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Dickens: Better than I thought

I’ve never been much of a fan of Charles Dickens, what with his two-dimensional characters jostled about by his steam-driven plots. But I started Little Dorrit yesterday. Here’s how it opens:

Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.

A blazing sun upon a fierce August day was no greater rarity in southern France then, than at any other time, before or since. Everything in Marseilles, and about Marseilles, had stared at the fervid sky, and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had become universal there. Strangers were stared out of countenance by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away. The only things to be seen not fixedly staring and glaring were the vines drooping under their load of grapes. These did occasionally wink a little, as the hot air barely moved their faint leaves.

There was no wind to make a ripple on the foul water within the harbour, or on the beautiful sea without. The line of demarcation between the two colours, black and blue, showed the point which the pure sea would not pass; but it lay as quiet as the abominable pool, with which it never mixed. Boats without awnings were too hot to touch; ships blistered at their moorings; the stones of the quays had not cooled, night or day, for months. Hindoos, Russians, Chinese, Spaniards, Portuguese, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Genoese, Neapolitans, Venetians, Greeks, Turks, descendants from all the builders of Babel, come to trade at Marseilles, sought the shade alike—taking refuge in any hiding-place from a sea too intensely blue to be looked at, and a sky of purple, set with one great flaming jewel of fire.

The universal stare made the eyes ache…

Best of all, the action in that first chapter takes place in a cave-like jail cell, hidden from the stare. Brilliant, so to speak. [Technorati tag:]

4 Responses to “Dickens: Better than I thought”

  1. What luxury…

    Sounds like you’re having an idyllic weekend — limited access to the Internet, a house on the lake with your family, and leisure time to read unexplored Dickens prose. At my grad school orals, one of my professors lamented my lack of familiarity with the world of Dickens but passed me anyhow. But it stuck with me and years later when I had the means, I bought a complete set (Oxford Press) and now enjoy being mesmerized by his style from time to time.

    Enjoy…

  2. He was paid by the word y’know, by the word he was paid. On any sunny day he could expect his pay to be by the word. Or on a cloudy day for that matter. When asked, by an agent perhaps, or a fan, a fellow writer, a competitor, a coachman, a chimney sweep or the queen, when asked by a duck, a bunny, a goose, or a roadrunner pursued by a coyote, whenever he was asked, “Chuck, how are you paid?” “By the word,” he would answer. “In a word, by the word, and I am quite prolix too for all of that, and fond of my prolixity.” A deep thinker? Most would say he was not a deep thinker, except perhaps when it came to his pay, which was, as common as the sun in Marseille, they say, pay by the word.

    My word.

  3. fp – the point you make is good, it’s a good point and if anyone suggested it was a bad point they would find me slow to agree. Reading Dave’s excerpt I was afraid he was going to rip into Dickens’ verbosity, which deserves its own raft of not-quite-synonymous superlatives. But he carries it off – passages like that never quite collapse under the weight of their own excess.

    Plotting, at the detailed level, isn’t his strong point – Virginia Woolf said that you could always tell when Dickens’ inspiration was flagging, because he’d throw another character on the fire. Can’t agree about the characters, incidentally. Yes, they are two-dimensional, but that’s how they work – you can’t say that Dickens is failing to write like George Eliot, any more than Pynchon is failing to write like Saul Bellow.

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