Bleak House: Chapters 14-17

bleak-house1I only have a few moments to weigh in a bit on Bleak House:  I took the day off work yesterday as i wasn’t feeling entirely well, and I had visions of spending most of my afternoon curled up with the book.  Alas, I instead got to thinking and writing about Brian Burke;  several hours and 3000 words later, I had piffled away most of my reading time.

The story has advanced but slightly in this small segment of the book;  we have learned that Esther’s suitor is Dr. Allan Woodcourt, a young surgeon who took care of Miss Flite, the deranged woman who loiters about Chancery speculating comically about what is to come on the Day of Judgement.   We have learned also that one of Esther’s charges, Richard Carstone is not terribly interested in pursuing a career in medicine, and arrangements are made instead to have him withdraw from that with a view to pursuing articles of law.

Chapter 16 is entirely concerned with Lady Dedlock’s mysterious visit to London to find out more about the law copyist who died alone of an overdose (in an earlier chapter).  This chapter, like all of the chapters concerning the Dedlocks to date, is recounted in the present tense.   I suppose that Dickens chose to use this device for a reason,   perhaps to heighten the tension and suspense in an otherwise lackadaisical narrative.   These chapters are also recounted from the perspective of an omniscient narrator who refers almost familiarly to the Dedlocks.  By contrast, the chapters about Esther allow the reader into Esther’s thoughts, in the manner of an ongoing confessional, and are recounted in the past tense.  I am finding the constant shifting between perspectives and tenses to be somewhat jarring, and I suspect that Dickens himself was ultimately less than satisfied with the result, which (to my mind) heightens the reader’s awareness of the artifice surrounding the book and thus distances him or her from it.

My favourite passage from this section occurs in Chapter 15.  Esther’s guardian Mr. Jarndyce is gently challenging Skimpole (the carefree freeloader) about Skimpole’s unorthodox economic theories.  In particular, Skimpole has expressed the belief that meaning to disburse funds ought to be as satisfactory to their intended recipient as the actual transfer of coin;  Jarndyce points out that things would not go well for Skimpole if, following the same logic,  the butcher were to simply intend to give him meat.  Skimpole responds:

“My dear Jarndyce,” he returned, “you surprise me.  You take the butcher’s position.  A butcher I once dealt with occupied that very ground.  Says he, ‘Sir, why did you eat spring lamb at eighteen pence a pound?’  ‘Why did I eat spring lamb at eighteen pence a pound, my honest friend?’ said I, naturally amazed by the question.  ‘I like spring lamb!’  This was so far convincing.  ‘Well, sir,’ says he, ‘I wish I had meant the lamb as you mean the money!’  ‘My good fellow,’ said I, ‘pray let us reason like intellectual beings.  How could that be?  It was impossible.  You HAD got the lamb, and I have NOT got the money.  You couldn’t really mean the lamb without sending it in, whereas I can, and do, really mean the money without paying it!’  He had not a word.  There was an end of the subject.”

There is an absurdist humour underlying this passage that must be part of a genetic bequest to English authors, as it could just as easily be drawn straight from the pages of a Douglas Adams novel.

New characters are still being introduced, making me wish I had taken Mike’s suggestion and started drawing up a chart to keep track of the dramatis personae;  I am still managing to keep everybody straight, but only barely.  I really hope Dickens starts killing a few folk off if he plans on introducing any more walk-ons.

I’ll read more after tonight’s edition of the Battle of Ontario:  Toronto at Ottawa.

Bleak House: Chapters 1, 2 and 3

Mike and I have decided to strike out on our own for National Novel Reading Month 2008 – the gang over at defectiveyeti are reading Lolita, but Mike and I (having both read the book) have instead selected Charles Dickens’ Bleak House as the book we’re going to read together.

Mike’s already got his summary of the first 3 chapters up, and he has set a target to post on Tuesdays and Thursdays about his progress in the book.  I am going to try and follow the same procedure.  Staying true to form, I don’t have a detailed first post ready yet, and I’m already behind schedule because I am much less reliable than our friend from the Left Coast.

According to wikipedia, Bleak House is Dickens’ ninth novel, and it was published in twenty monthly installments beginning in March of 1852 (Dickens often serialized his novels;  if he were alive today, he would be writing for LOST, and that show would not suck nearly as much as it now does).  I haven’t read much more of the plot synopsis at wikipedia, because I don’t want to ruin the story for myself, but as i understand it, Dickens was moved to write the book as a result of his experiences working among England’s lawyers.  If I’m not mistaken, it is a commentary on the bureaucratic absurdities and injustices that Dickens observed in the courts.

