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Posts tagged ‘Dickens’

Night Walks

Night Walks – Charles Dickens, Penguin Books ‘Great Ideas’

Penguin do a couple of great lines in quirky short books called ‘Great Ideas’ [eds: we review another here]. About one hundred authors are showcased and, from what I can tell, the series is aimed at introducing the reader to an essay or a passage from an extremely famous writer/politician/philosopher/champion of the arts. Some books are a more natural fit than others. Engels’ and Marx’s Communist Manifesto fits the 100-200 page bill perfectly. There is, however, a danger that a reader might approach this literary fast-food and then believe themself to be familiar with the author. This is likely to end in disappointment bearing in mind the collection of contributors range from Kant to Rousseau, Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky. Gaining familiarity, confidence and enjoyment from these gods takes a rather more sustained effort. That isn’t to say that fast food isn’t enjoyable.

 

nightwalks

 

It was seeing the photo above, a study of night time London in the 1920s which encouraged me to seek out Dickens’ Night Walks. I never really need much convincing where Dickens is concerned. He is the author of one of my favourite books – Great Expectations – and his writing has a conversational style which, to me, sounds like a quirky uncle time-travelling from the mid 19th Century to tell you a story. Furthermore, whilst his English is obviously not modern I never find it old-fashioned, which makes for a more relaxed read when compared with other literary greats.

Night Walks is a rather awkwardly cobbled together collection of commentaries by Dickens on the London of his day. The best parts are invariably the chapters which chart the walks which Dickens took during the nights where he lost his battle with insomnia, hence the name of the book I suppose. There is also a wonderful chapter where Dickens recounts a time when as an 8-year-old he spends a day lost in the City pondering what to do with his life and how to find his fame and fortune. Following in the footsteps of Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington is entertained at length. It might be complete fabrication, but it makes for a good tale nonetheless. There are also passages on the prevalence of betting shops, regular state funerals, and other peculiarities of the time which I found less interesting. Nonetheless, there is some genius about this book and it has little to do with the excellence of the writing or the writer.

One of the marvellous things about London is that the streets and the boroughs are unchanging. The British capital has never enjoyed/suffered a major reworking at the hands of a revolutionary band, an occupying power or any other force for radical change. You and I can walk the streets as Dickens once did, you and I can reconstruct the Limehouse, Whitechapel, Covent Garden or The Borough of the time based on the information provided by Dickens. Whilst the docklands that Dickens talks of are now in the shadow of Canary Wharf, the old streets and yards remain. The abject poverty of Tower Hamlets may have been somewhat relieved and the streets paved, but it isn’t beyond the realms of imagination to mentally recreate Dickens’ London.

Indeed, it seems as though some of the author’s reflections on certain areas of the city are not too far removed from modern sentiment: “When I go into the City, now, it makes me sorrowful to think that I am quite an artful wretch. Strolling about it as a lost child, I thought of the British Merchant and the Lord Mayor, and was full of reverence. Strolling about it now, I laugh at the sacred liveries of state, and get indignant at the corporation as one of the strongest practical jokes of the present day.”

In Night Walks you have both a guide and a companion.

Matt Bradley

13. Why Read?

Reading has an array of principal attractions depending on the breadth of the reader’s palate. It can educate, provoke thought, outrage, inspire and everything in between but the thing I cherish the most is when a book makes me laugh.

Comedy has been a staple of the arts since Aristophanes realised the positive impact it could have on his desolate audience after a tragedy or two. However, for some reason comedy is habitually given short shrift amongst the intellectual posturing that surrounds literary discussion.

Humour undoubtedly can have a serious role to play. Dickens understood how powerful comedy could be in exposing the absurdity of inequality and misfortune. With powerful topics of literature such as sex, death and faith, satire has been a crucial tool in confronting taboos.

However, the comic novel is often overlooked as it is perceived to lack the profundity of more solemn work. It can be denigrated as frivolous when quite frankly, an amusing turn can bring warmth and joy to the direst of catastrophes and help explore subject matter that serious fiction can struggle to dwell on.

Having grown up with a diet of Just William and the canon of Wodehouse’s Jeeves, I have always strongly believed that humour has a place at the head of the literary table.

Whether we choose to admit it or not, we all like to revel in other people’s misfortune. It is far safer and less morally reprehensible to do so through the medium of a novel. What greater way to explore our own shortcomings than by living vicariously through the buffoon. If you can’t be made to laugh by the work-shy delusional narrator in Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat or the ill-fated Paul Pennyfeather in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall then I pity you greatly and hope I never have to sit next to you at a dinner party.

Sometimes we don’t want to decipher dense prose and unpick metaphors about the futility of existence. Sometimes we just want to be uplifted by the simple gift of laughter so readily provided by a panoply of humorous novels.  It probably says something about me but I find myself in good company going for a bun fight at Drones with Bertie Wooster and I always feel privileged to be the 4th man in the boat.

To quote Francis Bacon,

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.”

So why read? Because I need consoling!

Freddie House

2. Writing and the Future

Good writing does not belong to a time. I remember explaining my relationship with my father as a teenager through the books I was studying and reading.  At GCSE we studied The Death of a Salesman, and King Lear, both were replete with themes that seemed particularly close to my experience, that seemed to speak to my understanding of the world, of the family, of respect and its place in our relationships. Those stories could not have been written about people and places more distant from my own upbringing in late twentieth century, home counties England. Yet I developed a reading of those books that fitted my own life experiences, that spoke to my own views of the world. Had you sat Arthur Miller and my sixteen year old self down and asked us to talk about The Death of a Salesman you would have heard us discussing two different books. I had a developed my own hermeneutic of that book: or more precisely I had read the play and taken from it what I wanted and left a great deal of the rest.  I have not read it since and I have never seen it performed.

