Sunday, February 8, 2015

Celebrating Charles Dickens

F. R. Leavis was clearly one of the most controversial literary critics who ever lived. His commentaries on English writers won praise and critique. Notwithstanding their merits, however, his writings became popular. In a way, this had to do with the man himself. Leavis, a Cantabrigian who had come from a modest, middle-class background, was frequently snubbed and cold-shouldered by his affluent friends.

The inevitable happened: he became a rebel, and like all rebels (as Regi Siriwardena argues in his essay "From Rebellion to Tyranny"), he ended up heading his own rigid ideology-camp, called "Leavisism".

Leavis displayed his rebellious streak in what he wrote. His magnum opus, The Great Tradition, which sold massively and was accepted by (nearly) everyone, reflected this. In it, he (for no real reason) traced the "tradition" of English literature from Jane Austen to D. H. Lawrence. That was criticised by those who saw nothing merit-worthy in those he had selected: Austen, for instance, has since been marked as a writer who was insular and even snobbish.

There was another problem with his selection. It absented those who should not have been absented. It marginalised names. Big names. Names of giants who should not have been marginalised. Like Charles Dickens.

Critics change. That's natural. So when Leavis aged, he revised. To his great tradition, therefore, he added those he had erased. He added Dickens. As Siriwardena argues in another essay ("F. R. Leavis and the Novel"), Leavis, perhaps to compensate for his original crime of omission, sang hosannas for him. He inflated his legacy by selectively praising his lesser books and leaving the rest untouched.

Perhaps this is something every critic commits at some point. But the point is that, having ignored arguably one of the giants of English literature, Leavis had to win back some pride. Maybe that's why he sang hosannas. Hosannas that were not due. And when Leavisism reached Sri Lanka, it held sway over our literature syllabus. Which explains why, for years if not decades, A/Level students were prescribed Hard Times, arguably one of Dickens' lesser books, championed by Leavis in The Great Tradition as his only great novel ("But there is only one Hard Times in the Dickensian oeuvre" was what he wrote).

What happened next, quite obviously, was that for well over a decade, our students failed to notice the greater depths which this extraordinary writer had reached. And the reason's not hard to see. Overblown though his prose was, there is no doubt that he was one of the most imaginative writers history could claim.

Charles Dickens was born 203 years ago. His meteoric rise from poverty (his father was jailed at a debtors' prison) has been recorded already, so I won't delve into it here. What is important, however, is the breadth of vision this man had. We remember his writings – novels, short stories, sketches, essays – and we remember them well. Why?

Was it to do with his imagination? Partly. As he himself noted, his characters came alive in his mind. He wrote from the heart. This gave life to everything he saw and observed. It lent energy to whatever he described. Yes, he wrote about a world where good prevailed and evil, though never completely eliminated, was stopped. Dickens' England was brutish, savage. His characters redeemed themselves, and with that, they redeemed their surroundings. Which is how we remember them even more.

His depictions of London were harsh but true. His characters came alive and seemed to speak with us. We remember them even now. We remember Mr Pickwick, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Philip Pirrip, and John Harmon. We also remember those "lesser" characters, the villains who seemed larger-than-life: Mr Bumble, Bill Sikes, Fagin, Uriah Heep. Why?

Was it because they all rang true? Yes. Again, it had to do with what he depicted. The England of his time, after all, was not the England that his contemporaries wrote about. Novelists and poets alike had abandoned it. They tried to embrace the village to escape from the horror that London was dissolving into. A culture of indifference had sprung up, and with nothing much to do, very few wrote about London as it was.

Dickens was not indifferent. There was a conscience in him that wanted to probe, to look into. Whether he achieved this completely is another story. But more than two centuries on, that's what we treasure him for.

Not that he was flawless. His prose was unendurable at times. There were double negatives, sentences that ran into paragraphs, and paragraphs that never seemed to end. There were tedious descriptions. There were flowery adjectives that served no purpose. And, perhaps the most unforgivable sin of all, there were characters who were larger-than-life. But we forget these. And forgive him.

Writing more than 70 years after Dickens' death, the celebrated Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein made an interesting observation. In his essay "Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today", he claimed that the cinema was born out of Victorian literature and in particular Dickens' novels. With their sprawling descriptions of 19th century London, they were the forerunners to what he categorised as "montage cinema", or a cinema of images and visuals juxtaposed to obtain effect.

Eisenstein further noted that Chapter 21 of Oliver Twist, which describes a typical morning in East London, resonated perfectly with montage, with its near-cinematic depiction of a city waking up at dawn. This caught the filmmaker's attention. It led him to conclude, perhaps a little rashly, that Dickens was the definitive father of the cinema, especially in how his books visualised their settings.

This is true. He was more a painter than a writer. Where he handled words, he handled an easel. His canvas was huge, and he drew nearly every shade and nuance of the human soul on it. That he went overboard sometimes, that the occasional flowery phrase was used, and that some of his sentences needed full concentration to digest, are all peripheral.

Dickens wrote about people. He wrote about the humiliations they were subject to. He spelt out injustice for what it really was. He described people who persevered through hard work, who regained that innocence they had lost in childhood. He echoed his life in some of them, and through that, we knew him less as an author and more as a character in one of his stories.

He lost his lustre as time went by, admittedly. That compromised his integrity. In Little Dorrit, nine novels after Oliver Twist and three after David Copperfield, he sentimentalised and exaggerated. A lot. That fiery spark in him had died down. It emerged again with his next novel (A Tale of Two Cities), but by then he had become so engaged with other commitments – speeches, social causes, charity – that his prose felt overburdened. To a fault.

And yet, we celebrate Charles Dickens. We celebrate his life and his prose. He can do without hosannas, therefore. He can do without a Leavis or any other turncoat critic. Rhetoric and praise are frill. He needs neither. This we all should know. And we do.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, February 7 2015