by Charles Dickens
With apologies to any/all book blog contrarians out there ardently rooting for me to make it through yet another year without ever once cracking the spine of a lemming-friendly Victorian novel, I finally caved and sat down with my first Dickens chunkster since right about the dawn of the gaslight era. What's more, I actually enjoyed it, guv'ner! Whatever fuddy-duddy prose and overt Spielbergian sentimentality I was worried about encountering ahead of time, Bleak House gave me 914 pages worth of juicy reasons (mystery, plot twists, spontaneous combustion!) to suspect that maybe I--and not the legions of easily-satisfied Victorian fanboys and fangirls I often think of as my blogging nemeses--was the one who had gotten things all wrong for a change. A nice surprise: tone and atmosphere. In a novel in which an unending and not particularly interesting court case thankfully provides a convenient alibi for Dickens to offer up a cross section of London society and embed it in what's at once a love story and a page-turner of a thriller and a powerful denunciation of greed and poverty, I think it's fair to say that the guy just about nailed it in terms of the mixture of irony and gravitas on display. This winning tone, when coupled with humorous but presumably spot-on observations like "smoke, which is the London ivy" (142), made the atmosphere come alive for me in ways that even Dickens' apparently well-deserved reputation for characterization and description hadn't adequately prepared me for. An even better surprise: the dual narrators. Given the size of the canvas and the complexity of the detail laid down in sooty pen and ink within its pages, I have to attribute much of Bleak House's narrative charm and sophistication to its unlikely tag team of Esther Summerson, the likable first person narrator, and the mercurial third person narrator who delivers all the omniscient goods. Esther, a beacon of goodness, provides the light personal touch and the hope for a happy ending. The unnamed narrator? Well, let's just say that he often wields the hammer. Which brings me to what, in a really weird way, was the most pleasant surprise of all: Dickens, like God, doesn't hesitate to kill off some of his finest, most sympathetic characters without warning here--whether they are deserving or undeserving of such a fate in the reader's eyes. Why is that a good thing as far as the novel's concerned? 1) The ensuing unpredictability. 2) You're forced to become invested in what happens to the characters on a personal level. 3) Dickens, unlike God, does some of his finest work when addressing the death of innocents. As just one example, here's the non-Esther narrator chillingly addressing the reader directly after one poor wretch has just been snuffed out while reciting the Lord's Prayer: "Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day" (677). Not a happy moment to be sure. However, exactly the sort of moment that makes me realize I've underestimated Dickens for years. My bad.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Thanks to Himadri and Tom for persuading me via assorted blog posts that I should give Dickens--and in particular Bleak House--another try after years of lack of interest in the guy. For more on the author elsewhere, please check out the "Dickens in December" event hosted by our pal Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat and her pal Delia of Postcards from Asia.
One of my favourite Dickens books, well worth giving up a couple of weeks for ;) I quite liked the recent(ish!) BBC mini-series too.ResponderBorrar
By the way, I just posted by sign-up post for 'January in Japan'. If you're interested, please follow the new blog :)
Tony, I agree that this was worth giving up a couple of weeks for and I look forward to viewing Bleak House once a library copy becomes available. However, now I'm way behind on my German Lit Month choices. Anyway, I'll plan on joining you for January in Japan particularly as I still owe Bellezza a J-Lit 6 review for her challenge after a disappointing Murakami selection on my part.Borrar
Makes me want to pick this up again. It's twenty five years since I read any Dickens.ResponderBorrar
You really do get a sense of the cruelty of life in his books.
Séamus, it'd been about that much time since I last read Dickens. Glad I finally gave him another chance even though the "cruelty of life" thing you touch on really took me by surprise (I had foolishly thought he was just all about the tearjerker moments).Borrar
If someone asked me what he was about I think I'd say he was about energy, the expulsion of energy, sentence-energy and dramatic plot-energy, and the "tearjerker moments" are part of that energy, utterly caught up in it (the most useful comment I've ever read about Little Nell's death, and I don't remember who wrote it -- a critic -- called the death a vortex that pulls the rest of the cast toward it -- and then I read the book and saw the critic's idea in action: the other characters rushing to her when she dies then clustering explosively there like mobs of bees) -- and so is the cruelty -- the violence -- he is a very violent writer, he notices violent details. "He was short, cadaverous, and withered, with his head sunk sideways between his shoulders and the breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth as if he were on fire within."Borrar
Umbagollah, thanks much for this nutrient-dense comment & of course welcome to the blog as well! Love your point about Dickens being about "energy" and "the expulsion of energy" as much as anything else as a writer; this, in concert with Tom's and Himadri's comments below, get at so much of the tension within the novel that I could sense but maybe not quite identify in terms of an explanation of the energy to be found within it. Speaking of which, also appreciate your take on Dickens as a man of "sentence-energy" and as a "very violent writer"; these were traits I delighted in in Bleak House, but I might not have experienced them at all had not trustworthy sorts like Tom and Himadri made me think that maybe there was more to Dickens than the soap opera angles often dwelled on by many of his other fans in the blogosphere.Borrar
