Saturday, April 30, 2011

Week Two: Chapters IX-XVI

Up unreasonably late, making the BLEAK HOUSE donuts. The question on my mind in the small hours of the night: Was Dickens a misanthrope? Did he believe most people were morally ugly, selfish, vain, driven by greed?

Ridiculous! the reader cries. Dickens cared about the poor, the orphans, the ragged and rough. His writing is full of impossibly sweet children, hard hearts that melt, loyal cousins, etc.

And that's all true. But in the later Dickens (I'm including BLEAK HOUSE in that category), I've often detected a strain of disgust with much of humanity. Dickens was fixated in his later work, above all else, with the themes of avarice and greed; he fills his works with characters who are irredeemable, in thrall to wealth, made inhuman by their cupidity. For these people, Dickens has nothing but hate.

Two passages from this week's reading seemed to fall within this misanthropic streak. First, the passage describing Tulkinghorn's lodgings:
Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now; and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts. But its roomy staircases, passages, and antechambers, still remain; and even its painted ceilings, where Allegory, in Roman helmet and celestial linen, sprawls among balustrades and pillars, flowers, clouds, and big-legged boys, and makes the head ache—as would seem to be Allegory's object always, more or less. Here, among his many boxes labelled with transcendent names, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn, when not speechlessly at home in country-houses where the great ones of the earth are bored to death. Here he is to-day, quiet at his table. An Oyster of the old school, whom nobody can open.
(Ch. IX.)

The second passage describes the "vermin" that live in Tom-all-Alone's
Jo lives—that is to say, Jo has not yet died—in a ruinous place, known to the like of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone's. It is a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people; where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants, who, after establishing their own possession, took to letting them out in lodgings. Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery. As, on the ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so, these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever, and sowing more evil in its every footprint than Lord Coodle, and Sir Thomas Doodle, and the Duke of Foodle, and all the fine gentlemen in office, down to Zoodle, shall set right in five hundred years—though born expressly to do it.
(Ch. XVI.)

Maggots in a walnut.

The word that jumps out from both passages, linking them, is "maggots." In these passages, Dickens compares the lawyers in Tulkinghorn's large house and the wretched inhabitants in Tom-all-Alone's to maggots -- perhaps the most disgusting and repulsive imagery Dickens could summon. It's true that Dickens will bring us into Jo's mind, have us view the world from his sad vantage point; and it's true that the maggot imagery in the Tom-all-Alone's passage appears to be more focused on conveying the misery of the conditions there than the nature of the inhabitants; but it's hard to salvage the brutal characterization of the lawyers lying "like maggots in nuts" in the passage describing Tulkinghorn's chambers. Dickens clearly had a wealth of compassion for the most unfortunate; he also clearly had a healthy amount of disgust and hatred for those he viewed as society's rich and comfortable parasites. In BLEAK HOUSE, the main villains are the lawyers and judges of the Court of Chancery; they wreak untold pain and suffering on the other characters, and Dickens has nothing but contempt for them. In other works, we have villains like Uriah Heep, who are consumed by greed -- the most common motivation for Dickens's villains.


My suggestion here is that Dickens's famed compassion for the poor and downtrodden had a powerful counterpart -- his contempt and disgust for the privileged and comfortable. While that contempt served to highlight the plight of the poor, etc., at times, that contempt boiled over, revealing the anger and disgust roiling within Dickens. Sometimes, the sweet and pure characters in Dickens seem to me the most artificial and unbelievable. They feel transparently fictional, and don't appear to represent Dickens's true view of the world. His darker characters, driven by greed and avarice, sometimes feel truer, more complicated, and more fleshed out. The more despicable characters may have been the ones Dickens found easier to believe in himself, perhaps because he saw them all around him.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Week Two Thoughts Coming Very Soon

Just checking in to let you know that we're still here. Baby duties rose up and claimed their rightful place for a little bit, so I was prevented from updating the blog with Week Two Thoughts today. I'll get on that this weekend.

In the meantime, please feel free to post thoughts, questions, discussion topics, grievances, haiku poems, market forecasts, leaked cables, etc., in the the comments section below.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Week One: Chapters I-VIII

Krook writing on his wall.

It's Friday night in Los Angeles and I'm blogging about Dickens, because that is how I roll, bitchez! (I'm also watching the baby, but I'm listening to Girl Talk and nursing a beer at the same time, so it's sort of like a party?)

