Monday, February 13, 2006

Heart of Darkness, as told by Wilkins Micawber

Just read David Copperfield for the first time and was left with an interesting question. Why on earth had I never read this before?

I decided to blame E.M. Forster.

You see, I loved Aspects of the Novel long before I read almost anything that it discussed. Most critics went in for fake precision. Forster had a calculated vagueness that seemed truer to real reading. And he was at ease in registers those other critics barely dared try: parody, fantasy, satirical attack. If they ever build a Tomb of the Unknown Humanities Undergraduate, his riff on pseudo-scholarship will serve excellently as an epitaph.

I remembered Aspects being somewhat sniffy about Dickens. Here, I thought, is where I bought my views, which Hard Times and Oliver Twist and Great Expectations up until the point when I realised my copy had 32 pages missing failed to shake. Then I looked Dickens up in the index, turned to page 78, and found an admittedly sniffy passage that anticipated much of what I wanted to say here:

Dickens's people are nearly all flat (Pip and David Copperfield attempt roundness, but so diffidently that they seem more like bubbles than solids). Nearly every one can be summed up in a sentence, and yet there is this wonderful feeling of human depth. Probably the immense vitality of Dickens causes his characters to vibrate a little, so that they borrow his life and appear to lead one of their own. It is a conjuring trick; at any moment we may look at Mr Pickwick edgeways and find him no thicker than a gramophone record. But we never get the sideway view. Mr Pickwick is far too adroit and well trained. He always has the air of weighing something, and when he is put into the cupboard of the young ladies' school he seems as heavy as Falstaff in the buck-basket at Windsor. Part of the genius of Dickens is that he does use types and caricatures, people whom we recognize the instant they enter, and yet achieves effects that are not mechanical and a vision of humanity that is not shallow. Those who dislike Dickens have an excellent case. He ought to be bad. He is actually one of our big writers, and his immense success with types suggests that there may be more in flatness than the severer critics admit.

Dickens's caricatures, or at least the David Copperfield ones, live in ways that a caricature of a caricature would not. They change, for a start. Sometimes it's a flip of the cardboard, like the self-pitying "lone, lorn" Mrs Gummidge when she discovers someone else merits the adjectives and becomes instantly unselfish. Sometimes it's a slow mounting up of the initial characteristics, like Uriah Heep. And the man trusts them. Is it not an extraordinary act of courage to speak one of the climaxes of your novel through someone who seems to be a joke, as Dickens does with Mr Micawber?

"Then it was that--HEEP--began to favour me with just so much of his confidence, as was necessary to the discharge of his infernal business. Then it was that I began, if I may so Shakespearianly express myself, to dwindle, peak, and pine..."

and so on, through half a dozen pages it would be even more of a spoiler to quote. "Adroit and well trained" and "conjuring trick" seem hardly to do justice to that kind of bravura, but they indicate an appreciation of it within the fashions of Forster's time. (C.E. Montague, who I expect to be going on about here again soon, also fights to reconcile loving Dickens and feeling he shouldn't like him. Heaven knows what bits of conventional wisdom I'm bending to, even when I think I'm thinking straight.)

[Aspects of the Novel, by E.M. Forster, 1927. Seductive account of how fiction works -- absolutely seductive when you're too ignorant, impressionable and thick to notice any blind spots he doesn't tell you about. Have resisted rereading it whole in case there are some. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, 1849-50. Worth several weeks of anyone's life, for reasons I haven't begun to describe.]

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