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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

Ditching Dickensian

April 30, 2014 | by

Giving the lie to a critical crutch.

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Illustration: Robert Ingpen

Copies of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch now bear an impressive gold foil sticker declaring it the “WINNER of the PULITZER PRIZE.” Before that accolade, though, critics had already branded the novel by using and abusing the adjective that’s launched a thousand blurbs—Dickensian. Despite, or perhaps because of, the ubiquity of the word in appraisals of the novel, such assessments are rarely issued without caveats. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan apologetically notes that the term “is one of those literary modifiers that’s overused”; in the New York Times Book Review, Stephen King somewhat ruefully acknowledged that he wouldn’t be the last to employ Dickensian to describe Tartt’s novel. He was right.

For all this critical concurrence, it’s less than clear what we mean by Dickensian, or, for that matter, by any adjective with a particular author at its root. Francine Prose leads her review of The Goldfinch with this very question: “What do people mean when they call a novel ‘Dickensian’?” As Prose notes, a number of answers present themselves—Dickensian can signify sentimentality, an attentiveness to the social conditions, a cast of comically hyperbolic characters, a reliance on plot contrivances, or even simply a book’s sheer length. (I suspect one rarely means the relatively slim A Tale of Two Cities or Hard Times when one labels a novel Dickensian.) In other words, the proliferation of the senses of Dickensian makes one wonder if it, or other such words, are critically useful at all. As Cynthia Ozick has recently complained with regard to Kafkaesque—another perennial—the word “has by now escaped the body of work it is meant to evoke.” Read More »

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Realer Than Real

February 7, 2014 | by

Charles Dickens was born today in 1812.


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FOOTE

The most illuminating thing that ever happened to me in those early days was winning as a Sunday-school prize a copy of David Copperfield. Now, I’d read Tom Swift and earlier Bunny Brown and his sister Sue, then moved on to the Rover Boys and Tarzan. But here came David Copperfield. I was dismayed that it was about six hundred pages long. But when I began to read I got so caught up in it—when I finished it, I realized that I’d been in the presence of something realer than real. I knew David better than I knew myself or anyone else. The way Dickens told that story caught me right then and there.  

INTERVIEWER

Was reading David Copperfield an early catalyst for making you a writer and not just a reader?  

FOOTE

I absolutely think so. I didn’t react immediately, but eventually it made me want to do what Dickens had done—make a world that’s somehow better in focus than real life, which goes rushing past you. He showed me how to do it too. 

—Shelby Foote, the Art of Fiction No. 158, Summer 1999

 

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Ill-Fitting Doll Suits

November 26, 2013 | by

Male dolls in a range of ill-fitting costumes.

Male dolls in a range of ill-fitting costumes.

For all humanity’s technological achievements, no one in the history of the world has ever succeeded in producing a realistic-looking miniature suit for a male doll. Any father doll who works a white-collar job looks instantly ridiculous: lumpen, clownish, stripped of all authority. The only play scenarios in which a miniature male doll’s suits make any sense is that in which he has just gotten out of prison and hasn’t had a chance to get new clothes, or if the dollhouse paterfamilias is David Byrne. I need not say that neither plotline is popular.

In his 1913 essay “On the Wax Dolls of Lotte Pritzel,” Rilke wrote, “Sexless as the dolls of childhood were, [the doll-souls] can find no decease in their stagnant ecstasy, which has neither inflow nor outflow.”

Which is all very well, but seriously, doll men have terrible-looking suits. Read More »

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Dickensian Peg Legs, and Other News

October 2, 2013 | by

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  • There are so many wooden legs in the works of Dickens.
  • David Bowie’s one hundred favorite books include The Trial of Henry Kissinger, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
  • “You’ve published a novel, and half a dozen short stories, and you’ve found clever ways to fluff up your bio. You think of your writing resume as one of the most creative pieces of fiction you’ve written.” Justin Kramon on being a fiction-writing professor.
  • “Fleming was essentially a bureaucrat during the war. But, being an imaginative man, he could not help thinking about a more active role as a secret agent.” The real story behind the birth of James Bond.
  • Yup: the Library of Congress is closed, too.

 

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Required Reading for Bastille Day

July 15, 2013 | by

Claude Monet, Rue Montorgueil, Paris, Festival of 30 June 1878

Claude Monet, Rue Montorgueil, Paris, Festival of 30 June 1878.

So hangs it, dubious, fateful, in the sultry days of July. It is the passionate printed advice of M. Marat, to abstain, of all things, from violence. Nevertheless the hungry poor are already burning Town Barriers, where Tribute on eatables is levied; getting clamorous for food.
—Thomas Carlyle, History of the French Revolution

The old saw that “an army marches on its belly” was blunted on July 14, 1789, as a half-starved, bibulous mob overran the walls of the Bastille, the Bourbon kings’ infamous political prison-turned-armory. Leaders of the rabble were more excited about hoarding gunpowder and fusils than about liberating the prison’s seven remaining, apparently apolitical inmates. Over the next two centuries, La Fête Nationale (or simply “le quatorze Juillet”) has metastasized from a Gallic celebration of freedom to a worldwide excuse for holding a multiday anarchic party, ideally with decent wine and minimal casualties. Read More »

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Eliot’s Pen, Fabio’s Mane, and Other News

March 18, 2013 | by

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  • With Charles Dickens’s quill a bit the worse for wear, the Royal Society of Literature begins signing its roll book with T. S. Eliot’s fountain pen. James Wood inaugurates. 
  • In the New York Post, poet Bob Holman shares a guide to his poetic New York, which includes the White Horse Tavern, the Hare Krishna tree, and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
  • Will independent bookstores fill the gaps left by Borders? In Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, at least, this might be happening! 
  • Speaking of: Did you catch this list of über-indie bookstores in private homes
  • Happy birthday, Fabio: here are his best book covers

 

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