Saturday, April 16, 2011

What The Dickens? (ramblings on Bleak House)

I finished reading BLEAK HOUSE by Charles Dickens today. I'm a big Dickens fan. Haven't read all his works yet, but - like Desmond - hope to in my lifetime. I very much enjoyed BLEAK HOUSE, but it is also notable (to me) for perhaps being the longest book I have ever read. My paperback edition came in at 933 pages. (Middlemarch much?)

Some say I am overly fond of the ellipsis... The last sentence of BLEAK HOUSE does not contain an ellipsis, but I can imagine Dickens's editor frothing over its punctuation. It's a really long sentence, so I'm going to pick it up from right after the semicolon. I doubt this qualifies as a SPOILER ALERT, but just in case, you have been warned I'm about to quote the last few words of BLEAK HOUSE: "and that they can very well do without much beauty in me--even supposing--."

Ha! Dickens cracks me up and that sentence did it again. Ending an almost 1,000 page novel with a dash!!! You crazy son of a biscuit! That sentence was perfect for that character, though. (of course! he's Dickens!)

There are lots of rules for grammar, punctuation and for writing in general. It's a relief not to worry about them while writing this blog. I've had to give up on several beloved writing "rules" that were burned into my brain when I learned to type at age 8. What?! There AREN'T two spaces after a period? W. T. F... There's no comma needed in the sentence "I'm getting older, too"??? Say it ain't so, Chicago Manual of Style. Which, speaking of cracking up, can be a hell of funny website at chicagomanualofstyle.org - seriously! If you're a writer or lover of puns, check it out.

I'm a fan of rules in general. (Because if you don't have rules, how do you know who's winning?) I want my novels to be well-written in every way. And the publisher, of course, has standards set for every book they publish. So I pay attention to those kinds of rules (mostly) when I'm writing a novel. Some rules are just dumb, though. I mean, why not end with a preposition? What's the big deal?

BLEAK HOUSE also struck me because much of it is written in the voice of a very young woman. Charles Dickens was not a very young woman. He totally pulled it off, though. If the narrator is a different gender than the writer and I'm thinking about that while reading the story, that's a problem. It was no problem during BLEAK HOUSE because Dickens was a genius. I am not a genius according to many people who are not geniuses, but I have plans to one day write a novel in the first person with a straight male protagonist. Should be fun...

About a hundred years after BLEAK HOUSE came out, Vladimir Nabokov (who never learned to drive, type or fold an umbrella according to Wikipedia) (one must LEARN how to fold an umbrella?) was teaching literature at Cornell. My hefty paperback included excerpts from his lectures on BH. Here are a couple of quotes I liked a lot:

"A writer might be a good storyteller or a good moralist, but unless he be an enchanter, an artist, he is not a great writer." An enchanter - wow, I dig that! A good book certainly puts me under a spell while I'm reading it.

"A great writer's world is indeed a magic democracy where even some very minor character, even the most incidental character...has the right to live and breed." I am such a sucker for minor characters! I want them all to be memorable, to have a moment, to live during their brief time on the page. I love seeing that in other people's books and strive for that in my own. Minor characters need to know their place, so to speak, and not outshine the major characters, but in their very limited roles, I enjoy seeing them be unique and/or robust without being overwritten or cheesy - minor characters are people, too, right? In SHADOW POINT, I loved writing the scenes involving minor character Patricia Klein, the preschool teacher. A minor character with even less "face time" was Madison's ex, Isabel - although I purposely said very little about her, more than one reader has told me she found Isabel quite intriguing and wanted to know more... stay tuned on that one, Dear Readers!

Just as there is a subtle homage/reference to THE TURN OF THE SCREW in SHADOW POINT, there is a (probably not so) subtle Dickens homage/reference in HEAVENLY MOVES. (I'll be curious to see if anyone catches that!) I managed not to rip off any 19th century novelists in ROMEO FAILS, but there is a reference to Bruce Springsteen in all 3 of my books. Clearly, I'm a very confused person. Yes, I read classic literature (some of it), but I've read a lot of less-than-classic fertilizer, too. I look forward to a future blog post discussing some of the worst fiction I've ever read - and how I learned a lot from it! In closing, to paraphrase Esther from BLEAK HOUSE, I'm sure you can very well do without more blogging from me tonight--even supposing--.

4 comments:

  1. I was just wondering what your take on the last sentence of BLEAK HOUSE was? I just finished that book too. Did she mean "even if she really were pretty NOW" or was it more like "even if she HAD been pretty at one time"? I was a little confused -- do you think we're meant to know the character so well by now that we know exactly what she means to say, or is there supposed to be a little confusion at the end?

    I loved it by the way, it was so powerful in so many places!

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  2. Hi, Natalie - I think Esther was just being her usual humble self, seeing all kinds of goodness in other people while failing to give herself credit for all her good stuff. I think the final "even supposing" was even supposing she ever had been pretty. (don't worry, Esther, you're rockin' the Inner Beauty!)

    But, hey, what do I know? :-) I'm glad you enjoyed BLEAK HOUSE, too! And thanks for reading my blog.

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  3. Must be an enjoyable read Bleak House by Charles Dickens. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

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  4. Thanks, Rohit! Hope you enjoy BLEAK HOUSE.

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