Wednesday, May 28, 2014

2014 Classic #8

Oliver Twist ­ - Charles Dickens

As usual, I approached a novel by Dickens with misgivings. The story of Oliver Twist was one I knew already, having read the novel at age 12 or so and seen the 1948 and 1968 movie versions. Plus, call me a brute, but I did not think I could get interested in a child for 500-some pages. The upshot was, however, that Oliver Twist kept me involved from beginning to end.

Granted, it’s a dreadful story. Poor little outcast Oliver is cuffed about, thrashed, beaten, caned, whipped, battered. The worst abuse is narrated with a kind of playful casualness from Dickens, proclaimed his "biographer ", which further underlines the horror of such cruel maltreatment. Indeed, this is historical fiction in that Dickens criticized laws that punished poor people for being poor. Dickens’ narrator poses as a "philosopher (i.e, political economist)" as he examines hypocritical operators of charitable organizations such as workhouses established by supposedly Christian institutions.  Their policies forced people into workhouses and broke up families. Since they have a stake in exploiting the poor they are unwilling and unable to stop the misery and crime that results from their own terrible laws. Their answer to the problem of poverty is willfully unfeeling cruelty towards most needy and most vulnerable, children. Dickens has a hearty sympathy with the down-trodden and luckless and wants us readers to sympathize too.

Also granted, Dickens’ second novel has its problems. The last Victorian author, George Gissing, said of Oliver Twist, “There is no coherency in the structure of the thing; the plotting is utterly without ingenuity, the mysteries are so artificial as to be altogether uninteresting.” I think it best to approach the plot as if it were a big party, an excuse to get different personalities bouncing off each other to see what happens, suspending belief and expecting devices such as silly mysteries and mysterious illnesses and loose ends.

The good guys are almost entirely bland and unbelievable.  Mr. Brownlow is doddering and kindly. His housekeeper is utterly good-hearted. Brownlow’s friend Grimwig has sparks of cantankerousness that make him perversely lively (like Scrooge) but generally is a bore. The Maylie family features Rose, a Dickensian heroine as incredible and vacant and tedious as Esther in Bleak House or Lucie in A Tale of Two Cities. All the nice people talk in mawkish, far-fetched language that I must describe as nearly unbearable.

We see that as usual with Dickens the nasty characters are always more attractive than the goody-goodies. Especially to a person like me whose boyish part of my soul sees the attractions of a childhood free of school and teachers and rules, filled with smoking long pipes, drinking gin and beer, brawling, stealing, and laughing at all the squares. Like the Artful and Charlie Bates do.

Dickens portrayed Fagin and his merry band of juvenile delinquents with great vividness. Fagin's "droll and curious" stories and that the pocket-picking practice disguised as games which Fagin plays with the boys make Oliver laugh "till the tears ran down his face." More chilling, realistic, and facinating is Fagin’s cynical psychological insight on how to make Oliver bad. First, isolate him in solitary confinement and then provide companionship: Once let him feel that he is one of us; once fill his mind with the idea that he has been a thief; and he's ours! Ours for his life. Oho! It couldn't have come about better!

Dickens' has undeniable power over language, but heavy-handed facetiousness is a problem:

Occasionally, when there was some more than usually interesting inquest upon a parish child who had been overlooked in turning up a bedstead, or inadvertently scalded to death when there happened to be a washing -though the latter accident was very scarce, anything approaching to a washing being of rare occurrence in the farm - the jury would take it into their heads to ask troublesome questions, or the parishioners would rebelliously affix their signatures to a remonstrance.

The aside here “though the latter accident" falls flat through sheer lack of necessity. He was in his mid-twenties and really astute control over sarcasm doesn't come to most bright people until treacherous middle-age.

Dickens’ descriptive powers were amazing, powerful:

Mr. Fang was a lean, long-backed, stiff-necked, middle-sized man, with no great quantity of hair, and what he had, growing on the back and sides of his head. His face was stern, and much flushed. If he were really not in the habit of drinking rather more than was exactly good for him, he might have brought action against his countenance for libel, and have recovered heavy damages.

They say that Dickens invented our ideal image of Christmas with his famous tale about Scrooge. But I wonder if his vision of London back alleys also influences us. I mean, isn’t this what we think of when we think of Victorian slums? A “kennel” is a gutter.

The kennel was stagnant and filthy. The very rats, which here and there lay putrefying in its rottenness, were hideous with famine.

And there are other times when the dialogue is enjoyable even when it rings false. Would vicious stupid Bill Sikes really come up with an exuberant monologue like this?

'What are you up to? Ill-treating the boys, you covetous, avaricious, in-sa-ti-a-ble old fence?' said the man, seating himself deliberately. 'I wonder they don't murder you! I would if I was them. If I'd been your 'prentice, I'd have done it long ago, and—no, I couldn't have sold you afterwards, for you're fit for nothing but keeping as a curiousity of ugliness in a glass bottle, and I suppose they don't blow glass bottles large enough.'

I’m glad I read Oliver Twist, though it is not one of Dickens’ best. Overall it was weak, but some descriptive bits are great. I didn’t hate it but I thought Nabokov’s advice from Lectures on Russian Literature would be suitable to recall:

If you hate a book, you may still derive artistic delight from imagining other and better ways of looking at things, or, what is the same, expressing things, than the author you hate does. The mediocre, the false, the poshlust - remember that word - can at least afford a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize.

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