Fat Books & Thin Women

Classics Club: Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield

David Copperfield is not the first book by Charles Dickens that I’ve read, so I’m not sure how I maintained my (wildly incorrect) ideas about Dickens’s writing up to this point. Four or five years ago I read and loved A Tale of Two Cities, but because I was reading an electronic copy (this was before e-readers, kids!) in my spare moments (usually while bored and tired) I held onto the notion that Dickens’s writing was valuable mostly as a sleep aid. I read bits and pieces of something-or-other by Dickens in a high school English class, and while I found the writing over the first pages to be surprisingly energetic and funny and modern, those impressions faded away as I began, hopelessly, to count up the number of pages I had left to read.

Enter, now, David Copperfield, purchased because at the bookstore here in Tirana, the Oxford World’s Classics cost about a third as much as other paperbacks. ($9 vs $25.) David Copperfield follows its titular character from birth to…well, not to old age, but to maturity – to marriage, to children, to career success. Copperfield’s world is populated by people drawn in sometimes hilarious strokes, from villanious characters like Murdstone (the second husband to David’s mother), Uriah Heep, and David’s school friend Steerforth; to the vapid Dora; to the well-meaning but constantly indebted Micawber; to those few characters who are true and constant: Peggotty (his mother’s housekeeper), David’s aunt, and Agnes, daughter of the lawyer to David’s aunt, and always available for advice and commiseration.

Even to someone, like me, who knows only the broad outlines of Dickens’s life, it’s obvious that there are autobiographical elements to David Copperfield. (It helped that this was frequently pointed out in my copy’s footnotes.) David runs through a string of careers. In his youth he goes from being a schoolboy to a child laborer to a vagabond, back to a schoolboy. He embarks on several careers as an adult, seemingly unable to rest once he has mastered and become respected in one arena, eventually ending as (hey!) a writer of fiction.

Because I’m not well-versed in Victorian fiction and don’t want to make a fool of myself, I’m going to skip the traditional review this time out and focus, instead, on how wrong my expectations of the book were. This is always fun!

1. Dickens never knows when to stop writing, and I will die of boredom before finishing the book.

Granted, there are many instances when it is obvious that Dickens was being wordy because the book was serialized – the more he wrote, the more he got paid. (I couldn’t help suspecting that Uriah Heep’s habit of declaring himself “umble” about five times per sentence was meant not only as an amusing quirk, but to pad Dickens’s word count.) I was hesitant to read this novel because it is so long, and I suspected that I would finish David Copperfield with a sense of being tricked into reading a story that could have been told in half as many words.

And, honestly? It probably could have been, but I’m glad now for all the verbosity and introspection and introduction of characters with bizarre quirks worthy of a chapter’s examination. Because it’s so wordy and so driven by its characters, rather than by plot, David Copperfield became a book I could sink into. It is (prepare yourselves for this insight!) a good read for the same reason that serialized TV dramas are so much fun to watch: you’re able to return to the same characters day after day, and follow the sometimes meandering course of their lives. (Most people say that The Wire is Dickensian. I, apparently, say that Dickens is The Wire-ian.)

2. Everyone says Dickens is funny, but he probably isn’t.

No, Dickens is pretty funny. The humor comes largely from the characters – after spending eight hundred pages with them, you can predict how characters will act in certain circumstances, and it’s funny to see how true they hold to the central tenants of their being, even in the most ridiculous moments. (See, for instance, the chapters leading up to the Micawber family’s departure for Australia, and how many times other characters have to pay off Micawber’s debt to prevent him from being shipped off to jail just as he seems about to escape it all.) Dickens even manages to make the death of David’s mother briefly, darkly, funny, as Mrs. Creakle strives to break the news gradually.

“When you came away from home at the end of the vacation,” said Mrs. Creakle, after a pause, “were they all well?” After another pause, “Was your mama well?”

I trembled without distinctly knowing why, and still looked at her earnestly, making no attempt to answer.

“Because,” said she, “I grieve to tell you that I hear this morning your mama is very ill.”

A mist arose between Mrs. Creakle and me, and her figure seemed to move in it for an instant. Then I felt the burning tears run down my face, and it was steady again.

“She is very dangerously ill,” she added.

I knew all now.

