Archive for December, 2020

Season’s greetings 2020

Around this time of the year, along with some maudlin observations of the passage of time, I usually announce that the blog will be shutting down over the Christmas season, but perhaps such an announcement would be superfluous this year: my output has slowed down to such an extent that a few weeks without a post would hardly be worthy of comment. I am not sure why my output has slowed: perhaps after all these years I have finally realised that I never really wanted to write about books anyway, but had used that as an excuse to write what are in effect childhood memoirs. Now I am aware of that, I can, I feel, be more unapologetically autobiographical.

But may I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year – well, as merry and as happy as our strange times will allow – and leave you with this rather lovely triptych by Hans Memling of the Adoration of the Magi that I saw in the Prado last year.

See you all next year!

Triptych of The Adoration of the Magi by Hans Memling, courtesy Prado Gallery, Madrid

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens

SPOILER WARNING: The following does not dwell upon the plot of A Tale of Two Cities, but inevitably, some elements of the plot are revealed.

It goes without saying, I know, that anyone is entitled to like whatever book they want, and for any reason they want, without having to answer to anyone for their preference; but nonetheless, I do, I admit, find it somewhat dispiriting when a writer I particularly admire is widely celebrated for a specific work that I don’t.

I last read A Tale of Two Cities in my teenage years, and, not thinking much of it at the time, hadn’t returned to it since. However, I do enjoy reading a bit of Dickens around this time of the year, and, noticing that this novel is sandwiched (chronologically, that is) between Little Dorrit and Great Expectations, two novels I love deeply, thought it might be time to give it another chance. Surely a great novelist at the height of his powers would, at the very least, produce something that is not entirely without merit. So I picked it up, and started with that celebrated opening:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …

Yes, those repeated rhythms build up a fine head of steam (“anaphora”, I believe it’s called); but they seem to serve no discernible purpose other than to start the work with an incantatory rhythm. And then, having come this far, Dickens seems to have no idea how to finish the sentence:

—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

What’s going on? Dickens normally had a splendid ear for the rhythms of the English language, but here, right in the opening sentence, having built up a rhythmic momentum, he lets it slip at the very end into bathos. Neither what he says at the end of that sentence, nor his manner of saying it, seems a fitting conclusion to the rhetoric that had come earlier.

I gather that Dickens was, personally, going through a bit of a bad time when writing this novel, but, as a reader, I don’t know that I can admit that as a mitigating factor. And anyway, whatever bad time he was going through, he seemed to have pulled himself together for Great Expectations, which was published just one year after this. But where Great Expectations seems to me among the finest examples of the novelist’s art, this, frankly, isn’t: even his rhetoric – an area in which he normally excelled – seems tired. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that his heart just wasn’t in this one – that he was merely going through the motions.

Dickens is popularly known as a Great Storyteller, but it has long struck me that this was one of the things he wasn’t. In Oliver Twist, for instance (which I read this time a couple of years ago, and reported on here), he not only makes use of highly unlikely plot devices to move the novel on, he actually repeats them. But Oliver Twist had many elements to relish other than the plot: here, on the other hand, Dickens has up his sleeve a splendid plot, but his prodigious invention seems to have run dry: he has nothing to offer but the plot.

That wouldn’t in itself have been a problem if he had been adept at handling the plot: one imagines someone like Dumas, say, would have made a splendid job of a storyline like this. But Dickens had an imagination which soared when he didn’t have to focus on something so mundane as a storyline. Fagin has a life of his own that exists outside the demands of the plot, and he is tremendously vivid and memorable; Monks, in the same novel, is introduced purely to move the plot forward, and he is neither vivid nor memorable. In this novel, each character exists only in terms of the mechanics of the plot: none has an independent life outside that plot; and the results seem to me distinctly pallid.

In something such as, say, The Count of Monte Cristo, which, for me, is a masterpiece of pure storytelling, Dumas gives us only as much as we need to know about any character to make the plot believable (in its own terms, at least); he never gives us more, but he never gives us less either. Here, the plot depends almost entirely on Sydney Carton’s self-loathing, and on his passion for Lucie Manette. So, to make the plot believable, Dickens needs to tell us why Sydney Carton loathes himself, and why he is so passionately in love with Lucie. Dickens tells us neither. Sydney Carton is self-loathing simply because he is; Lucie inspires a passion in him simply because she does. These are brute facts that  need to be taken for given. But in the context of the story, that really doesn’t satisfy, especially as, with Lucie Manette, Dickens had returned to old habits that, in his immediately preceding novels at least, he had appeared to have left behind: she appears throughout pure and virginal (even after years of marriage), angelically good in everything, unfailingly meek and gentle, and in the habit of swooning every now and then when things get a bit rough. On the page, it becomes difficult to believe in her as a living, breathing character. And this makes Sydney Carton’s passion for her particularly unbelievable. One might as well fall in love with a ceramic doll.

Contrary to popular opinion on this matter, it isn’t as if Dickens wasn’t capable of portraying interesting female characters, or of portraying erotic obsession: in his very next novel, he does both, with a novelistic brilliance that still takes my breath away. Of course, Pip and Estella have about them an emotional complexity that would have been out of place here, but some depth of characterisation, at least enough to make the story credible, would have been more than welcome.

Even in small matters, things go wrong. For instance, consider the scene where Madame Defarge visits Lucie accompanied by a friend, and Dickens has to tell us explicitly who this friend is:

Both the women followed; the second woman being The Vengeance.

This is clumsy. The woman known as The Vengeance had been introduced earlier, and any decent storyteller would have given her at her first appearance a distinctive characteristic, and impressed that characteristic on the reader’s mind, so that when she later re-appears, the author would need only to mention that characteristic, and the reader will be able to pick up who is being referred to. This ain’t, as they say, rocket science. But even here, Dickens fails.

Similarly with the revelation of Madame Defarge’s relationship with the murdered peasants we hear of in Dr Manette’s story. Something like this should have been a climactic point in the tribunal scene, surely, rather than a passing detail revealed in a private conversation afterwards. One need not be a Master Storyteller to figure out something so obvious.

I won’t labour the point. There are many other such examples, small perhaps in themselves, but they all pile up, and point to the inescapable surmise that Dickens’ heart wasn’t in this, that he was merely going through the motions.

So are there any redeeming points? Well, I suppose the story remains good, even though it is not too well told. There is the occasional touch or two that suggests the author is capable of better, but frankly not much. And yes, the pace does pick up a bit in the third of this three act structure, but given how badly that pace had sagged in the middle act, that’s not really much of a compliment. There’s nothing here of the incidental humour, or of the gallery of colourful eccentrics and grotesques, that livens up even lesser Dickens novels. However, for all my strictures, it cannot be denied that, for Anglophone readers at least, it is this novel more than any other book, fiction or otherwise, that has fixed in the mind the image of the French Revolution. And I guess that’s no mean achievement.

But even taking that into consideration, in this instance, I think my estimate of some forty-five or so years ago remains intact: this really isn’t Dickens at his best. Or anywhere near.

But I shouldn’t complain. When you’re a completist like me, you take the misses with the hits. And Dickens did, after all, follow this up with Great Expectations, and then with Our Mutual Friend: when your favourite uncle has given you so many wonderful presents, it’s a bit churlish to complain about the odd dud or two.

It still leaves me puzzled, admittedly, on what his admirers see in this one, but to each his own, as they say!

“The Common Breath” literary questionnaire

Glasgow-based publishing imprint The Common Breath invite the great and the good to answer a literary questionnaire every week. This week, they made an exception and invited me as well. Do please take a look.