Monday, April 18, 2011

Very swaggering and very slinking

It happened on the fourth evening, that Mr. Pecksniff walking, as usual, into the bar of the Dragon and finding no Mrs. Lupin there, went straight up-stairs; purposing, in the fervour of his affectionate zeal, to apply his ear once more to the keyhole, and quiet his mind by assuring himself that the hard-hearted patient was going on well. It happened that Mr. Pecksniff, coming softly upon the dark passage into which a spiral ray of light usually darted through the same keyhole, was astonished to find no such ray visible; and it happened that Mr. Pecksniff, when he had felt his way to the chamber-door, stooping hurriedly down to ascertain by personal inspection whether the jealousy of the old man had caused this keyhole to be stopped on the inside, brought his head into such violent contact with another head that he could not help uttering in an audible voice the monosyllable "oh!" which was, as it were, sharply unscrewed and jerked out of him by very anguish. It happened then, and lastly, that Mr. Pecksniff found himself immediately collared by something which smelt like several damp umbrellas, a barrel of beer, a cask of warm brandy-and-water, and a small parlour-full of stale tobacco smoke, mixed; and was straightway led down-stairs into the bar from which he had lately come, where he found himself standing opposite to, and in the grasp of, a perfectly strange gentleman of still stranger appearance who, with his disengaged hand, rubbed his own head very hard, and looked at him, Pecksniff, with an evil countenance.

The gentleman was of that order of appearance which is currently termed shabby-genteel, though in respect of his dress he can hardly be said to have been in any extremities, as his fingers were a long way out of his gloves, and the soles of his feet were at an inconvenient distance from the upper leather of his boots. His nether garments were of a bluish grey — violent in its colours once, but sobered now by age and dinginess — and were so stretched and strained in a tough conflict between his braces and his straps, that they appeared every moment in danger of flying asunder at the knees. His coat, in colour blue and of a military cut, was buttoned and frogged up to his chin. His cravat was, in hue and pattern, like one of those mantles which hairdressers are accustomed to wrap about their clients, during the progress of the professional mysteries. His hat had arrived at such a pass that it would have been hard to determine whether it was originally white or black. But he wore a moustache — a shaggy moustache too: nothing in the meek and merciful way, but quite in the fierce and scornful style: the regular Satanic sort of thing — and he wore, besides, a vast quantity of unbrushed hair. He was very dirty and very jaunty; very bold and very mean; very swaggering and very slinking; very much like a man who might have been something better, and unspeakably like a man who deserved to be something worse.

— from Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens.

Once upon a time I vowed to read a Dickens a year. Seeing as they're so long, I think one every two years or so should suffice.

Several commenters on this blog have in the past mentioned Martin Chuzzlewit, for its humor, for its women characters, and for some of the more memorably Dickensian characters going. Not being the least bit familiar with it, and it bearing the distinction of not having been recommended by Oprah, I decided to take it up.

Not much has happened yet. I'm a little daunted that my e-reader calculates this novel at 3167 page turns — I've barely made a dent.

But it is funny, although mostly in attitude, in an almost self-parodying tone. This effect is somewhat exaggerated by the fact that I can't help but hear the text in my head as narrated by Simon Callow, and am reminded of the Doctor's judgment that the American bit (which I've got a way to go before I get to it) is rubbish.

One may read a defense of the American bit — indeed, the novel as a whole — by GK Chesterton, from which I learned that this is a novel about a selfishness, and, despite its humour, this novel is sad.

I have just recently encountered Mark, the barman, who is a jolly fellow, who is looking to find a new situation in the city, a gloomy and difficult one, one in which his jollity might be seen as a credit, for there is no trial of character in being jolly as a barman, surely it be a virtue only when overcoming some adversity, working as a grave-digger or taxman perhaps.

1 comment:

Stefanie said...

There is another blogger reading this right now too. Hopefully the humor will help offset the sad.