07 February 2008

Putting his House in Order

Well, the first of my New Year's resolutions has been achieved. I have finally finished Bleak House.

It took forever, I'm afraid. I must have spent eight months stuck in the quagmire of the first two hundred pages, somehow making as little progress as any of the book's own cursed Chancery protagonists. Over coffee with a friend of mine back before last summer I asked what she thought I'd finish last, and before I'd finished reeling off the Gordian knots I was having so much difficulty unpicking last year she interrupted with a cry of: 'Bleak House! Nobody's ever finished that!'

I attempted another push over the Christmas, and in doing so made it past the three-hundred page mark. All of a sudden things began to change -- it wasn't so much that the fog of Chancery began to lift as that I got comfortable in it, that I learned to see in the fog, and that the story began to move.

Five weeks and five hundred pages later, and the book Chesterton describes as perhaps Dickens's best novel and the highest point of his intellectual maturity can finally be set aside. And oddly, I'm sad to put it down, because I've been riveted since the plot kicked in, and I'd like to know more of the characters, notably Caddy Jellyby and the wonderful Mr Bucket.

All told, even if it's a slow starter, the book's an absolute masterpiece. Mind, I've been primed to think this for years, ever since I was in my teens and read Death is No Obstacle, Colin Greenland's book-length interview with Michael Moorcock:
CG: I was very impressed when I read Bleak House last year by the way Dickens, writing it as a serial, obviously started by improvising, and then capitalised on his improvisations. In that virtuoso opening about fog and the law, the law and fog -- which starts with three paragraphs, sixteen sentences without a single main verb -- he tosses things out as wonderful queer incidental details: the 'little mad old woman' with her reticule of documents 'rincipally consisting of paper matches and dry lavender'; and the ruined plaintiff from Shropshire. Then later when he needs them, they turn quite unexpectedly into Miss Flite and Mr Gridley, significant characters each with a special function at some crux of the plot.

MM: Structurally, there's no better novel than Bleak House, in my view. Great Expectations may have something extra, but Bleak House is the best book of Dickens's to read to learn about his techniques: characters, moral theme, imagery, everything. All the pleasure of the social novel, what you get out of reading Henry James, say, or Jane Austen, can be found in Bleak House. It's the work of a talent absolutely at its prime, using its full range -- and he was doing it in weekly episodes. You can see it in the first edition. Everything breaks down into units of sixteen and thirty-two pages, because of the way a large sheet of paper is folded into pages when it's been printed. You can divide each episode of Bleak House into sixteen pages, and know that on each page there'll be another incident, a new character, a new revelation about an existing character, whatever -- something that develops what's gone before. Each episode ends perfectly, with a hook to pull you on to the next week's instalment. There's not a dead page in the book.

When he's been writing narrative full-tilt, you can almost see him stopping, catching his breath, with a bit of landscape. Where Dickens rested was on descriptive scenes, very often water: the Fens, or the Thames, the wharfs. He never rested on dialogue. If you rest on dialogue, people discussing the plot, talking to each other about where they are or what's just happened, that sort of bad, space-wasting dialogue, you slow the pace down where it shouldn't be slowed down. When you're writing fast, you need those pauses; but you mustn't stop writing! Stopping and taking a look around, describing space rather than action, is a totally natural rest. It ads to the illusion of reality. It gives the reader a breather too, and you're still filling the pages to get to your required weekly output.

I used to compare writing commercial fictions to flying a very ramshackle aeroplane. You got it off the ground. You got it into the sky. You kept it there by whatever tricks you could manage. And at the end of the day you landed it safely, by whatever means. The landing was always the difficult bit!
It's not just a supremely economical book, with astoundingly little dead weight -- Dickens indeed uses everything -- it's also a hell of a cautionary tale. It's hard not to suspect that Chesterton got it right when he described Rick Carstone's slow, obsessive, inexorable self-destruction as 'a truly masculine study of how a man goes wrong' and 'the one and only great tragedy that Dickens wrote . . . Rick is a real tragedy, for he is still alive when the quicksand sucks him down.'

So. One resolution down. It's a start.

1 comment:

kat said...

so if i said "but all the characters in whuthering heights are wastes of space, and i want to subject them to the same psychotic torture that they have so given me in my many attempts" you'd scoff and shake your head?

i feel even more cheated of productive life hours by moby dick.