Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Imperfections of David Copperfield

The below passage is from Chapter 52 ("I Assist at an Explosion") of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Note: italics added.

...Mr. Micawber had a relish in this formal piling up of words, which, however ludicrously displayed in his case, was, I must say, not at all peculiar to him. I have observed it, in the course of my life, in numbers of men. It seems to me to be a general rule. In the taking of legal oaths, for instance, deponents seem to enjoy themselves mightily when they come to several good words in succession, for the expression of one idea; as, that they utterly detest, abominate, and abjure, or so forth; and the old anathemas were made relishing on the same principle. We talk about the tyranny of words, but we like to tyrannize over them too; we are fond of having a large superfluous establishment of words to wait upon us on great occasions; we think it looks important, and sounds well. As we are not particular about the meaning of our liveries on state occasions, if they be but fine and numerous enough, so, the meaning or necessity of our words is a secondary consideration, if there be but a great parade of them. And as individuals get into trouble by making too great a show of liveries, or as slaves when they are too numerous rise against their masters, so I think I could mention a nation that has got into many great difficulties, and will get into many greater, from maintaining too large a retinue of words.
The passage comes right in the middle of a long speech by Mr. Micawber, the amiable but financially unsound "fallen gentleman" David has known and liked since he was young. It's a tirade, really, and its target is Uriah Heep, the scheming, lying, cheating bastard of a clerk who has slithered his way to the top (or writhed his way, as Dickens put it) through obviously unsavory means. But Mr. Micawber, who in his eternal lack of money seemed the perfect candidate for a clerk that Mr. Heep could keep under his thumb, has spent months gathering evidence and now, in this chapter, unleashes the full angry wrath of a Vesuvius.

I loved that chapter (and it could be worth reading it by itself, in its entirety) but the above-quoted paragraph made me laugh on its own account. That the one man so many high schoolers have wanted to resurrect and beat over the head for writing novels instead of haikus should interrupt his already tall narrative with a tirade against useless words... It seems gently ironic, and you know we hipster are all about the i, big or little.

I finished David Copperfield just a few days ago (how much it feels like a millennium has gone by!) and I now feel I have a clear view of Charles Dickens: not the most inspired man, by nature, but earnest always and eloquent in his plainness. You always know what he's about; and he's very British -- two ambivalent statements that I choose to interpret positively. Even when he made mistakes -- interrupted his narrative, for example, with the kind of chafe quoted above; or else took his good old time getting to the target even when he stayed on course -- I am inclined to forgive him. I see these imperfections as the idiosyncrasies of a harmless old grandpa -- a cast of character I am very sympathetic towards -- rather than the tiresome ego-soaked digressions of a blowhard at a podium in front of a captive audience.

Dickens comforts me, not only in the contents of his writing, but in his manner of writing it, too. What one calls rushed another calls produced on a deadline. Either way, Dickens' work seems always imperfect, smushed or squeezed, not polished to a shine. We are not all Joyce and some of us prefer it that way. Though I will never call Dickens rough-hewn -- on the order of bred-from-the-soil writer/farmers, whose many names escape me at the moment -- I still believe that it was what, not how he wrote that was the main compelling force for Dickens and in turn the chief concern for his readers. For my part, despite the imperfections, David Copperfield is one of the most charming books I've ever read... Yes, charming -- that's the perfect word.

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