Milan Kundera describes the distance between the author and his readers, opened up by the blandness, the coldness of the printed word in his wonderful book of essays, Testaments Betrayed“When a famous professor of medicine asked to meet me because he admired Farewell Waltz, I was most flattered. According to him my novel was prophetic; in my character Skreta, a doctor who treats apparently sterile women at a spa by injecting them secretly with his own sperm with a special syringe, I have hit on the great issue of the future. […] he looks me in the eye again: much as he admires my work, he does have one criticism: I did not manage to express powerfully enough the moral beauty of the gift of semen. I defend myself: this is a comic novel! […] I am baffled and suddenly I realise: there is nothing harder to explain than humour.”

Lear is different. I find with great authors like Shakespeare and Dickens, if you are to read them at all, relationships with them change a great deal over time.  Where I once loved Oliver Twist as a child, A Tale of Two Cities has surpassed all Dickens for me in early adulthood. Still, Lear is a most extraordinary tale of family.  The opening scene of King Lear, as written or performed, is among the most haunting pieces of writing I have ever read or seen acted: “Nothing will come of nothing.”

Certainly, the aim of Miller and Shakespeare was not to write for my sixteen year old self’s personal development, to explain the world to me in any way that they could imagine or even I. Yet, that is how I read them.  That is the reason that books make it from the past and into the future. In fact it is how books write the future, if they do at all: they go on being written each time someone reads them. They exist in the past and in the future because they are meaningful to both, more than mere political comment, more than historical artefact.  Books can bind us to an understanding of ourselves, old ones as much as future ones.

The Editors

1. Writing and the Future

The ability to predict the future has always been one of the most well regarded skills.  In this tough economic climate it is perhaps the one thing that is guaranteed to secure you a job: whether you’re applying for a position as a football pundit, economist, or anything in-between, the ability to successfully foresee future events is sure to stand you in good stead for a long and prosperous career.

Wishful thinking aside, the idea of being able to see the future retains an enduring place at the heart of popular culture.  Fairly recently, a Mayan calendar sparked an internet furore when someone dug up the fact that the world is coming to an end in December this year.  Indeed, Wikipedia tells me that Nostradamus’ Les Propheties has rarely been out of print since it was first published in 1555, despite the seer’s own admission that “the whole thing is written in nebulous form, rather than as a clear prophecy of any kind” – which is as clear a sign as any of a bare-faced liar.  However, it’s easy to understand why predicting the future remains a powerful concept: noone knows what is going to happen tomorrow, so when someone somehow manages to convince us that he or she might be able to, we like to indulge our long-standing taste for mysticism and the occult.  In any event, the failsafe for prophets is that whether or not a prediction has any truth in it can only be known retrospectively, in Nostradamus’ case looking back several centuries later.

Sadly, our fascination with being able to see the future by some mystical clairvoyance (or by statistical analysis – see Long Term Capital Management) often overlooks the fact that novelists constantly grapple with the future, not always explicitly, but in an earnest attempt to explore humanity’s experience of the world.  As Alex Starritt said in his Why read? article: “it is habitual for discoveries or advances in the study of the human to appear in fiction first.”  This is an extremely wide concept, and the interlink between art and science is something that requires considerable thought, particularly because it is only by looking closely that one can begin to see the connections.

A book that does a lot of the hard work for us, and does it brilliantly, is Proust was a neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer.  By examining specific instances in which scientific discoveries have been anticipated in writing, he gives us a convincing insight into the idea that in many respects man can see the future, just not perhaps as the Nostradamus brigade would have us believe.  To take one example of this, the book considers the poet Walt Whitman’s central conviction that, contrary to the Cartesian doctrine prevalent in the mid-19th century, the mind cannot be separated from the body; a philosophy that he developed during his time as a nurse in various military hospitals over the course of the American Civil War: “Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul.”  This idea was brought into the scientific arena by the pioneer Harvard psychologist William James, who stated that “the actual content of our minds are always representations of some kind of ensemble.”  More recently, modern neuroscience has explored the interrelationship of the mind and body, with one renowned practitioner, Antonio Damasio, concluding that the two are indeed inseparable, that is to say, logical thought cannot function independently of the body’s feeling.

Science, of course, is not the only area of human thought that can be anticipated in literature: socio-political trends are prefigured to a greater or lesser extent in the writing of countless novelists, from Orwell and H.G.Wells, to Balzac and Dickens.  Fiction has the ability, after all, of looking at reality as a whole, without the need to focus on specific aspects of it.  This gives the author the freedom to explore ideas that may not have any solid empirical basis at the time they are written.  Denis Diderot, for example, wrote Le rêve de D’Alembert, a surreal essay in which the characters discuss the idea that nature is constantly evolving, in 1769, almost a century before Darwin published On the Origin of Species.  Furthermore, fiction can examine aspects of reality that haven’t yet been reduced by science or socio-political theory: the novelist is free to look around himself and write what he sees, what he feels.  Indeed, it is this feeling that is the mark of a good writer: the ability to see and express things others don’t or can’t, perhaps until someone with a microscope points them out fifty years later.

The Editors