I have no doubt that the book will strike somewhat of a chord in me for those reasons at this particular point in my professional career.

It’s going to be a bit of a change for me;  on the weekend, I read the two Dirk Gently novels by Douglas Adams.  Adams is always such an easy read, and his tone is light and airy, almost conversational;  the contrast between Adams’ direct style and Dickens’ Victorian, meandering prose is startling to my eyes at the moment, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it shortly.

I won’t cover the same ground that MIke did in his excellent synopsis of the first three chapters.  My own thoughts are that Dickens showed himself most distinctly in Chapter Two, which is the reader’s introduction to Esther Summerson, who (I presume) will be one of the book’s protagonists.  In a very short chapter, Dickens manages to introduce the (apparently) orphaned Esther, depict her guardians as loveless and severe to the point that (in the space of only a few paragraphs) the reader manages to start developing a healthy dislike for them.  It then transpires that Esther must leave, and Dickens takes pains to show that Esther is so genuine and good-hearted that she feels as though it must be her fault that her departure is not evoking much of a reaction at all in others.  She finally departs, leaving behind her only real solace, a doll in which she had hitherto confided her insecurities and private upsets.  Dickens is a master at working the emotional levers, and the connection between reader and Esther is near immediate.

I am hoping that the book will produce one of Dickens’ signature characters, someone like the execrable Uriah Heep, the lowly but noble Barkis, or the hopelessly deluded, optimistic and prolix Micawber (all from David Copperfield ), Sydney Carton from Tale of Two Cities, or (possibly the most enduring character ever) Ebenezer Scrooge himself. I have to confess that I’m always terrible at remembering plot details once I’ve read a book (or seen a movie, for that matter); for me, it is always the characters I remember.   That may be one reason that I’ve reacted so positively to Dickens’ work in the past, as he seems to invariably be able to capture the essence of a type of person that we’ve all met and imbue one of his characters with all of those traits.

As an aside, if memory serves me correctly, Mike and I made each other’s virtual acquaintance at around this time last year, in the midst of our mutual participation in last year’s NaNoReMo at dy;  thus ends the first year of our virtual correspondence.   I have very much enjoyed getting to know each other through teh Intarwebs, learning a little (from a guy who knows a lot) about photography, and following along with Mike’s attempts to retain all of his digits, to refrain from going barking mad at work, and of course with figgy’s growth and development.   Virtual fist bumps to Mike;  I look forward to continuing our correspondence and commisseration.  My best to theVet!

Mission Accomplished. No, Still Not THAT One.

I learned a new word today: “mendicant.”

Apparently, there is a seventeenth century English criminal case called Wright’s Case. In this case, it was held (according to the Supreme Court of Canada) that a man would:

be punished at law for procuring another to sever his hand – to assist his career as a mendicant – but the person effecting the task would also be liable to criminal sanction, irrespective of the other’s consent.

Apparently, mendicant “refers to begging or relying on charitable donations, and is most widely used for religious followers or ascetics who rely exclusively on charity to survive”. Also apparently, going for skills development training as a trainee mendicant entails making a very significant and permanent commitment to continuing employment in the field.

They say you learn something new every day. It’s only five to three in the afternoon; I guess I can be ignorant now until at least midnight.

My Review: Great Review

I highly recommend e‘s review of Dave Bidini’s Tropic of Hockey: My Search for the Game in Unlikely Places.

It seems kind of silly to review a review – how many layers of abstraction can people tolerate, after all – so suffice to say that e managed to put her virtual finger, very eloquently, on an interesting feature of Dave Bidini’s writing. The type of thing she’s talking about in her review – a fundamental ambivalence about the subject material that lies at root of Bidini’s relation to his subject – is exactly the notion that I had wanted to explore in a review of Around the World in 57 1/2 Gigs – but which (on account of my laziness and lack of facility with the English language) I have yet to produce.

DM #1 remembered

Wired has a lengthy rememberance of Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax here.

Certain to cause Spouse’s eyes to jump out of her head and a significant amount of associated sputtering is the following passage from the article:

Many trace the origin of war games to a 1913 work by H. G. Wells titled Little Wars: A Game for Boys of Twelve Years of Age to One Hundred and Fifty and for that More Intelligent Sort of Girl Who Likes Boys’ Games and Books.

H.G. Wells is SO not getting a Christmas card from us this year.