Can't say I go in much Victorian-era lit, but Dickens brims over with awesomeness. Glad you liked it.ResponderBorrar
Thanks, Isabella--how nice to hear from you! Your pro-Dickens (and pro-the Clash!) comments on my The Woman in White post a few years back provided additional motivation for me to give Dickens another try although you might not suspect that from all the time that's elapsed since then (alas, my book queue kind of has a mind of its own).Borrar
Such a good book. I know that you liked the tone and atmosphere, as did I, but I was also a sucker for the love stories. :)ResponderBorrar
Ah, we agree on a book for a change, Bellezza--what a nice surprise! I thought the love stories were OK, but what I really appreciated was the way Dickens could make you feel attached to some of the secondary and tertiary characters (Charley, Jo, the women abused by their husbands, etc.). Impressive!Borrar
It matters not so much that we agree as that we converse about books. Plus, I always value your opinion and you vastly expand my point of view. xoBorrar
Good first point about the conversation (that's what we're all here for, right?), but I'm not sure I deserve all the kindness in your second point--thank you, though!Borrar
Hooray! Glad you enjoyed it. Bleak House is a mighty fine book. The opening with the fog is justifiably famous. Will there be more Dickens novels in your future?ResponderBorrar
Thanks, Stefanie! That opening was indeed cool, but there were lots of scenes like that I could have/should have talked about if I weren't so lazy. I suspect there will be multiple Dickens novels in my future now that Chas and I have had our long-awaited breakthrough, but Great Expectations will prob. be next up since I bought that one two or three years before I bought Bleak House. Anyway, feel free to let me know if that's a good plan or if you have another one by him you'd recommend I read first!Borrar
Dickens sceptic finds Dickens actually good, eh? - I think I've heard that before somewhere.ResponderBorrar
Not actually read Bleak House though. Keep meaning to.
You called it, Obooki, but I have to say I don't mind being proved wrong in this way (the only thing that sucks about it is that it's tough to find Dickens images online that don't strike fear in my heart). A super enjoyable read.Borrar
You really do get a sense of the cruelty of life - and a sense of the joy of a well-made sentence.ResponderBorrar
Every Dickens novel, even the bad ones, have scenes and characters as good as in Bleak House. I am not so sure that any others have so much good stuff in one place.
And of course none of the other books - no other book by anyone that I know of - has that dual narrator structure. The next time I read the novel I'm going to figure out how it works.
I think you and Séamus are both on the right track, Tom, so I should thank you again for selling me on the non-dud Dickens despite my obvious previous reluctance to entirely believe you. Ironically, parts of Bleak House felt vaguely familiar to me after I reached the halfway point--not sure if I read the novel for fun in college and somehow forgot about it all these years later or if I might have seen a TV/movie adaptation of it or if the plot was just so elemental and primal that it felt like I had read it before. Anyway, very encouraged by what you say here about the good to be found in even the lesser Dickens and agree that figuring out what makes the dual narrator tick is a worthy endeavor.Borrar
Thanks so much for mentioning another sceptic's event. It started to dawn on me a while back that my prejudice regarding Dickens might be unfounded that's why I chose to organize the event and firmly push myself into the direction of reading my first long Dickens novel. I would love to read Bleak House but I try to stay realistic and go for Great Expectations. Any thing dar and related to death usually appeals to me. I'm sure I would like this one very much, I only hope there is some dramatic unexpected finishing off of likable characters in Great Expectations too.Borrar
No problem, Caroline--I now selfishly very much look forward to seeing what helpful reviews might get generated from Dickens in December! By the way, I suspect my Dickens hostility might have been similar to yours--mostly unfounded--although I also decided to read him as a know thy enemy type of thing in case things didn't work out. Anyway, good luck regarding your death wish re: the characters in Great Expectations (that made me laugh!) and you can take it from me that Bleak House is relatively quick reading except for the fact that it's also 900 pages-plus. No getting around that, of course, but it was never a bore or a drudge.Borrar
OMG you enjoyed a Lemming book! By one of this Lemming's fave authors, no less ha ha! I plan to read another Dickens soon so thanks for the heads up on that Dickens in December event. I'm curious, which Dickens titles discouraged you years before?ResponderBorrar
Claire, I honestly can't remember what gave me such a bad impression of Dickens so long ago. It could have been something as stupid as a bad movie adaptation of one of his works (not really Dickens' fault, I know), a bad beginning to a novel by him I never even finished, or a personal backlash to the Dickens hype after I became more enamored of stuff like Céline's Journey to the End of the Night or Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in my late teens and early 20s. I didn't know/remember that Dickens was one of your favorite authors--however, it gives me great pleasure to confess that Bleak House gave me one of those happy little "lemming smiles" that you once mentioned in a comment long ago!Borrar
I'm glad you enjoyed it. Isn't it strange how we want others to enjoy what we personally enjoy, and, for some curious reason, feel apprehensive in case someone *doesn't* enjoy it?
It is a very curious fictional world Dickens creates in "Bleak house". that opening chapter as the characters emerge out of what seems a primeval murk is, I think, my favourite opening chapter of any novel. And didn't Dickens have a superb ear for the rhythms of prose? No matter how long and serpentine each sentence is, each one is perfectly constructed.
