Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Nov/Dec 2011
- Charles Dickens: A Life—Claire Tomalin
If I were walking home down a dark alley, and I got jumped by a gang of literary hooligans who held me up against a wall and threatened me with a beating unless I told them who my favorite writer was… Well, I wouldn’t tell them. I’d take the beating, rather than crudify my long and sophisticated relationship with great books in that way. The older I get, the less sense it makes, that kind of definitive answer, to this or any other question. But let’s say the thugs then revealed that they knew where I lived, and made it clear that they were going to work over my children unless I gave them what they wanted. (This scenario probably sounds very unlikely to American readers, but you have to understand the violent passions that literature excites here in the U.K. After all, we more or less invented the stuff.) First, I would do a quick head count: My seven-year-old can look after himself in most situations, and I would certainly fancy his chances against people who express any kind of interest, even a violent one, in the arts. If, however, there were simply too many of them, I would eventually, and reluctantly, cough up the name of Charles Dickens.
And yet up until a couple of weeks ago, I had never read a Dickens biography. I have read a biography of Thomas Hardy, even though I haven’t looked at him since I was in my teens, when I was better able to withstand the relentless misery; I have read biographies of Dodie Smith and Richard Yates, even though much of their work is unfamiliar to me; I’ve read biographies of Laurie Lee and B. S. Johnson, even though I’ve never even opened one of their books, as far as I know. Every time, I was drawn to the biographer, rather than the subject. (The great Jonathan Coe wrote the B. S. Johnson book, for example.) Last year I devoured Sarah Bakewell’s brilliant book about Montaigne, How to Live, even though I can hardly make it through a sentence of Montaigne’s essays without falling into a deep sleep. Expecting a biography to be good simply because you have an interest in the life it describes is exactly like expecting a novel to be good simply because it’s set in Italy, or during World War II, or some other place and time you have an interest in. The only Dickens biography I have ever wanted to read until now was Peter Ackroyd’s, but it is over a thousand pages long and made me wonder whether I’d be better off digging in to Barnaby Rudge, or The Pickwick Papers, or one of the other two or three novels I haven’t yet got around to. In the end, inevitably, I read neither Ackroyd nor Rudge, a compromise I have managed to maintain effortlessly to this day.
Claire Tomalin is my favorite literary biographer; in the U.K., she’s everybody’s favorite literary biographer. (Everybody has one, here in lit-crazy Britain.) She’s a clever, thoughtful, sympathetic critic, a formidable researcher, and she has an unerring sense of the reader’s appetite and attention span. A publisher once explained to me that the First Law of Biography is that they always increase in length, because the writer has to justify the need for a new one, and demonstrate that something previously undiscovered is being brought to the Churchill/Picasso/Woolf party; and you can’t leave out the old stuff, the upbringing and the education and all that, because the old stuff is, you know, The Life. But Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life is 417 pages long, without notes and index—a pretty thrilling length, given the importance of the man, his enormous output, and his complicated personal life. Top biographer + favorite novelist + under 500 pages = dream package, or so I thought. I have never once made this complaint here, but I ended up wishing it had been longer.
I am not the best person to review it for you, however, because I have no idea how it compares to the Ackroyd, nor to the Fred Kaplan, nor to the recent Michael Slater, nor to Dickens’s friend Forster’s three volumes. Who flogs through more than one book about the same person, apart from Bob Dylan fans? The reviewers in the posher papers will all have read the others, but out here in the real world, I’m presuming that if you’ve read one Dickens biography, you won’t be reading another, and it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever get around to any of them.
You’d be missing out, though, if you don’t read Tomalin’s contribution. It is a fantastic book about a working writer, in the same way, oddly enough, that the first of Peter Guralnick’s two monumental volumes about Elvis was a fantastic book about a working musician. Tomalin, like Guralnick, ignores the myth and gets up close to the daily life—the walks that Dickens needed to take in order to write, the strange Victorian intensity of his male friendships, the money worries, the pro bono work, and, above all, the almost demented production of prose.
One thing is clear: Dickens wasn’t thinking about posterity. In fact, I’m betting he would have said that he’d comprehensively blown his chance of a literary afterlife: he wrote too much, too quickly, to feed his family and his ego, and to please his public. He wrote The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist at the same time, providing 7,500-word installments of each every month; later, he then did the same with Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. He was also editing and contributing to a magazine, and he was up to his neck in dependents. (He supported his father and mother, and eventually had ten children, most of them unwanted. And his sons turned out to be as burdensome and feckless as his father had been.) He was nowhere near thirty years old.