“She is dead.” (117-118)

3. Dickens’s work is the airport fiction of the 1800s./900 pages of Dickens will be too hard to read.

These are opposing points, I know, but I mention them both to further illuminate how stupid our ideas about certain authors, genres, periods, whatever, can be. To the first, I now say: yeah, Dickens’s writing is pretty light; David Copperfield is not a novel that leaves me feeling a need to examine and critique its structure, though there were moments when I was surprised to see Dickens playing with things like the question of how David’s memory influenced his writing. There’s one moment, about halfway through the novel, when David’s present knowledge takes physical form in his record of the past:

A dread falls on me here. A cloud is lowering on the distant town, towards which I retrace my solitary steps. I fear to approach it. I cannot bear to think of what did come, upon that memorable night; of what must come again, if I go on. (436)

Moments like this, and the humor and comic timing of other passages, elevate this novel, but it is, at end, a novel that was written for the masses. As someone who believes there is a real art to writing novels that are light and entertaining but still engaging, though, you know that I liked this.

As to the other point: 900 pages of Dickens is hard to read mostly because the book is unwieldly. You can’t really read David Copperfield while you’re laying in bed, and if it weren’t for the fact that I were donating the novel, today, to the library here in Tirana, I am pretty sure I would have ended up pulling the binding apart to make smaller, more manageable sections. But, er, I meant the actual reading of the novel – and, no, this Really Long Novel was not hard to read.

4. Dickens will put me to sleep.

Occasionally, yes. But Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins put me to sleep just last week, so clearly I am an equal opportunity employer when it comes to these things.

This was the first book completed off my unreasonably long list of classics I plan to read over five years. Woo hoo! For a real review of the novel, I recommend reading Adam’s take over at Roof Beam Reader.


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Review: David Goodis’s Dark Passage

Disclaimer: This novel, part of a five-novel collection (Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s) was provided by the publisher for review.

David Goodis’s Dark Passage was first published in 1946, serialized in The Saturday Evening Post before being published in hardback and adapted for a film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Dark Passage was Goodis’s big break as a noir writer, and is being reprinted as the first of five novels in The Library of America’s David Goodis collection.

The novel is a claustrophobic, sometimes downright trippy, following of Vincent Parry, a man who escapes from prison after being incarcerated for the murder of his wife. Parry has claimed his innocence all along, and in his escape hopes to find his wife’s real killer. This is a novel in which nothing, and no one, is unimportant. Every person that Parry meets is somehow central to Goodis’s plotting, even if they at first seem little more than background color. There’s a sort of hyperrealism at play here, as Parry’s history, his relationship with his wife, his relationship with the woman who aids him after his escape, and every event between his escape and novel’s close, is exaggerated. Characters’ speech somehow has an element of terseness even at its most verbose, and there is a serious pleasure to watching the speed with which characters are drawn and developed in the pressure cooker environment Goodis has loaned to them.

Goodis early establishes not only Parry’s innocence, but an innocence to his spirit that provides a sharp contrast to his surroundings.

He had an idea that he might be able to extract some ounce of happiness out of prison life. He had always wanted happiness, the simple and ordinary kind. He had never wanted trouble.

As clearly as Goodis here draws Parry’s character for the reader, other characters of Dark Passage are able to guess at his motives and movements. Most notably, there’s Irene: a woman whose father was wrongfully convicted of murder and died in prison, and who has followed Parry’s case since his trial. Hearing of his escape from prison, she manages to intercept him and drive him to her apartment in San Francisco, where she urges him to remain in hiding until the manhunt dies down. Irene and Parry develop an odd and intense intimacy, forced by Parry’s lack of options, her money, and her inexplicably strong desire to see his name cleared.

Things, of course, can’t be so simple for Parry as holing up for a couple weeks in the home of a beautiful woman. Insistent that he leave her apartment, he finds himself in the backseat of a cab whose driver has his own interest in helping Parry – and who has a backstreet plastic surgeon for a friend. After getting his face redone, Parry goes to the apartment of his best friend only to find that he’s been murdered. It’s here that Goodis moves into high gear, as Parry attempts to evade law enforcement, the murderer of his friend (and presumably, also, his wife), negotiate his relationship with Irene, and learn who murdered his wife, and why.

