Friday, June 24, 2011

The wit in Chuzzlewit

It was one of those unaccountable little rooms which are never seen anywhere but in a tavern, and are supposed to have got into taverns by reason of the facilities afforded to the architect for getting drunk while engaged in their construction. It had more corners in it than the brain of an obstinate man...

Hurrah! I finished Martin Chuzzlewit. It's very long, and for some stretches very boring, but also very funny. The breed of humour is much more physical than I recall from other Dickens books — it's slapstick.

It was so amusing, that Tom, with Ruth upon his arm, stood looking down from the wharf, as nearly regardless as it was in the nature of flesh and blood to be, of an elderly lady behind him, who had brought a large umbrella with her, and didn't know what to do with it. This tremendous instrument had a hooked handle; and its vicinity was first made known to him by a painful pressure on the windpipe, consequent upon its having caught him round the throat. Soon after disengaging himself with perfect good humour, he had a sensation of the ferule in his back; immediately afterwards, of the hook entangling his ankles; then of the umbrella generally, wandering about his hat, and flapping at it like a great bird; and, lastly, of a poke or thrust below the ribs, which give him such exceeding anguish, that he could not refrain from turning round to offer a mild remonstrance.

The pacing really picks up in the last few hundred pages. And there's a murder! Nobody told me there was a murder in Chuzzlewit.

I'm not particularly happy with how everything turns out. A couple plot points are left unresolved. And Tom Pinch surely deserves better, and he is certainly the star of this novel.

And while I rooted for Tom, and loved to hate the despicable Jonas, none of the characters really sings, with ugly truth or deep humanity.

I might agree with Chesterton:

Dickens may or may not have loved Pecksniff comically, but he did not love him seriously; he did not respect him [...] But the fact remains. In this book Dickens has not allowed us to love the most absurd people seriously, and absurd people ought to be loved seriously. Pecksniff has to be amusing all the time; the instant he ceases to be laughable he becomes detestable.

I care not at all for Peckniff ("He was a most exemplary man; fuller of virtuous precept than a copy book."), but love this description:

His shoes looked too large; his sleeve looked too long; his hair looked too limp; his features looked too mean; his exposed throat looked as if a halter would have done it good. For a minute or two, in fact, he was hot, and pale, and mean, and shy, and slinking, and consequently not at all Pecksniffian.

Then there's the bit about America, which I neither love nor hate as most readers seem to. I am surprised that Dickens would put his characters through such hell, but I like that America turns out to be not so much the land of opportunity as the land of opportunists.

I don't recommend Chuzzlewit as an entryway to Dickens, but I found plenty in it to make it worthwhile.

I've been reading this on my ereader over several weeks. Chuzzlewit is a free download from Project Gutenberg. I'm somewhat surprised that I didn't abandon this novel when I was overcome by distractions, but I'm pleased to realize that the fact that it's free and digital in no way diminished the commitment I generally feel toward a book once started.

I was reading Chuzzlewit on the metro, and smiling at some passage or other, when a woman leaned over to ask, "What are you reading? You're enjoying it so much. Is it a romance?" I told her, no, Dickens, and she just loves Dickens, which one?, so I told her, but she hadn't read it, and we chatted for a moment about Dickens in general, doesn't matter whether he's being funny or poignant or creepy, the man has a way with words.

And this exchange made me smile all the more, because I realized: with the advent of ereaders, as much as I miss seeing people's book covers and knowing what they're reading, it's not a human connection — it's just plain voyeurism. Paper or digital, if you're really interested in what someone's reading, you should talk to them.
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