Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Charles Dickens, _The Old Curiosity Shop_

AT THE RISK of being tiresome about William Logan's review of Against the Day, I note his parenthetical observation, "no one has ever wept over the death of a Pynchon character the way thousands wept over Little Nell." Coincidentally, I was reading the Dickens novel in which Little Nell figures, The Old Curiosity Shop, over the same weeks in which I was reading the last 700 pages or so of Against the Day. While I'm glad to have finally gotten around to The Old Curiosity Shop -- I haven't read any other pre-Copperfield Dickens -- I'd have to say Against the Day was a more captivating read, really.

Logan writes that Pynchon's sentence rhythms are those of Dickens, and that Pynchon resembles Dickens in other ways as well: "These are almost the rhythms of Dickens, whose freakish surplus of characters, juddering episodic plots, and teary sentiment Pynchon half imitates, though in each case with a nearly lethal dose of irony." Then there are the amazing names, of course.

It's those "lethal doses of irony," I suppose, that prevent our weeping at the death of a Pynchon character? So is Logan suggesting Dickens's teary sentimentality has the saving grace of having made people cry once upon a time? Is he sneering at Dickens's sentimentality and at the same time sneering at Pynchon for not trafficking in it? A classic Loganism.

I found Nell difficult to appreciate it, actually -- I couldn't quite manage Esther Summerson, either, for that matter. Bleak House is in a lot of way Dickens's best work, but the Esther half of it I found barely readable. Nell and Esther are just too Victorian picture post-card for me, and just about anyone this side of 1914, I suspect. So, no, I did not weep.

Then there's the fact that I knew going in she would die -- Little Nell is famous for dying, after all. Her death most have come as a shock for the novel's first readers, of course -- quite daring, really, of Dickens to not provide the usual happy ending.

Dick Swiveller, though -- there's the Dickens I love.

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