The energy coursing beneath Goodis’s writing sometimes belies the coarseness of the prose; but this, like so many other elements to the story, seems perfectly fitting here. The descriptions of violence, the attention Goodis gives to blood in all its shades and spatters, are both gorgeous and representative of his prose:

There was blood all over Fellsinger, blood all over the floor. There were pools of it and ribbons of it. There were blotches of it, big blotches of it near Fellsinger, smaller blotches getting even smaller in progression away from the body. There were flecks of it on the furniture and suggestions of it on a wall. There was the cardinal luster of it and the smell of it and the feeling of it coming up from Fellsinger’s busted skull and dancing around and settling down wherever it pleased. It was dark blood where it clotted in the skull cavities. It was luminous pale blood where it stained the horn of the trumpet that rested beside the body. The horn of the trumpet was slightly dented. The pearl buttons of the trumpet valves were pink from the spray of blood.

Dark Passage is a novel that asks its readers to suspend belief, and rewards them, handsomely, for doing so. This is a novel that bristles with tension, in which every character and every moment is of the utmost importance. It’s one so heavy with atmosphere that it at times feels hard to catch a breath. And whether Goodis takes Parry anywhere other than we expected, it’s a joy to accompany this character as he struggles to clear his name and find freedom, or even happiness.


Check back over the coming weeks for reviews of other novels from the new Library of America Goodis collection, Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s.


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Review: Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Look, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one of those books that’s so good there are only a few ways of writing about it, one being “awesome awesome awesome” and another being “go read it right now, this second.” The novel deals with memory, with personal and cultural history, as though they are real and tangible things that can walk into someone’s life or move objects in a house; and it does not only this, but looks at the way the perceptions of outsiders can “create” or change what they are perceiving; and looks at slavery and the power a name has and what impact not owning oneself or the world one looks at can have on a person’s life and their ability to view and create themselves.
The novel centers on the former slave Sethe and her daughter Denver and their house at 124 Bluestone Road. The house is haunted and avoided by everyone in the neighborhood, and in some way holds both Sethe and Denver to its confines. Morrison gradually reveals an image of the house from years before, when it was a hub for the neighborhood and recently freed or escaped slaves. Not until Paul D, an escaped slave from Sweet Home (where Sethe, her husband Halle, and his mother-in-law Baby Suggs were also slaves) enters the home and throws out the ghost, returning it in its physical form of a grown woman, does the history of the house and its family begin to reveal itself.
There is too much here to fairly address in a short review, so I’ll focus my attentions on Paul D and specifically on the way he recognizes perception as forming the world. At one point near novel’s end some of Morrison’s characters begin to question their lives at Sweet Home and after Sweet Home, how the way they were addressed (as “men” at Sweet Home and as “children” elsewhere) affected how they viewed themselves. Did being called “men” make them, really, men, or was it simply another way of controlling them? Although they felt at the time of their enslavement somehow, slightly, empowered by the word “men,” was that title any better than being called children – as they were treated, regardless of the relative kindness of their owner? And how, after they escaped slavery, did the reclaiming of the word change their lives and their way of viewing themselves? Once Morrison’s characters were capable of perceiving the world through their own eyes, through the eyes they did, for the first time in their lives, own, could they think of themselves as men? At one point one of the slaves at Sweet Home, Sixo, is beaten by “schoolteacher” to “show him that definitions belonged to the definers – not the defined” (190). It is only those who are free and have the power to label their world who can truly own it.
Paul D, though, recognizes too the way the perceptions of others can influence or change what a person is. He repeatedly notes the way women “glow” when they’re around the man they’re attracted to; it’s why he is able to seduce (though that seems the wrong word) Sethe when he walks into the home that is controlled by the ghost of her daughter. One of the other slaves from Sweet Home, Sixo, arranges with the 30-Mile Woman (so called because of the distance he traveled to meet her) to escape slavery with the Sweet Home slaves; for a time, Paul D waits alone with the 30-Mile Woman. After Sixo arrives:

She is lit now with some glowing, some shining that comes from inside her. Before when she knelt on creek pebbles with Paul D, she was nothing, a shape in the dark breathing lightly. (225)

Paul D isn’t just noting the mechanics of sexual attraction, but rather the way perceptions change reality. More than that, there seems to be almost a sort of ownership in the relations Paul D sees between people, in the understandings he sees between them. By envisioning Sixo and the 30-Mile-Woman’s relationship as a visible thing – not as a public display of affection, say, but something that cannot be controlled – Paul D suggests a sort of inevitable and permanent relationship not dissimilar, in its shape though not in the details or the affections, from the sort of ownership the two are escaping. It’s not that there’s a slavery to the visibility of their relationship, but that even after gaining freedom and the ability to view the world through eyes they own, they cannot decide how they are viewed.

