Tuesday, August 13, 2002

The Inimitable

Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley. Lipper/Viking. 212 pages. $19.95

On the last page of Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens, having nearly completed his second novel at the age of twenty-five, briefly reflects on his role as author: "I would fain linger yet with a few of those among whom I have so long moved, and share their happiness by endeavoring to depict it."

Over the next 33 years, this master of Victorian sprawl would indulge that desire to linger among his characters. He spoke their lines aloud as he wrote them. He'd pretend to see them on the streethe even spoke their parts aloud as he wrote them. He'd pretend to see them on the street. James T. Field recalled in an 1870 article in The Atlantic Monthly that Dickens "would pull the arm of his companion and whisper, `Let us avoid Mr. Pumblechook, who is crossing the street to meet us'; or `Mr. Micawber is coming; let us turn down this alley to get out of his way.'"

Having become much taken with producing and acting in plays, Dickens in later life would publicly perform favorite scenes from his books. Audiences, including Queen Victoria, were transfixed; it was as if he completely embodied the people he created. He was especially fond of enacting Bill Sykes' brutal murder of the prostitute Nancy in Oliver Twist; as he wrote to his friend and biographer John Forster after one performance, "I should think we had from a dozen to twenty ladies taken out stiff and rigid, at various times!" These energetic performances continued unabated for a decade, and probably hastened his death. Three months after Dickens officially retired from the stage, he died of a stroke at 58.

As England's reigning literary celebrity for most of his life, Dickens was "the Inimitable," as he called himself, the standard against whom all others were compared. The others had their problems with him. "Mr. Popular Sentiment," said Anthony Trollope. "Extravagant," said Charlotte Bronte. George Eliot, inexplicably, said Dickens failed to find the "psychological character" of his creations, and Henry James called him "the greatest of superficial novelists." Dickens couldn't be bothered; he was too busy. When he wasn't writing his books or performing scenes from them, he was traveling the globe, toying with hypnotism (a lifelong fascination), running a household with ten children and bickering with a wife, Catherine Hogarth, he could not stand and would eventually leave for a young actress. When the pressures of life got too great, he took off for 20-mile walks.

Like David Copperfield, Dickens was "thoroughly in earnest" in everything he put his hand to, and held nothing back. Like Shakespeare, he was as bafflingly productive as he was inventive. His books were serialized as he wrote them, with no chance, he would say, to "try back" and fix this or that troublesome scene -- a fact less amazing in the chronological flow of his early books than in the complex late masterpieces. One cannot but be awed to consider how the crowded mural of Bleak House or the elaborate tapestry of Little Dorrit were held together on semi-monthly basis.

Having a popular author like Jane Smiley write about the most popular writer of his day looks, on paper, like the kind of perfect match-up that has distinguished the soon-to-be-retired Penguin Lives series. With its standard 200-page format, the series has compelled plain speaking and graceful generalization from Garry Wills on St. Augustine, Jonathan Spence on Mao and Edna O'Brien on Joyce.

So far as assembling the available facts go, Smiley's is a handy little book of essential information. Beyond that, the format defeats her. She seems to want to convince us of a special insight, but she's too intimidated to say anything fresh about Dickens' craft. She sees Dickens almost exclusively as a social novelist, a writer whose greatness is in his "intuitive understanding of the social world as a web rather than a hierarchy." Not bad, but Dickens' poetic intensity seems to have eluded her. Perhaps this is why, whenever she refers to one book as great or another as a masterpiece, she doesn't seem real clear on why it is so.

When it comes to describing Dickens as a celebrity author, Smiley fancies she is in her element. Affecting a labored "we writers" mode of chat, Smiley sounds at times like a geeky schoolgirl pestering the quarterback, at others like she's manning the Novelist booth on Career Day. Novelists have "some knowledge of dramatic states of mind," novelists try to do new things, novelists "rationalize the world," a novelist "sees the trees rather than the forest," etc. This isn't John Updike searchingly assessing his craft; this is a writer trying strenuously to forge connections with dull generalities. Besides, what knowledge she displays on the relationship between writer and public looks suspiciously borrowed from Edmund Wilson's famous Dickens chapter in his 1939 study The Wound and the Bow -- the same uncredited source, it appears, for her announcement that Dickens based Ebenezer Scrooge on his own hard nature.

While Wilson performed a fair amount of easy psychoanalysis on Dickens, he at least managed to take in the scope of Dickens' career and to convincingly trace the change from a young writer who saw the world in simple terms of good and evil to an older, more reflective one who, like Dostoevsky, saw good and evil struggling for dominance in every soul. With twice as much space at her disposal, Smiley comes up with, by my count, two original ideas, both of them measly wisps that carry a noxious whiff of hard sell. One is that Dickens "prefigured" Freud, a claim that is a little too easily said of great names before 1900. The other is that Dickens "prefigured" 20th Century life: the "first media celebrity," a star who lived his life in public. In a desperate effort to earn her pay, Smiley tells us that Dickens' Sykes and Nancy stage act "is the direct ancestor of every horrible mass murder, dismemberment, explosion, and gratuitously violent act that we see in the movies and on stage."

Charles Dickens, forefather to Stephen King and Oliver Stone? Sure, kid, as the quarterback might say to the pest, catch you later.

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