As Tomalin makes clear, there was an artistic cost. Nicholas Nickleby has “a rambling, unplanned plot” and an “almost unreadable” last quarter; the plotting in Barnaby Rudge is “absurd,” in Martin Chuzzlewit it is “improbable and tedious.” The second half of Dombey and Son wastes the promise of the first with its “feeble plotting and over-writing.” Our Mutual Friend is “sometimes tedious,” and “the weakness of the plotting is a serious fault.” (I reread Our Mutual Friend recently, and the weakness to which Tomalin refers would have made a scriptwriter on The Young and the Restless blanche.) Only David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and Bleak House receive more or less unreserved praise, although the prissy, saintly women are always a problem, and he published Great Expectations with a crowd-pleasing feel-good ending. If you are feeling bad because you haven’t read any Dickens and don’t know where to start, Tomalin reduces your reading load by a couple of million words. The books survive because there is something of great merit on almost every page—a joke, an unforgettable description, a brilliant set-piece, a character so original and yet so perfectly descriptive of human foibles that he has entered the language—and because of the ferocious energy of just about every line he wrote. Oh, and because he was loved, and is still loved, and has always been loved. Meanwhile, Bleak House wasn’t even reviewed in the serious magazines—they didn’t bother with old tosh like that.
If Dickens were writing today, some journalist somewhere would be obliged to point out that he was living the rock-star life; there’s always a slightly disapproving wistfulness to this observation when it’s made about Neil Gaiman or David Sedaris or one of the other authors who routinely pack out theaters on reading tours, as if it betokens something unspeakably vulgar about our modern world. And yet Dickens got there first: it’s his template, and maybe the learned thing to say is that Bono is living the successful Victorian novelist’s life. Gigantic tours of the U.S., with huge and exhaustingly adoring crowds everywhere? Check. Income affected by illegal downloading? Absolutely—American publishers were not obliged to ask permission to publish the novels, nor to pay royalties for them, and Dickens spent a lot of time and energy trying to right this wrong, to general American indifference. Prurient press interest in the star’s private life, combined with very unwise attempts on the part of the star to manage said interest? Both the London Times and the New York Tribune published extraordinary letters from Dickens absolving himself for the failure of his marriage. Over-hasty adaptations of the work, designed to cash in on a book’s success? Dickens saw stage versions of novels that he hadn’t even finished. Business relationships that fractured because of the petulant, arguably greedy behavior of the artist? Dickens fell out with publishers over advances and royalties and delivery dates with a frequency that would exhaust even the grabbiest, grubbiest contemporary agent. The glitzy international friendships? He met presidents and royalty, and he seemed to know every contemporary writer you’ve ever heard of. One of the most striking stories here describes Dostoyevsky calling in on Dickens at his offices in Wellington Street in Covent Garden; the Russian’s consequent account of their meeting in a letter to a friend provides a profound glimpse of what we would now describe as Dickens’s creative process:
There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.
But it was enough. Quilp and Steerforth, Uriah Heep and Madame Defarge, Fagin and Bill Sikes and scores of others… If these all came from Dickens’s shadow side, then we must all be grateful that psychotherapy hadn’t yet been invented. If it had, some well-meaning shrink would have got him to talk these extraordinary half-human creatures into nothingness.
I found myself thinking a lot about Dickens’s formative years, and the failure of his parents to care for him properly. With no educational provision, he was free to wander the streets, mapping out London in his head, registering how short was the walk between the splendors of Regent Street and the poverty of Camden and Covent Garden. He went to see his father, whose chronic mismanagement of the family finances meant that he ended up in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, where Little Dorrit’s family lived. And Charles’s time at the blacking factory opened up a whole new world to him, a world in which children worked, and suffered. Pretty much all you have to do as a dad is earn some money, stay out of prison, and make sure your kid goes to school; John Dickens struck out on all three requirements, and is therefore directly responsible for some of the greatest fiction in the English language. I’m not saying that it’s a good idea to piss your money away and let your eleven-year-old wander through the mean streets of your nearest big city. But if you do take your eye off the ball, don’t beat yourself up about it: the chances are that it will all turn out OK.
One of the things that did me no good at all in the formative years of my career was prescriptive advice from established writers, even though I craved it at the time. You know the sort of thing: “Write a minimum of fifteen drafts.” “A good book takes five years to produce.” “Learn Ulysses off by heart.” “Make sure you can identify trees.” “Read your book out loud to your cat.” I cannot tell an oak from another tree, the name of which I cannot even dredge up for illustrative purposes, and yet I got by, somehow. Walk into a bookshop and you will see work by writers who produce a book every three months, writers who don’t own a TV, writers with five children, writers who produce a book every twenty-five years, writers who never write sober, writers who have at least one eye on the film rights, writers who never think about money, writers who, in your opinion, can’t write at all. It doesn’t matter: they got the work done, and there they are, up on the shelves. They might not stay there forever: readers, now and way off into the future, make that decision. Claire Tomalin’s wonderful and definitive book is, above all, about a man who got the work done, millions of words of it, and to order, despite all the distractions and calamities. And everything else, the fame, and the money, and the giant shadow that he continues to cast over just about everyone who has written since, came from that. There’s nothing else about writing worth knowing, really.