Charles Dickens and I are intimate friends and have been so since 1952, when, delighted and astonished, I zoomed through David Copperfield -- the first of ten or a dozen readings. At this very moment, I'm renewing our long asymmetrical friendship by re-reading the fifteen novels (fourteen and a half, actually, inasmuch as Dickens collapsed while Drood was still in process). It's my third pilgrimage through the collected works; first in the summer of 1969, again sometime in the early 1980s, and now once again (no doubt the last). I know a couple of the novels almost word for word -- Great Expectations, for example, -- but others, such as Barnaby Rudge -- gosh, I don't think that I could say any more about it than that it's a historical novel and that it contains both riots and a conspicuous cherry ribbon. I don't know any more about Barnaby Rudge than your average man on the street. Despite these blank spots, my relationship with Dickens has been enduring and satisfying. Troubled, some of the time, but always rich and complex.
He's the best of novelists; he's the worst of novelists. Dickens' formula is "make 'em laugh, make' em cry, make 'em wait." Waiting must have come easier in previous centuries. It's a good thing that I'm a patient person, because these 800-pagers can wear a reader down. There are times in almost every one of the novels in which I would be happier if there was a trifle less waiting. On the other hand, laughing and crying have remained a splendid part of the Dickens experience. No matter how much I steel myself against the obvious tearjerker death or disaster looming at chapter's end, I still fall into the Dickens trap and besprinkle my Penguin with hot tears -- not as plentiful, I think, as those that I let fall when poor David's mother died in 1952, but no less genuine. And when Aunt Betsey threatens to tread on Miss Murdstone's bonnet or when Trabb's boy lashes himself with his empty blue bag -- well, even after all these years, I can't help but break into loud laughter. When he goes after Chadband and Creakle and Podsnap, he's unequalled. No one can equal Dickens for comedy.
I am convinced that the finest moment in all of nineteenth-century literature occurs just in Bleak House, just after the death of poor Jo the crossing sweeper, when Dickens stops the novel right in its tracks and directs the full force of his indignation at his own indifferent country: "Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day." There has never been another writer who had the magnificent effrontery, the bravura daring, to so attack his readers, high and low. Dickens is a force of nature, not to be judged by ordinary canons of literary excellence.
But Dickens can also be awful -- sentimental, gooey, repetitive, obsessive. Sometimes the satire is ill-aimed. Why is it so ridiculous to be concerned with the victims of imperialism? Perhaps the denizens of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the NIger, need all the help they can get. Why should Mr. Guppy or young John Chivery to be so pilloried, just because they dare to love above their stations? Why does Dickens have so much trouble with ambitious or wronged women? Don't Miss Dartle and Miss Wade have a right to be angry? And what about Dickens' Jewish problem? His bigotry disfigures the page and makes the philosemitic Mr. Riah even more offensive than horrid old Fagin. And then there are all those monsters of goodness: the weak-tea Brownlows and Clennams. Dickens is sometimes faulted for his caricatures, but his grotesques are a thousand times more realistic and more interesting than his faultless, blameless, bowel-less goody-goodies. And there are moments of high stupidity, such as Mr. Krook's death by spontaneous combustion. Goodness gracious -- the greatest of hearts supported by the most ordinary of brains.
Up next in my final passage through thovels, already two-thirds of the way to the finish line: Dombey and Son, where I'm going to cry at Paul's death, be offended by perfect Walter Gay, giggle at Mr. Toots, marvel at Edith Grainger, and spend far too much time transfixed by Carker's teeth.