Posts Tagged ‘David Copperfield’

David Copperfield and me

The new film directed by Armando Ianucci, The Personal History of David Copperfield, seems to have made quite a splash. Most of the comments from those who have seen the film have been very positive, but some eyebrows have been raised by the casting: in particular, by the fact that David Copperfield is played by an Indian actor, Dev Patel.

I’ve had quite a long relationship with the novel. When I first came to Britain, aged five, my parents, I remember, rented a television set because they thought it would help me learn English, and I remember one of the programmes back then being a Sunday afternoon serialisation of David Copperfield. Of course, I didn’t understand a word of English at the time, and, at that age, most probably wouldn’t have been able to follow it even if I did, but I remember my parents telling me it was a famous book by someone called Charles Dickens.

(Doing a bit of online research, I find that David was played in that series by a young Ian McKellen. Which seems like good casting, though, sadly, Mr McKellen isn’t of course Indian.)

And then, once my English had improved sufficiently, I used to buy, or, rather, I used to have bought for me, a weekly comic for children. Sparky, it was called. And, amidst the various comic characters it featured – Hungry Horace (who was always hungry, naturally), Pansy Potter the Strongman’s Daughter (who was very, very strong), and a rather inspired character called Keyhole Kate (who was forever looking through keyholes) – they did a comic strip serialisation of David Copperfield. (And no, as can be seen here, this isn’t a figment of my imagination: even children’s comics those days aimed both to entertain and to educate: it was a different age.) And this time, I did manage to follow the plot somewhat. But I think I was about 11 or 12 by the time I came to the novel proper – the original novel, with the original words as written by the original Charles Dickens.

And I loved it. Or, rather, I loved the first half of the novel – the chapters dealing with David’s childhood. Once David grew up, I found it boring, and after a couple of chapters, I decided to turn back and read the first half over again. And so it continued. The first half of David Copperfield I read over and over again. Those childhood chapters of David Copperfield became etched in my mind, but once I had cheered Aunt Betsey Trotwood telling the Murdstones to piss off (well, not in so many words, you understand…) there just didn’t seem much point reading on, to be honest.

I think I was about 18 or so when I read the entire novel for the first time, and, while there are certainly many things in the latter part of the novel that I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed, I couldn’t help feeling then – and feeling still – that it didn’t quite measure up to the childhood chapters. And while I know I have had occasion to fulminate elsewhere on this blog against that most deplorable habit of judging the literary quality of a work by how closely or otherwise one could “identify” with characters, I must confess that when I read (and re-read) those early chapters of David Copperfield, I find myself still identifying with David entirely. So powerfully have I identified with David over so many years, that, as far as I am concerned, David Copperfield is Indian, goddammit!

(For similar reasons, Jane Eyre is Indian too.)

I am very much looking forward to this film. It is so good to see some authentic casting at last.

Presenting oneself

CASSIUS
Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?

BRUTUS
No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.

There appear to be increasing numbers who insist that authors write about themselves. And about no-one but themselves. That writing about people of different races, from different cultural backgrounds, different sexualities, and so on, is oppressive. “Cultural appropriation”, a term concocted fairly recently to reflect a cultural ideology also concocted fairly recently, is now bandied about with reckless abandon, while the argument that it is the fiction writer’s job to imagine themselves into the minds and hearts of other people, often very different from their own selves, seems to fall on deaf ears. Issues specifically affecting a certain group of people must not, it is insisted, be addressed by writers who do not belong to this group. And should they do so, they may well find themselves facing a generally inarticulate but nonetheless potent rage. This rage should not be underestimated, for it may hold hostage even our literary judgement: recently, the influential literary magazine Kirkus, faced with such rage, withdrew its approval from a fiction that it had initially reviewed favourably. Authors beware.

The logical end of the arguments against “cultural appropriation” – fulminations rather than arguments, perhaps, for I do not find them well argued – is that we must write only about ourselves, or, at best, about people very much like ourselves, sharing our racial origin, our gender, our sexuality, and all the rest of it; and that we must concede that those who may enter our fictions who are unlike ourselves fall outside the range not only of our experience, but also of our imagination. There seems, however, to be an underlying assumption here I find questionable, and that is that our own selves we do understand. But do we? As Brutus rightly observes, the eye sees not itself.

