Friday, January 29, 2010

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens
1857, 820 pp.

I have avoided Charles Dickens for almost a quarter-century. I have never experienced any of his works, with the exception of A Christmas Carol, which I consider to be a tragedy in the genre of Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind: the stages by which an independent will gives way to external compulsion and coercion. I have never seen any of the various films or stage plays based on his books, nor have I ever read any of his many novels, whether in school or otherwise. Until now.

And, startlingly, I really enjoyed it. An 800-page book carries quite a burden of proof, to justify the investment of the reader’s time and attention, and to pay for the opportunity cost of not reading perhaps five other, shorter, books. Dickens manages this here, with dexterity and aplomb. It really is quite a good novel, and the prospect of reading more Dickens no longer fills me with howling dread. I am still leery of his plucky-young-boy novels, but look forward with pleasure to the day I have time to settle down to Our Mutual Friend, Hard Times, Edwin Drood, and Bleak House.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote that Little Dorrit is a more subversive book than Das Kapital. I would argue that he drew a needless distinction: Little Dorrit effectively IS Das Kapital, but with more jokes and better characters. The plot concerns William Dorrit, a goodhearted if overly dignified man who winds up in the Marshalsea debtors prison for so long that he becomes known as “the Father of the Marshalsea.” His youngest daughter, the upright, long-suffering, completely pure Little Dorrit was born in the Marshalsea, and has lived her whole life there, taking care of her father and her wayward siblings. Then there is Arthur Clennam, our hero, recently returned from China, attempting to make his way and start a business in seedy, rainy London. Lurking constantly in the background is the sinister Blandois, a blackguard and murderer with a suspicious moustache and diabolical plans. The plot is hugely elaborate, and studded with subplots and counter-plots too numerous to delve into here. Suffice it to say that the Dorrit family is raised high and then brought low again, as in a similar way is Arthur Clennam. There’s long voyages and illnesses, and in the end everything turns out fairly happily.

The characters are what drive this whole clattering, ramshackle, Rube-Goldberg-device of a plot, and quite memorable characters they are indeed. But really the book hinges on two utterly sublime creations: Mr. Merdle and the Circumlocution Office. Merdle is a captain of industry, a powerful player, a legend of capitalism and financial ingenuity. He has lavish parties at his exquisite mansion, attended by adoring luminaries referred to only by their professions: Law, Bishop, Physician, etc. Also in attendance are members of the omnipresent Barnacle family, who run the vast, impenetrable bureaucracy of the Circumlocution Office. The chapter which introduces the Office and the Barnacles is an exhilarating, hilarious bit of writing which justifies the purchase and time investment of the book all by itself. The purpose of the Office is to ensure that nothing at all gets done, and to that end it employs enormous numbers of people filling out innumerable forms, all of which contradict one another, all of them obstructing any progress anyone anywhere attempts to make in anything. There are whole bodies of self-proclaimed "socialist" thought which display less class consciousness and a weaker grasp of actually-existing political economy.

You can also have my word that the Circumlocution Office is alive and well in London today.

Eventually, after many hundreds of pages of the plot thickening, it finally curdles when it turns out that Mr. Merdle is in fact an 1857 rendition of Bernard Madoff, down virtually to the last detail. I almost howled with delight on the Tube. The passages illustrating the collapse of London finance when his Ponzi scheme comes to light are wonderful, as Dickens spins out an extended metaphor which is equal part Lehman Brothers and Battle of the Nile:

“The Inquest was over, the letter was public, the Bank was broken, the other model structures of straw had taken fire and turned to smoke. The admired piratical ship had blown up, in the midst of a vast fleet of ships of all rates, and boats of all sizes; and on the deep was nothing but ruin; nothing but burning hulls, bursting magazines, great guns self-exploded tearing friends and neighbors to pieces, drowning men clinging to unseaworthy spars and going down every minute, spent swimmers floating dead, and sharks.”

The withering, all-encompassing contempt Dickens pours upon the wealthy and the powerful is truly one of the most entertaining, gratifying, and inspiring spectacles in all of literature. I wish I had read this book as a small boy so that, when called upon in class to say what I wanted to be when I grew up, I could reply: “One day I want to ridicule someone as well as Charles Dickens ridiculed the bourgeoisie.” His scorn takes in Parliament, the bureaucracy, Big Business, finance, the establishment of various professions, and self-aggrandizing philanthropists. His invective is never less than elegant and convoluted, and there were large passages I was tempted to memorize so that I could spit them at the drones of Finance I see on the Underground every morning. The so-called "populist rage" which greeted the events of 2007 was the petulant fist-waving of a child compared to Dickens' hilarious outpouring of ridicule. Granted, one is never far from the knowledge that Dickens was paid by the word, but he is such a virtuoso at spinning out metaphors and sentences longer than any reasonable human could be expected to sustain such verbal ingenuity that he is a delight to read. Yes, a suspicious number of his characters have wordy verbal mannerisms, and yes, he does present conversations which circle and circle longer than necessary. But this gives us both a sense of the characters and of actual-existing life. It adds to the sense of the novel being a world which you wrap yourself up in and get pleasantly lost. And it prefigures some important literary developments, since the run-on ramblings of Flora Finchley effectively prefigure Molly Bloom's monologue. It also speaks less to Dickens’ financial needs and more to his great energy, and as far as I’m concerned, its his energy and his verbal dexterity which pull the whole enterprise off. He really is the sort of writer who could make the back of a cereal box entertaining, and I must report that I thoroughly enjoyed all 820 pages.

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