Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens

There was a vogue in the second half of the twentieth century to deny that there were such things are great writers or great books. The movement was called deconstructionism – it posited that we could never truly say that any work is great as works of art are too full of the cultural baggage of the age in which they are written. The true worth of the book is buried in so many layers of meaning that it would be impossible to unwrap them.

Each to their own of course, but it’s interesting to note that while Ludwig Wittgenstein became an engineer after he wrote that philosophy had been “solved” as a discipline, none of the deconstructionists left the English departments of their universities to do something else.

No such consistency from the deconstructionists. While they said all the books of the Western canon are rubbish, one way or the other, they also continued in tenured luxury just in case anyone would be dumb enough to think they might enjoy reading Madame Bovary, or learn something about themselves and their lives from reading Great Expectations. The deconstructionists held the pass just as Leonidas held Thermopylae.

Had he been in around in their day, how Charles Dickens, whose two hundredth birthday we celebrate today, would have relished getting stuck into those jokers.

Charles Dickens, the greatest novelist of his day, arguably the greatest novelist in English and among the greatest ever in the discipline in any language, has become a little obscured since the height of his fame and respect.

The restraint of the Victorians is hard to understand in our own Tallaght-fornia-tastic culture. Seven and eight hundred page books intimidate the Xbox generation, and for their fathers, there are memories of all those determinedly worthy and spirit-sappingly grim BBC serialisations of the 1970s.

Happily, one of the features of great art is that you can’t keep a good man down and the current Dickens revival is proof that there is actually such a thing as Art and people will return to it. The novels of Dickens are long of course, but they belt along because they are so powerfully written. Some writers like to say that the process of writing is like opening a vein; Dickens was more inclined to cut off an entire limb, and let words gush out in great gouts of majestic, unmistakable prose.

The chief characteristic of Dickens is the hyperbole. Dickens delighted in a grotesque, skewed sort of exaggeration that is often quite funny but also contains the hard tang of truth. As an example, consult your volume of Nicholas Nickleby and meet Mr Wackford Squeers (Dickens was not one of those authors who picks his character names of out of the phone book), headmaster of Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire:

Mr Squeers was standing in a box by one of the coffee-room fire-places, fitted with one such table as is usually seen in coffee-rooms, and two of extraordinary shapes and dimensions made to suit the angles of the partition. In a corner of the seat, was a very small deal trunk, tied round with a scanty piece of cord; and on the trunk was perched — his lace-up half-boots and corduroy trousers dangling in the air — a diminutive boy, with his shoulders drawn up to his ears, and his hands planted on his knees, who glanced timidly at the schoolmaster, from time to time, with evident dread and apprehension.

‘Half-past three,’ muttered Mr Squeers, turning from the window, and looking sulkily at the coffee-room clock. ‘There will be nobody here today.’

Much vexed by this reflection, Mr Squeers looked at the little boy to see whether he was doing anything he could beat him for. As he happened not to be doing anything at all, he merely boxed his ears, and told him not to do it again.

Dickens in a nutshell. The depth of detail, the clarity of the picture, the precise delineation of the nasty piece of work that is Mr Squeers, and that marvellous line at the end that is both funny and appalling at the same time. Astonishing talent.

Dickens had lapses of course. Oscar Wilde was correct in his remarks about Little Dorrit – when Dickens wanted to get sentimental he laid it on with a trowel – but what a powerful writer Dickens was when the force moved in him.

Dickens himself fell on hard times as a child when his father was sent to debtors’ prison, and he never forgot that. Dickens is a celebrant of life and of humanity in its many different forms, but as well as this celebration of the world Dickens’ books seethe with a barely suppressed fury at the injustice that man visits to man, either through workhouses, courts of chancery, Utilitarianism and, most common of all, snobbery.

The passionate beliefs, the powerful prose style, the rich characterization and the fascination with and celebration of the world all make Charles Dickens the greatest of novelists. David Copperfield was Dickens own favourite and it’s marvellous of course (with a pertinent lesson for our current austere times) but your correspondent’s own favourite is Great Expectations, a book about what it is to come up in the world and what you learn about yourself, for good or ill, during that rise. Enjoy.