I’m not a reader of autobiographies. I don’t think I’ve read a single one, although I suppose I should try out some of the more notable examples of the genre – the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, say, or the Confessions of St Augustine, or of Rousseau. However, despite my not having read even the finest examples of the form, I find the form itself troubling. Could I write my own story? I have joked in the past that if I were to try my hand at autobiography, then, given how much I have absorbed of Western culture throughout my life (or “appropriated”, some may say); and given further that, as a newly arrived five-year-old immigrant from India (or, rather, émigré, a term far more distinguished-sounding than mere immigrant), I had found myself typecast as the Second King in school nativity plays; I should perhaps call my autobiography Westward Leading, Still Proceeding. But that joke is a bit tired now, and the “if” itself is highly problematic: I could never, I think, sit down to write an autobiography. For there is no point writing an autobiography if one is not to be honest, and to be honest about people whom I have known and liked, or even loved, and lay bare to public gaze their inevitable faults and shortcomings, would be on my part a gross betrayal. And to be similarly honest about myself would be simply embarrassing. In any case I don’t know that I can be honest with myself: however I may see myself, my perspective is inevitably distorted. The eye sees not itself. So either I would end up flattering my ego in self-admiration, or flagellating my character in self-hatred; and neither, I fear, would be a spectacle likely to edify. Except, perhaps, as a cautionary example of that which should, for reasons of good taste, be avoided.

But without going as far as autobiography, a great many writers have introduced themselves into their novels in fictional form. And here, too, I think there are difficulties. It is no surprise, for instance, that the only character in David Copperfield who lacks colour and vitality is the adult David himself, the central character in an avowedly autobiographical novel: Dickens would not, or, more likely perhaps, could not, endow David with his own vitality or genius. We never believe that the David we see in this novel would himself be capable of writing David Copperfield. Levin, in Anna Karenina, is a much finer piece of characterisation, but even here, Tolstoy cannot invest this autobiographical character with his own genius: however much Levin may have resembled Tolstoy in other matters, it is impossible to imagine him writing Anna Karenina. This perhaps confirms what lesser mortals such as myself have often felt about genius – that it is so mysterious a quality, it eludes the understanding even of those who are possessed of it. Or, perhaps, especially of those who are possessed of it.

There are other writers who present, quite deliberately, a certain carefully calculated version of themselves in their novels. Fielding, for instance, frequently speaks to the reader in his own voice, thus making himself, in effect, one of the characters in his own novel. The voice he speaks in is companionable – wise, witty, magnanimous, tolerant, admiring of virtues, and generally tolerant and forgiving of vices. Whether Fielding was really like this matters little: what matters is how well the characterisation works in the context of the novel. For once one puts oneself into fiction, one becomes a fictional character, and it is in the context of the fiction that the success or otherwise of the character must be judged.

Nabokov went in the opposite direction from Fielding: the narrator of Pnin turns out to be Nabokov himself, except that he isn’t quite Nabokov himself: he is a version of Nabokov with all warmth and compassion expunged, and with the cruelty and heartlessness accentuated. An unpleasant parody of Nabokov, in other words. For the real Nabokov, the real author of Pnin, leaves the attentive reader in no doubt that the title character is a gentle and dignified man, indeed, a saintly man; and such a man, one suspects, would have been beyond the scope of the parody Nabokov, the fictional author of Pnin. The real Nabokov demands we read between the lines; the parody Nabokov is seemingly unaware that there exists anything at all between the lines worth reading.

Nabokov could pull this off because he was well aware of the impossibility of putting one’s self into one’s work; he was aware that when one tries to do so, all one puts in is a parody of one’s self. And being aware of this, he deliberately shaped the parody to serve his artistic ends. As, no doubt, did Fielding, although Fielding went in the opposite direction by presenting the best rather than the worst of himself. But both Fielding in Tom Jones and Nabokov in Pnin are fictional characters; and both writers – the real writers, that is – know it.

This is why I think I find myself suspicious of autobiography as a form. If one puts oneself into a fiction, one immediately becomes a fictional character; and when one puts oneself into what purports to be fact, the factual nature of the self-representation is, at the very least, questionable.

And similarly, I think, with those things one writes about because they are close to one’s self, because writing manuals have told us to write about what we know: the closer a subject is to the author’s own life, the less I find myself trusting it. One’s own experiences are the very things that are most difficult to write about with any great degree of objectivity. And where objectivity is questionable, so too, I think, is authenticity.

Since I am not myself a writer of fiction, I feel I am well qualified to dispense advice to aspiring fiction-writers. I’d say – don’t write about what you know. Forget your own self: imagine yourself into the minds of people very different from yourself. For, if you cannot imagine that, you really have no business even trying to write fiction. Best to write some trifling blog instead, as I do.