Bored by a few 21st-century novels that turned out to be not quite great literary fiction, I have turned to the classics.
Specifically, to Dickens. I mean, what contemporary writer is better?
That’s a tough one. Perhaps Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Nicola Barker are his equals.
But you have to read Dickens anyway.
In my teens I devoured Dickens. David Copperfield changed my life. It made me see the mix of grotesquerie and vulnerability that characterized people I loved.
I simply couldn’t resist a man who said,
“Barkis is willin’.”
(Married at 19! Well, that was silly, Ms. Mirabile.)
I sent a copy of David Copperfield to a friend in a mental hospital whose parents had her committed for lesbianism (it took exactly three signatures, her parents’ and a family doctor’s, to commit her for what was then considered a mental illness). My friends and I, furious and sad, talked to a free lawyer who agreed to visit her and tell her her rights. She called us from a pay phone and said they were watching her all the time now. She said I shouldn’t send her any more books. Reading was considered anti-social, so she had to play cards and wait till she was out (but not”out”) a year later to read Dickens.
When she got out of the hospital, she became a huge David Copperfield fan. She chortled over Peggotty and Barkis. And wasn’t it sad about Little Em’ly?
My first husband wouldn’t read Dickens, but he liked the Micawber scenes (W. C. Fields?) from an old movie of David Copperfield.
He liked to be dramatic in public. When I said good-bye to him after a lunch at the Burger Palace, he would clap me against the wall outside and proclaim for passers-by, “You’re always leaving me!’ Then I would mutter, “I will never desert you, Mr. Micawber.”
He was easily amused.
My favorite Dickens novel?
But “Dombey and Son is also pretty good,” a friend and I agreed.
Our Mutual Friend is a masterpiece.
In the introduction to the Vintage edition of Our Mutual Friend, Nick Hornby says he prefers David Copperfield and Great Expectations. But he admits to the genius of a scene in OMF in which a semi-literate owner of a fruit stall, Weggs, struggles very funnily to read aloud The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire to the wealthy, illiterate Mr. Boffin, the Golden Dustman.
I’ll quote Hornby because he’s so articulate.
“Dickens is on sensational comic form here: there are great one-liners, fantastically complicated set-pieces, characters whose peculiarities and weaknesses are sufficiently surreal as to intimidate any real human from attempting to portray them on screen…”
There are many ways to interpret Dickens. I read OMF in 2010 as a book about money. It is a book about money. But this time I am reading it as a book about literacy. It is a book about literacy, too. Literacy and money are all tied up together, but the aspiring illiterate are sometimes better than the snobbishly corrupt literate.
The main plot, the money version, of Our Mutual Friend proceeds like this:
John Harmon, the heir of a rich, miserly dustman, is ostensibly found dead in the Thames. The body is retrieved by Gaffer Hexam, a waterman who earns a fee from the police for recovering corpses from the river. John is actually alive, as we learn shortly, but, meanwhile, a naive married couple, former employees of the Dustman, inherit the valuable dust heap in his absence: Mr. Boffin, now known as the Golden Dustman, and his sweet wife, Mrs. Boffin, become preys of swindlers and social climber. When the Boffins offer a reward for John’s murderer, Gaffer’s ex-partner, Riderhood, vengefully claims Hexam was the murderer. But Hexam is found dead in the Thames.
Literacy is an extremely important issue in Book I of Our Mutual Friend. Literacy divides the Hexam family: Gaffer Hexam is illiterate, though he prides himself on knowing what the different police posters say attempting to identify dead bodies; but is furious that his son, Charley, can read. His beautiful, smart, illiterate, diplomatic daughter, Lizzie, makes sure Charley gets an education, but insists that he not say much about it. Stay illiterate and you’ll be stuck being a waterman, and so she helps him. As for herself? She doesn’t learn to read because she loves her father so much.
Mr. Boffin, the Golden Dustman, also struggles with illiteracy. He hires Wegg, a man with a wooden leg who keeps a fruit stall, to read aloud The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he bought, thinking it was about the “Rooshan” empire.
He is terribly excited about finding a reader.
“I shall have no peace of patience till you come. Print is now opening ahead of me.”
Illiteracy can be a disadvantage. For Lizzie’s brother, Charley, now at school, it has become a class issue: he is embarrassed by Lizzie’s illiteracy. He also finds her in low circumstances, renting a room in the house where brilliant, crippled Jenny Wren, a doll’s dressmaker, lives. Lizzie and Jenny are great friends: Lizzie is one of those rare people who can see the good in a strange person. But upwardly mobile Charley wants everything to be conventional. Convention makes him comfortable.
Later, Eugene Wrayburn, a lawyer without work who is in love with Lizzie, wants to hire someone to teach Lizzie and Jenny to read. Clearly, he feels illiteracy divides them. Lizzie declines at first, knowing that literacy can be used to give you control over your world, or to give control of your world to someone else. But she accepts Eugene’s offer after Bradley Headstone, Charley’s teacher, decides he wants to superintend her learning.
I will have more to say about this as I go on. I’ve finished Book I and am into Book II. Look for other installments.