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Bleak House- Charles Dickens

 
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Posted August 14, 2016 by

Bleak House – Charles Dickens – 1853

Reviewed by: Michael Sympson        Date: 20 September 2001

When I read the first book of Dickens I must have been seven or eight. I never was into children’s books and insisted on reading Oliver Twist. I also had the measles and ran a high fever, a fatal combination, especially when Fagin sends his little troopers into your dreams. My mother took away the book and my life was saved. But somehow this has affected my entire attitude when it comes to Dickens, even after full recovery. I saw nothing of his humor and everything of his depressive gloom. I wouldn’t touch a book of his with tongs. Over the years this became a ridiculous phobia.

Then one day I made the acquaintance of a London spinster who herself could have jumped straight out of one of Dickens’ novels. You know, the bony type with a shrill laughter, but a warrior before the gin bottle. She had an uncanny eye for the idiosyncrasies and little ticks of almost each and everyone and she pointed out to me the whole collection of Dickensian characters walking past the window. These days Mr. Podsnap works on the stock exchange and his flourish still comes handy when the Dow Johnes is dropping. With the help of this good lady I have seen the Pickwick’s whole cast walking the streets in the flesh. It is a gift, and I wish I had it. I decided to have another go at Dickens.

Regardless of genre, there are two types of imaginative literature. Stand-up routines and pieces that try to convey something. Both are legitimate, but personally I prefer the latter. Coming to think of it, as a stand-up routine even “Ulysses” might actually be salvageable. Anyway, Dickens is definitely the stand-up comedian, and he and Shakespeare have this in common, that one reads them both mainly for their turn of phrase. Take away the phrasing from Shakespeare and we are left with pretty silly anecdotes and downright ludicrous nonsense. Denude Dickens of his language and the man presents himself as a pretty ordinary dime novelist.

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Seriously! Can you name even one of Dickens’ novels you would read for its jaw-dropping thrills? … Thought so. But I learned to like Dickens, because his “novels” are really sheer poetry, prose-poems of three decker tome size which outshine everything that any poet of the period had written, including Browning and Hopkins. None even remotely has achieved Dickens’ variety of rhythm and cadence, or matches his felicity of similes and metaphors. And “Bleak House” is certainly a lonely peak even within Dickens’ own production. Just listen to this (make sure you are not running a fever):

“… , these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery. As, on the ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever, and sowing more evil in every footprint than Lord Coodle, and Sir Thomas Doodle, and the Duke of Foodle, and all the fine gentlemen in office, down to Zoodle, shall set right in five hundred years–though born expressly to do it.”

Disgustingly brilliant and highly symbolic! Well, that is Dickens. He is one of the few epic geniuses who we gladly forgive that their style is more of a player than a conveyor. No matter which page we turn, it is always Dickens and nothing but Dickens. But what about incident and character? Shouldn’t we expect a collection of caricatures in Daumier’s fashion? Not in Bleak House – the ghostly cast walking the foggy streets is of flesh and blood or some other juice, but walk they do and convincingly.

Less convincing though are the incidents and concerns. The judicial system which Dickens appeared to criticize was already outdated in Dickens’ own era by at least three decades; the law suit in “Bleak House” is based on a dim memory from the author’s childhood. Many social issues of poverty and poor public housing touched in the book had already been taken care of by a number of reform acts. When Dickens published his novel, London had just opened to the public the first tunnels for a new underground transport system.

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No, who means to read “Bleak House,” in order to bolster social conscience, better turn to Engels’ book on the condition of the working class in Manchester, (a must read in my opinion, but not for its literary merits.) Dickens was first and foremost an artist, and a great artist. For people who like to discuss artistic styles, “Bleak House” is something of a landmark: it introduces the era of symbolism. Not that Dickens had intended to do so – it came naturally to him to write like this, but what for him was an expression of his temperament, became for the generation after Dickens a new method, which in its extremes could take the shape of Mallarmé’s oracular poetry.

But this was still a far cry of a distant future. Dickens is anything but oracular. A lord of the language who all his enormous powers had funneled into “Bleak House,” and to such extend as we would never see again nor have seen before.

~

Reviewed by: Anna van Gelderen       Date: 27 July 2001

It seems there are two hard to eradicate misconceptions about Charles Dickens. The first is that simply because he is a nineteenth century author who wrote fat novels, that his books must be boring and longwinded. The second (which rather contradicts the first) is that he just wrote rambling comic or rambling sentimental novels and therefore cannot be taken seriously. Well, let me tell you something: Dickens is not boring. He wrote his books in instalments for magazines and needed a cliffhanger at the end of each instalment to get the readers to buy the next. Therefore his plots are at least as full of life and suspense as your average tv series and never dull. He is also to be taken very seriously. Of course lots of his books have plenty of humour in them, but this is the humour of the satirist who exposes the whims and follies of contemporary society. And some of his books are just plain serious – and very impressive at that. My favourite among the serious novels is Bleak House. It has all the ingredients for both a good read and an excellent work of literature: several mysteries (what lies at the heart of the court case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, who are Esther’s parents, what is Lady Dredlock’s secret?), marvellously realized characters, a rich plot, a complex vison of society, fun and tragedy and nothing of the sentimentality of some of his earlier novels. Dickens has a very sure grasp of his material here and at the same time leaves just enough ambiguity here and there for the reader to be utterly intrigued.

BleakHouse

Bleak House (Penguin Classics)
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