Morrison’s novel? Extraordinary. Amid all the hubbub about the insularity of the Nobel Prize Committee (who will seemingly never award another Nobel to an American writer because they are “too insular”), I have to note that this is one time when they got it right. Read Beloved this second, or go see Jeff O’Neal’s post at Book Riot about the two Morrison novels you should read before hitting Beloved. And then read Beloved.


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Review: Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a wide-ranging chronicle of a Southern town and its inhabitants, a novel that reminded me at times of To Kill a Mockingbird, if it had gone more broadly over the lives of its characters. McCullers follows the lives of five people: a mute, Singer; a thirteen-year-old girl, Mick; a black doctor, Dr. Copeland, and his family; a “Red” agitator who travels from town to town, Jake Blount; and the owner of a cafe, Biff Brannon. All these characters are seeking a way through the misdirections of life to some true purpose, but McCullers is unflinching in her portrayal of their failures.

McCullers opens the novel by writing, “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together” (3), a fitting opening given Singer’s eventual role as an imbiber of the stories of others. After his friend, the other mute in town, is sent by his cousin to an asylum, Singer becomes a confessional for those around him. It’s not that Singer offers advice – he doesn’t – but that, in a world that is never silent, that never allows a person the chance to be what he sees himself as being, he stands as a sort of reflecting pool, showing back to people just the version of themselves they wish to see. The room he pays for in Mick Kelly’s house becomes one of the most popular in the building, with the other major figures in the book streaming in and out of his space over the novel’s course. As Jake Blount might put it, Singer is one who “knows,” a man with a vision beyond his day-to-day life. What makes Singer such an attractive figure to the town is that he can be whatever they want him to be, can think whatever they imagine he thinks, for the simple reason that he can’t explain himself. Singer operates in a world that he often seems to find cryptic, and he is never able to understand the reason for his innumerable visitors, only to sit as their “faces crowded in on him out of the darkness so that he felt smothered” (384).

What makes Singer such an appealing figure to so many of McCullers’s characters may be that he, unlike them, is not a part of the town. Having lived there for years without their notice, secluded in his apartment with his friend Antonopalous, it is as if he comes out of nowhere after his friend leaves and he begins eating at Biff’s restaurant. He is at the same moment from everywhere and from nowhere, living his life separate from that of the town despite the claims people make on him: “The Turk at the linen shop who flung his hands up in his face and babbled with his tongue to make words the shape of which Singer had never imagined before” (385).

In giving her characters a confessional in Singer, McCullers makes their lives clearer to the readers; not just their day-to-day, their hopes and aspirations, but, through what they make of the mute, those parts of themselves they are unable to admit even to themselves. “Owing to the fact he was a mute they were able to give him all the qualities they wanted him to have.” McCullers’s vision of the town sometimes reads as a cold one; she is not gentle to her characters, she doesn’t shield them from sorrows that include a failing business, a dead spouse, a dead friend, a jailed and then disfigured son, growing up, and racism. Despite all that her characters go through, though, McCullers has a light hand that never seems to be guiding the plot, that never falsifies the lives she shows.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an extraordinary novel, one that highlights not just life in the 1930s South but life, as a whole. There are characters here – Mick and Biff and Singer especially – that can’t be forgotten even months after finishing the novel. This is one of those rare novels that, first, demands reading; and, second, is able to give us at one time the feel for a specific time in a specific place, and the feel of our country as a whole.


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The time of the novel and the time of the narrated in Sebastian Knight

I’ve mentioned countless times that Nabokov is my favorite author, and that the best care package my parents ever sent me included a few of his novels. I think this was my fourth time through Sebastian Knight, and while I’m not sure how to review the book, there is never not something to say about Nabokov’s work. It’s been a long time since I’ve tried to write anything other than a general book review, so forgive my rustiness.