The opening of BLEAK HOUSE is clearly magnificent, but for my money, the highlight of this week's reading was the initial description of Krook's shop:
She had stopped at a shop, over which was written, KROOK, RAG AND BOTTLE WAREHOUSE. Also, in long thin letters, KROOK, DEALER IN MARINE STORES. In one part of the window was a picture of a red paper mill, at which a cart was unloading a quantity of sacks of old rags. In another, was the inscription, BONES BOUGHT. In another, KITCHEN-STUFF BOUGHT. In another, OLD IRON BOUGHT. In another, WASTE PAPER BOUGHT. In another, LADIES' AND GENTLEMEN'S WARDROBES BOUGHT. Everything seemed to be bought, and nothing to be sold there. In all parts of the window, were quantities of dirty bottles: blacking bottles, pickle bottles, wine bottles, ink bottles: I am reminded by mentioning the latter, that the shop had, in several little particulars, the air of being in a legal neighborhood, and of being, as it were, a dirty hanger-on and disowned relation of the law. There were a great many ink bottles. There was a little tottering bench of shabby old volumes, outside the door, labelled "Law Books, all at 9d." Some of the inscriptions I have enumerated were written in law-hand, like the papers I had seen in Kenge and Carboy's office, and the letters I had so long received from the firm. . . . There were several second-hand bags, blue and red, hanging up. A little way within the shop door, lay heaps of old crackled parchment scrolls, and discolored and dog's-eared law-papers. I could have fancied that all the rusty keys, of which there must have been hundreds huddled together as old iron, had once belonged to doors of rooms or strong chests in lawyer's offices.
(Ch. V)

Cruising through the book and the initial adventures of Esther, Ada, and Richard, one worries at time that the characters are a little cartoonish (see Mrs. Jellyby), a little silly, that this is all just light entertainment. (See, e.g., THE PICKWICK PAPERS.) But every now and then a passage like the one quoted above comes out and hits you with the weirdness that makes Dickens so pungently alive -- and fun to read. It's all sweetness and simplicity and seemingly stock characters, and then you walk into Krook's shop, where he's buying bones and hoarding waste paper. (Hat tip to CitizenRobot.) There's an obsession in Dickens's writing about Krook's out-of-control obsessions, his shop where "[e]verything seemed to be bought, and nothing to be sold . . . ." It's a density of detail and weird particulars that stands out in sharp contrast to the one-dimensionality of some of the characters (e.g., Ada).

What does it mean? It's only our first week, so I'm not going to venture too many answers just yet. I feel more comfortable just sitting back and just lobbing some questions at you all like I'm shooting free t-shirts into the loge.

Dickens writing at his desk.

There is something going on with Dickens's focus on writing in this scene -- the "long thin letters," the "great many ink bottles," the "inscriptions . . . written in law-hand," the sign "announcing that a respectable man aged forty-five wanted engrossing or copying to execute with neatness or dispatch: Address to Nemo, care of Mr. Krook within." (We'll come back to Mr. Nemo soon enough.) To drive this home, Dickens gives us the image of illiterate Krook, sweating and struggling to scratch out letters on his wall:
[W]e found the old man storing a quantity of packets of waste paper, in a kind of well in the floor. He seemed to be working hard, with the perspiration standing on his forehead, and had a piece of chalk by him; with which, as he put each separate package or bundle down, he made a crooked mark on the panelling on the wall. . . .

[H]e touched me on the arm to stay me and chalked the letter J upon the wall -- in a very curious manner, beginning with the end of the letter and shaping it backward. It was a capital letter, not a printed one, but just such a letter as any clerk in Messrs. Kenge and Carboy's office would have made.

"Can you read it?" he asked me with a keen glance.

"Surely," said I. "It's very plain."

"What is it?"


. . . . In the same odd way, yet with the same rapidity, he then produced singly, and rubbed out singly, the letters forming the words BLEAK HOUSE. These in some astonishment, I also read; and he laughed again.

"Hi!" said the old man, laying aside the chalk, "I have a turn for copying from memory, you see, miss, though I can neither read nor write."
(Ch. V)

I felt a slight chill as I read this section, as Krook laboriously scratches out (in the narration) the name of the book we're reading. There's certainly something uncanny going on here. Especially when Krook's endeavors are contrasted with Nemo's profession of copying out legal documents. The letters "belong" to Krook as much as to "any clerk in Messrs. Kenge and Carboy's office" The emphasis on different styles of writing, different levels of legibility and literacy seems, at this early stage, to have something to do with the murky legal proceedings of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the clarity or obscurity of those proceedings, and, perhaps, something to do with how Dickens manages to write clearly and vividly about such murky, foggy topics like the proceedings in the Court of Chancery. Perhaps we'll get a better sense as we move on.

Hope you are all reading along with us. Shout out to my brother, who's reading along with us on his Kindle in Brooklyn. This means I get to say WHERE BROOKLYN AT? in this blog post about BLEAK HOUSE.

The baby is sleeping and my wife just got home. Things here in Los Angeles are off the hook. Happy reading for week two.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Onward and Upward

I hope you've secured a copy of BLEAK HOUSE and have started in on it already. The first few chapters of the book are delicious -- especially the first, set in Chancery.

The reading schedule is posted in the sidebar to the left, and also in this post from a few weeks ago. Again, the pace (based on my version of the book) is about 16 pages a day.

