Sunday, September 30, 2012

Moby Dickens

Reading back to when I was last writing about Moby Dick (there are three previous references to it on this blog), I rediscovered Grooveshark,which I'd mentioned in one of those posts, and then forgotten about subsequently.  Check it out if you want streaming music of all kinds.

Anyway, I decided I'd give Moby Dick one last go, as it's being broadcast, chapter by chapter, on a site called Moby Dick Big Read.  Various readers, including New Zealand's Witi Ihimaera, are reading a chapter at a time, so there's quite a variety of accents and dialects coming through.  Today's chapter, number 15, is read by a laconic-sounding bloke called Peter Burgess, who doesn't distinguish in any way the different characters in the story (in this particular chapter only Ishmael the narrator, and the lady who runs the inn where chowder is the only thing on the menu).  Tilda Swinton reads the opening chapter, so we have that famous opening line, Call me Ishmael, read by a female voice.  Her accent, of course, is clean, clear Brit.  

Anyway, by this means Moby Dick might still get 'read' through before the end of this year, which will be something of an achievement.  My aim to read some Dickens this year became a bit of a fizzer, for a patch, because Little Dorrit turned out to be a little boring, which surprised me.  I think it's that the long-winded love relationship between Dorrit and Clennam is rather tedious. And Dorrit's self-centred father, while a brilliant portrait in its own way, presents a character who we can barely sympathise with.   Anyway, I got about half way through before giving up.  

I decided I couldn't let the rest of the year go by without giving Dickens some more reading room, so I embarked upon one of his shorter novels, A Tale of Two Cities. My best memory of this book, when I read it as a youngish man, was that I couldn't put it down over the last hundred or more pages.  And certainly it has suspense that I don't think any other Dickens has. Even my re-reading of it over the last month brought back that feeling of what's going to happen next?  I knew that at the end Carton gave up his life for Darnay; it wasn't that aspect that was suspenseful, but the escape of the family, along with Mr Lorry, Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher.  This section has an unusually breathless feel about it, all the better for being taken at a cracking pace.  (Why didn't Hitchcock film this story instead of one or two of the other historical films he made?)

Tale of Two Cities is probably unusual in two other ways, when compared to most of Dickens' books.  Firstly, there's the lack of comic characters, and secondly there's the reasonably well-constructed plot.  Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher verge on being comic creations (though Cruncher's tiresome tirades at his praying wife aren't in the least bit amusing), but neither of them can compete with the pantheon of real comics who appear elsewhere in the Dickens' canon. This story is strikingly serious. Yes, I know, most of Dickens' later works are more serious in tone - Two Cities comes between Little Dorrit and Great Expectations - but there are still comic characters in them; here, such characters don't even get a look in.

A still from the 1935 film version of Dickens' book.  
The characters in this book are still Dickensian, but they're Dickensian with some element missing. If they'd appeared in a different book, they would perhaps have had more room to expand. Here they seem to be so subject to the exigencies of the plot, that they have to get on and be their basic selves without any humorous element. The main female character, Lucie, is of course the same as most of Dickens' young female characters: totally bland and almost lifeless.  Dickens can tell us as much as he likes about how faithful and true and loving and perfect in every way she is, but we never actually believe it because she's never alive. The man who becomes her husband, isn't much better: he has a short scene early in the piece when he confronts his wicked uncle, but beyond that he does little of note.  Sydney Carton, the erstwhile hero, lazes around most of the book being a man without any ambition in life, and suddenly finds himself late in the book doing something honourable.  Though why he decides to come to Paris isn't ever quite explained.  Lucie's father is somewhat improbable: he's spent twenty years in prison and has lost his mind (and loses it occasionally after being freed) but he then manages to go back to his old life as a doctor in the midst of the French Revolution, safe as houses from being touched by the revolutionaries and clear as a bell in his mind. 

The two strongest characters are Monsieur and Madame Defarge.  Defarge is a man of few words, but his bulk and strength is palpable throughout the book; Madame Defarge says even less, but is terrifying.  She's the one who wears the pantaloons, the one who runs the pub, the one who secretly signals to the innumerable revolutionaries (who all go by the name of Jacques) when there's a spy in their midst, and the one who comes close to bringing ruin on Darnay and his family.   Dickens achieves the impossible in Madame Defarge's final scene, in which she struggles against Miss Pross who's guarding the door that may be hiding Lucie and her child.  He has both of them speaking their native tongue (except of course that we read Madame Defarge's words in a slightly unusual English), neither of them understanding the other's words, but both aware of the other's intent.  The achievement is that this scene is both comic and horrific at the same time; Dickens plays with the language barrier and with what each speaks while at the same time keeping us on tenterhooks as to how Miss Pross will prevent Madame from discovering that Lucie and Co have already escaped. It's one of the best scenes in the book.  

If the plot has any failing, it's that it's spread over rather a long period.  It begins a number of years before the French revolution and gradually works its way towards that awful event in a series of leaps of time.  However, this is a minor matter, really, given how everything in the book is racing towards those last wonderful hundred or so pages.   

Two Cities has a great deal in common with Barnaby Rudge, which is the other Dickens book that I did actually finish this year.  Both are focused around a period in history that wasn't contemporary with Dickens' own day, and both are exceedingly violent.  I'm not sure which is worse in this regard - perhaps Barnaby.  The difference with Two Cities, I think, is that the violence is in the fibre of the book from early on, and when it explodes with its full force, it's all the more sickening for it.  There's no doubt that Dickens could describe violent scenes with considerable skill; some of his strongest writing occurs in both these books in the scenes of mob rule.  By contrast, both books offer too many pages of purple prose: in Barnaby these occur whenever Barnaby himself appears; in Two Cities they occur whenever Lucie appears.  It's a Dickens failing; you just have to start skimming when these appear.

So what next for Mr Dickens?  Can I get through something else before the end of 2012?  It would be good to try one of the books I haven't actually read...
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