The fictional world presented is a distorted one - it is a world where a spontaneous combustion can be both real and metaphorical. It also points, I think, to the world of Kafka: the endless legal case that drags on without anyone really understanding it becomes a major image in "The Trial"; the image of documents all piling on each other, and which contain the answer to the mystery - except that there are so many of them that no-one has the time to read them all - re-appears again in "The Castle".
Oh - this makes me want to read thi snovel all over again! If I had to name a favourite English language novel, it would, I think, be this one.
All the best, Himadri
Hello Himadri, thanks again for being such a persuasive spokesman for Bleak House and for weighing in here as well--am particularly intrigued by your insightful comments about the "curious" and "distorted" universe conjured up in the novel (on that note, the reminder about the "primeval murk" described at the outset is very apropos) and its anticipation of Kafka in some regards. There was really no shortage of striking moments throughout the novel language- or scene-wise, so I felt the novel really delivered on all you and Tom had promised it would. Next time I read it, maybe I can slow down and enjoy the scenery a bit rather than trying to plow through the book to see what happens next!Borrar
In fairness to Richard, I have seen plenty of - not Lemmings, I don't want to call anyone a lemming - plenty of readers of a temperament quite different than mine who not only are not interested in the strangeness of Dickens, or the brilliance of his rhetoric, or the cockeyed originality of his imagery, but do not even seem to notice it. They sure as heck don't write about it.ResponderBorrar
If every review you see ignores style and flattens the story into a soap opera, what are you supposed to think?
The movies just exacerbate the problem. What BBC director would dare to include the megalosaurus, or more than hint of this: "Eighteen of Mr. Tangle's learned friends, each armed with a little summary of eighteen hundred sheets, bob up like eighteen hammers in a pianoforte, make eighteen bows, and drop into their eighteen places of obscurity." Maybe if the film were animated.
Speaking of weird and speaking of animation, Richard, I have my Foreign Film Challenge movie picked out for you, Władysław Starewicz's The Cameraman's Revenge (1911, 12 minutes). We can coordinate posting later.
Tom, I hadn't called anybody a lemming in a good two or three years so I'm not about to apologize for that now! That being said, I appreciate your unsolicited defense of one reason I might have been misled by a certain type of Dickens fan (or movie adaptation): it is hard to appreciate all the strange and violent sides of the guy from afar when many reviewers of his work do tend to dwell on characters and plot to the exclusion of the style idiosyncrasies you and Himadri and Umbagollah have all mentioned here so forcefully. Of course, I take all of the blame for not finding out "who's right" for myself until now. Also, I can definitely see Bleak House as the sort of book that would be particularly rewarding as a reread.Borrar
The Cameraman's Revenge, eh? Assuming I can YouTube it or find it elsewhere, your challenge is accepted. My library has other Starewicz goodies, and they sound delightfully bizarre--will e-mail soon to coordinate.
Heh, this lemming is still laughing... Whatever next? The Brontes (although if you're into strangeness and violence, Em is surely your woman)? Mary Elizabeth Braddon? Ellen Wood?ResponderBorrar
I think (hope!) you will enjoy Great Expectations. But my advice to you is to avoid A Christmas Carol at all costs - I've had to read it twice or thrice and each time have been filled with the urge to stab innocents with forks.
Helen, ha ha, belated lemming apologies from me to you for my delay in a response--also, thanks for the warning about A Christmas Carol as I don't need that type of aggravation! All kidding aside, I think I'll try and work another Victorian novel or two into the mix next year thanks to how pleasant a surprise Bleak House was and the, ahem, surfeit of choices. I already have Braddon and one Brontë at home (Wood is prob. in a more future purchase or borrowing queue), so your guesses are as good as any at this point. Cheers!Borrar
It's been ages since I've read Dickens, but now you're making me want to drop my current reading (one of those rare Victorians you seem to like, The Woman in White) in favor of this. (But I'll behave and finish the Collins.) I've seen the miniseries, which I found quite good, but watched with the feeling that there was likely more in the novel itself. (Isn't there always?) Also, yet again I'm surprised to hear of the length of this one: my copy is is two volumes of rather thin paper and so disguises the size! Glad you enjoyed this though, as it would be quite a slog through something you disliked.ResponderBorrar
Amanda, I have the Bleak House production featuring Gillian from The X-Files out on loan and I just can't seem to get into it so far despite my, ahem, hormonal appreciation of Agent Scully from back in my X-Files watching days. In other words, the book is way better than the movie as usual, yes! All kidding aside, it's funny/ironic to hear you say that this Bleak House post kind of made you want to think about swapping out The Woman in White for something Dickensian because Bleak House made me feel as if it were maybe time for me to pick up Collins' The Moonstone sometime soon. By the way, as much as I loved Bleak House, there's no single character in there who's even close to being as brilliant an entertainment creation as dear ol' Count Fosco--I envy you your time with that character, a true crack-up!Borrar
It's been ages since I read The Moonstone, but I loved it. If you do pick it up, I hope you enjoy. I'm reading so slowly I haven't reached Fosco yet, but it sounds as if I have something to look forward to!ResponderBorrar