The narrator of Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the half-brother to the recently deceased author of the title, spends the length of Nabokov’s 200-page novel in search of his brother so that he can write a biography of the writer’s life. The narrator’s product (which makes up Nabokov’s novel) is in part a response to a biography written by Mr. Goodman, Sebastian’s former secretary: The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight (part of, as the narrator puts it, “The Lethean Library” – that is, the library of forgettable books).

The narrator may be striving to write a biography of his half-brother, but the result is a book cataloging his attempts to learn about the life of the half-brother he saw only occasionally after childhood. The narrator strives for a forward motion in the text, to create some suspense or sense of narrative for the reader, and often this results in an odd mixing of narrative time and the time of the narrated. The bulk of the narrative is devoted to a search for a woman Sebastian met while at a sanatorium; the narrator uncovers her existence by catching a glimpse of her writing as he burns, on Sebastian’s instructions, a collection of papers following the author’s death. Despite the intensity of the narrator’s search this all comes to little, as though he’s abandoned an unfruitful plot line, though he does find the woman he’s searching for. He tricks her into revealing herself as the Russian woman of Sebastian’s acquaintance by saying, in Russian, that she has a spider on her neck.*

Once he’s satisfied himself that this is the woman he’s been seeking, the narrator leaves:

“Tell me,” she said following me into the garden, “what is the matter?”

“It was very clever of you,” I said, in our liberal grand Russian language, “it was very clever of you to make me believe you were talking about your friend when all the time you were talking about yourself. This little hoax would have gone on for quite a long time if fate had not pushed your elbow, and now you’ve spilled the curds and whey. Because I happen to have met your former husband’s cousin, the one who could write upside down. So I made a little test. And when you subconsciously caught the Russian sentence I muttered aside….” No, I did not say a word of all this. I just bowed myself out of the garden. She will be sent a copy of this book and will understand. (171)

In this passage the moment in the garden and this moment of the reading come together into one; in the narrator’s mind, the two are hardly distinguishable. He says nothing as he makes his way out of the garden, but to create a scene in which he does say something, in which he explains his exit and his methods, is the same to him as if he had actually said these things. And by imagining how the woman will react when she reads the book – “She will be sent a copy of this book and will understand” – the narrator lends to this scene a sort of odd timelessness, pushing the closure to the scene into a future the reader can never access.

Earlier in the novel, when the narrator goes to visit Mr. Goodman, unaware that the secretary has written his own book on Knight, he has Goodman, in the scene itself, wear a black mask so as to hide his appearance. It isn’t clear at first that Goodman is actually wearing the mask, that it’s not the narrator adding the mask into the narrative later on; but in the narrator’s mind, the text he’s going to write and the moment he’s going to write about appear so closely linked that it’s necessary for Goodman to actually wear the mask. After an uninformative discussion Goodman “returned the black mask which I pocketed, as I supposed it might come in usefully on some other occasion” (57). On his way out of the building the narrator speaks with a woman who was acquainted with Sebastian, and Goodman’s mask retroactively slips off:

“Yes,” she went on, “[Sebastian] was an amazing personality, and I don’t mind telling you that I loathed Goodman’s book about him.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What book?”

“Oh, the one he has just written. I was going over the proofs with him this last week. Well, I must be running. Thank you so much.”

She darted away and very slowly I descended the steps. Mr. Goodman’s large soft pinkish face was, and is, remarkably like a cow’s udder. (58)

What’s remarkable here isn’t just the way the narrator literally places the mask over Goodman’s face in his narrated time, but the way he keeps that mask in place while writing the narrative, as though attempting to preserve some sort of “true” narrative time for the reader, recreating his meeting with the anonymous Goodman, preserving that image of the masked Goodman even though at the time he is writing the narrative he already intends to remove the mask at chapter’s end and reveal Goodman’s cow’s udder of a face. Nabokov lets us see the narrator forming the narrative and at the same time the narrator is confusing different types of time (by his very effort to distinguish them), Nabokov is allowing us to see through to the often clumsy creation of Sebastian Knight‘s time.

* That I am, now, able to understand a fair portion of the Russian in Nabokov’s novels is probably going to be the only lasting benefit to my having learned Macedonian.

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