No, that’s not today’s prediction from Environment Canada (though there is something implacable about today’s weather, even if it’s not yet November). This week in one of my classes, it’s time for Bleak House–by comparison with which, nothing else I’m doing at work really matters. The introduction to our Oxford World’s Classics edition remarks that the opening ‘set piece’ is ‘too famous to need quotation.’ Well, I don’t know about that, especially because I consider it an aesthetic accomplishment self-sufficient enough to render critical commentary not just redundant, but irritating. Here are the first four paragraphs, then (three of them composed entirely, it’s worth noting, of sentence fragments).

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time–as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Sure, there’s plenty to be remarked about this passage, beginning with its literary virtuosity and metaphoric ingenuity. Dinosaurs and compound interest? Snowflakes in mourning? ‘Fog’ used 13 times in one paragraph? Gas that’s ‘haggard and unwilling’? I’m reduced to the exclamatory mode some critics objected to in James Wood’s How Fiction Works: “What a piece of writing that is!” It puts to shame other writers called ‘Dickensian’ for no apparent reason except that they write multiplot novels with quirky characters and lots of emotion. There’s also its extraordinary efficiency at launching both governing ideas and dominant images of the vast novel it introduces; fog, mud, and infection order the thinking of Bleak House as much as webs do the same for Middlemarch. But really, the point of this passage is just to read it, to experience it, and then to carry the impression of it with you as you read on. (Is this response ‘aesthetic’? I’m not sure, or at least I’m not sure I could separate my admiration for the literary features of this passage from my sense of its ethics–or, better, its ethos.)

Today I’ll give a brief introduction to Dickens and some context for the first publication of Bleak House. Then my chief concern is to help my students find some reading (and note-taking) strategies to make their experience of the novel rewarding, which means helping them organize the mass of material (and the array of characters) they will be rapidly confronted with. We’ll do some ‘getting to know you’ work first of all: who do we meet in each of the first few chapters, and how are they connected? I’ll encourage them to keep a list of characters in each plot or location and to draw lines between them as relationships are discovered. They will have a chaotic criss-cross of lines before too long, which of course is the point–everything and everyone is connected, as Dickens challenges us to realize with his disingenous questions in Chapter 16:

What connexion can there be, 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 sunshine on 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!

My other main strategy is to get them thinking in terms of themes and variations. Today, for instance, we’ll look at how many ways the idea of housekeeping is refracted across the different story lines. Finally (though this is certainly not my last priority) I will try to convey, and make contagious, my enthusiasm for Dickens’s language in the novel, and to get them thinking about how his literary strategies (including the kinds of wild metaphors we get in the first few paragraphs) are important to his conception of the ‘condition of England question,’ and to his answer to it.

[originally posted October 27, 2008]