2012 is, of course, the Year of the Olympics, especially if, like me, you happen to live in or around London. And riding on the back of the British Olympics is a year-long celebration of Shakespeare. It is heartening to see that when we think of what is most worth celebrating about Britain, it is still to Shakespeare we turn. But there is another year-long literary celebration to look forward to: 2012 is the bicentenery of the birth of Charles Dickens. And I see that the celebrations have started early in the Guardian Books pages.
As a devoted Dickensian, I was wondering how I was going to celebrate it. Our Mutual Friend has been up for a re-read for along time now, so I might go for that. I might also read Sketches by Boz, a collection that I have, so far, only dipped into. I also have Peter Ackroyd’s massive biography staring down at me accusingly from the shelves, but although I love Dickens the Novelist, I don’t think I like Dickens the Man at all from what I know about him, so I might give that a miss.
Over the years, I have written, on various boards, and on this blog, what seems like entire volumes’ worth of stuff on Dickens. And it strikes me that much of the time, I’ve been on the defensive. This is because it has long seemed to me that Dickens attracts more unfair criticism than just about any other novelist of comparable stature. Of course, it is also true that Dickens was more deeply flawed than any other novelist of comparable stature (of novelists of the foremost rank – and Dickens most certainly belongs to this rank – the only other novelist I can think of who was as deeply flawed is Dostoyevsky); but all too often, it seems to me, his flaws are noted while his more-than-compensatory greatness ignored; or worse, flaws are seen where, to my mind, there aren’t any. At times, even, certain features in his writing that seem to me marks of genius are criticised as weaknesses – e.g. he is often criticised for creating caricatures when his superlative gifts as a caricaturist seem to me to be worth celebrating rather than denigrating. As a consequence of all this, when I write about Dickens, I perhaps get too defensive. Of course, no writing in praise of Dickens will be credible if it doesn’t acknowledge at least some of the flaws, but even here one has to be careful: those elements of his creative personality that are responsible for the flaws are the same elements that are responsible for much of his greatness. In other words, his genius and his flaws are part of one indivisible package.
But when I do acknowledge flaws, it is generally to the early books I turn, and this is unfair. Of all the articles that have appeared on Dickens in the Guardian Books pages so far, the one I particularly liked was Simon Callow’s on the early novel Nicholas Nickleby. Callow says, very elegantly, just about all that can be said about this novel within so short a space. He reminds us, among other things, that Dickens, still in his mid-20s, kicked off his career as a novelist by producing Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby all within a mere 18 months. Now, that is just phenomenal. Yes, yes, all three novels (especially Nicholas Nickleby) are flawed in many ways; yes, granted, they don’t present any profound vision of human life, and nor do they probe into the human psyche; but what is there that can match these works for sheer brio and exuberance? Where else can one find such variety of colour, such delight in human eccentricity? Is there, I wonder, any other novel so packed with iconic scenes and images as is Oliver Twist? Callow rightly says that to find an antecedent, we must go back beyond Shakespeare to Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales.
(Which reminds me – reading The Canterbury Tales in the original is among my upcoming reading projects. But more of that later…)
The noted critic Edmund Wilson thought Austen and Dickens were the two finest British novelists, and, while I accept that literature should not be treated as a competitive sport, that’s probably a fair judgement to make. Certainly, Wilson’s erstwhile friend Nabokov did not have any quarrel with it, even though, like me, he personally preferred Dickens. (And that’s where my resemblance to Nabokov ends!) I can’t remember the bicentenary celebrations for Austen back in 1975, but here’s to a year and more of celebrating my favourite novelist.
(Actually, Tolstoy ranks with Dickens as my favourite novelist, but since I don’t have Dickens’ marvellous control of the rhythms of prose, I couldn’t think of a way of getting that detail into that last sentence without making it sound clumsy.)