The second item to mention is our summer reading selection. After being swayed by the passionate lobbying of citizenrobot, I've decided the summer read will be George Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH. We'll start in on that immediately after we finish BLEAK HOUSE, which should be around June 10. MIDDLEMARCH, from what little I know of it, strikes me as a good summer read. And the book satisfies our primary criteria in that it's old and unreasonably long. There seems to be renewed interest in Eliot and MIDDLEMARCH, with the recent article in The New Yorker and the movie that's apparently being directed by Sam Mendes and being prepared for release next year. And we are nothing if not slaves to fashionable thinking about out-of-date literature.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Rethinking Dickens

I managed to get a college degree in English without reading a word of Dickens. Luckily, I had read DAVID COPPERFIELD and GREAT EXPECTATIONS as assigned summer reading during high school. But it seems significant to me that I was able to get through four years of English classes and seminars without once encountering Dickens.

I'll save my spiel about how high-school English reading assignments ruin great books and authors for people by introducing those works to the students too early. But I will mention here that many people I've spoken to about Dickens talk about their bad memories of reading GREAT EXPECTATIONS in their ninth-grade English class, or DAVID COPPERFIELD the summer before their sophomore year in high school -- that kind of thing. And I will confess, before my recent Dickens revival, I did view Dickens as a type of juvenile literature: melodramatic, simplistic, moralistic, black-and-white, etc.

And there is no denying that the contrasts are usually starkly drawn in Dickens. Some characters are impossibly good; others incredibly, irredeemably, hopelessly bad. There are often moments of cloying sweetness, maudlin sentiment, etc. When one comes across these scenes, one is reminded that Dickens's works were popular entertainment, released in serial form. They were not intended to be high art digested by academics: he was being paid by the installment (if not by the word).

But then, there are also the details. The magnificent and imposing dust heaps in OUR MUTUAL FRIEND. The enumerated and precisely described oddities in the anatomist's shop in that same book (which I keep mentioning because I just finished it). There is the dark humor, the cynical view of the law, bureaucracy, the prison system, the class system, child labor, money, waste, and greed. (There's an essay tracing the influence of the theme of waste in OUR MUTUAL FRIEND on Don DeLillo's UNDERWORLD waiting to be written.) Dickens is most alive, it seems, when he is luxuriating in a dense wall of details: describing detritus, things moldering away in unsorted piles, scraps of print tossed here and there, bundles of things jammed into nooks willy-nilly. One feels his joy in describing filth, dirt, decay, fog, miasmas.

It seems likely to me that Dickens was not such a hot commodity back when I was in college because his works didn't really lend themselves to the fashions of that time. Dickens wasn't really all that useful (so far as I know) to those looking to expound upon gender, post-colonial, or queer theory. (Although, there are always ways to apply those theories to almost any work.) Perhaps Dickens feels more relevant at this point in time (at least to me) because in the past few years we've fallen upon hard times, with thousands being thrust into Dickensian conditions of poverty and despair, because we live in a society where class disparities grow starker each year.

It comes as no surprise that Karl Marx admired Dickens's commitment to depicting social injustice in industrialized England. Marx observed, writing in the New York Tribune in 1854, that Dickens and his fellow Victorian English novelists "ha[d] issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together, have described every section of the middle class from the 'highly genteel' annuitant and fundholder who looks upon all sorts of business as vulgar, to the little shopkeeper and lawyer’s clerk. And how have Dickens and Thackeray, Miss Brontë and Mrs. Gaskell painted them? As full of presumption, affectation, petty tyranny and ignorance; and the civilised world have confirmed their verdict with the damning epigram that it has fixed to this class that 'they are servile to those above, and tyrannical to those beneath them.'”

Perhaps it's just me, but the world we live in today seems like one in which Marx and Dickens are more relevant than ever. As corporations and moneyed interests continue to extend their reach and sway, with the blessing and encouragement of the law, as social safety nets, unions, and regulations to protect workers fall by the wayside on a political playing field in which Capital pays to write the rules, where so much modern fiction has fallen down a hole of irrelevant, bourgeois navel-gazing, Dickens has something important to say to us.

And he's a great pleasure to read, as I've been rediscovering these past few months. Hope you are looking forward to our group read of BLEAK HOUSE. We officially start this Friday.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Progress: Our Highly Ambitious Reading Schedule

My edition of BLEAK HOUSE has 861 pages. The plan for this group is to finish the book within eight weeks. That breaks down to about 108 pages a week. Page numbers won't work as reference point for many of our participants, who may be reading ebooks, reading the book online, in other editions, etc. So we'll set the reading schedule to chapters, which should be a universal point of reference.
Week 1 (4/15-4/22): Chapters I through VIII

Week 2 (4/22-4/29): Chapters IX through XVI

Week 3 (4/29-5/6): Chapters XVII through XXIII

Week 4 (5/6-5/13): Chapters XXIV through XXXII

Week 5 (5/13-5/20): Chapters XXXIII through XXXIX

Week 6 (5/20-5/27): Chapters XL through XLIX

Week 7 (5/27-6/3): Chapters L through LVIII

Week 8 (6/3-6/10): Chapters LIX LVII (END)
Based on my edition, this keeps to roughly 108 pages a week. That's about 15 1/2 pages a day. So read 16 pages a day, and you'll be well ahead of schedule by Week 6 or so. Of course, there's nothing stopping you from getting a head start now, which will cut down on your weekly and daily goals. In the meantime, spread the fun by bullying your friends and associates into joining our project. BLEAK HOUSE loves company.