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Wall Street Journal


Writer's Block: 'The Inimitable'

March 15, 2008

By Myron Magnet

Coffee With Dickens, By Paul Schlicke, Duncan Baird, 2008

If I make it to heaven, I hope I'll get to stand in the groups gathered round my heroes and listen to what they have to say. Especially Charles Dickens, whose conversation, according to his contemporaries, was as sparkling, funny and inventive as his prose is vivid and profound on the page. Those responsible for "Coffee With Dickens," a handsomely produced little volume in a new series of fictional chats with the great, from Shakespeare to Mozart—and the famous, from Marilyn Monroe to Groucho Marx—have improved upon this fancy. Why not have the conversation now, without the trouble of passing behind the veil?

The imaginary Dickens talk, though, as Paul Schlicke of the University of Aberdeen's English department presents it, is a pale and bloodless reflection of our greatest novelist. Not without reason did Dickens call himself the Inimitable. Poor Mr. Schlicke suffers, too, by comparison with the volume's foreword by Peter Ackroyd, who in four lively pages conjures up more colorfully the novelist's living presence—with his "overwhelming energy," his "slightly theatrical manner" and his notoriously flamboyant waistcoats—than Mr. Schlicke manages to do in the 130 pages that follow.

With his riotous humor, bustle and sharply observed Hogarthian plenitude, Dickens was an entertainer of genius, a one-man three-ring circus. From his first novel, the wildly best-selling "Pickwick Papers," written by a prodigy of 25, he had the fecundity of Mr. Jingle, who claimed in that book to have written an "epic poem, ten thousand lines—revolution of July; composed it on the spot; Mars by day, Apollo by night—bang the field-piece, twang the lyre." Dickens could make even his minor characters unforgettable, like the man in "Martin Chuzzlewit" who was "so bald and had such big whiskers that he seemed to have stopped his hair, by the sudden application of some powerful remedy, in the very act of falling off his head."

And his jokes illuminated even while they entertained, as in the ostentatiously heavy silverware of the parvenu Mr. Podsnap in "Our Mutual Friend," designed to shout its owner's wealth and importance: "All the big silver spoons and forks widened the mouths of the company expressly for the purpose of thrusting the sentiment down their throats with every morsel they ate." So too with the wooden leg of a character mentioned in "Nicholas Nickleby," which "in its constancy of walkin' into wine vaults and never comin' out again 'till fetched by force, was quite as weak as flesh if not weaker."

But beyond Dickens's irrepressible gaiety lay the deepest wisdom and understanding of the human condition. Much more than entertainment, great literature is a form of knowledge that draws on all our ways of knowing—not just on reason but on sympathy, on intuition, on self-analysis. It provides our most profound understanding of human motivation in all its contradictory complexity, as hope or ambition or lust intersect with social insecurity or altruism, say, to produce a chain of actions, and it provides as well a study of consequences. In "Hard Times," Dickens dismisses the claim of the utilitarian social scientists to understand man's fate through statistics, as if the quantifiable were the only real "fact" about our lives. There are more and deeper truths about us, to paraphrase the only greater English literary genius than Dickens, than are dreamed of in that arid philosophy, and they cluster most thickly in literature.

So what would we like to hear Dickens talk about if we really could have a drink with him, or even just listen in? How about his deep understanding of the nature of the social order and how it changes the nature of man—opics (central also to political philosophy) that absorbed Dickens for the first part of his novelistic career? Most readers would want to hear what he had to say about England's transformation—between 1812, when Dickens was born, and 1870, when he died at age 58—from a largely agricultural country run by squires and grandees to an urban, democratic one. And everyone would want to hear him talk about London as it became the metropolis of the 19th century. No one saw more clearly than Dickens how its manifold sub-worlds -- living cheek-by-jowl— fit together to form an organic whole, and no one understood better how this great man-made creation pours out a cornucopia of possibility for those who inhabit it.

We'd like to hear him on evil, obsession, lust, crime and violence, along with what he called the "social sacraments" that make life meaningful. We'd want to know how his social reformism relates to his bedrock, almost Burkean, conservatism. What about welfare and the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor? And no genial glass of punch with the Inimitable could end without talk of childhood, whose vulnerabilities and sensitivities he described better than anyone and whose hurts and neglects he could with preternatural acuity see eating away within the mature man.

All this is the stuff of Dickens's 14 novels, his Christmas books, his journalism and his racy, endlessly fascinating letters, written at a pace of a dozen or so a day. But Mr. Schlicke, to conjure up his "conversation" and to compose the tiny introductions to its various phases, avails himself of only a few morsels of these riches: biographies, a few letters and some half-century-old scholarly works. The effect is a conventional brief life of the novelist alongside some potted generalizations about Dickens's views on crime and education.

Even in so short a book, Mr. Schlicke could have given us more than an outline of Dickens's shabby-genteel childhood, his father's imprisonment for debt, his humiliation at being taken out of school and put to work at a shoe-polish factory, his ambition to be an actor, his career as a reporter and magazine editor, his immediate and spectacular success and celebrity, his failed marriage, his affair with an actress, his reserve and distance as the father of 10 children, and his punishing (but lucrative) schedule of public readings. So much to talk about.

Those who want a meaty conversation with Dickens fortunately don't have to wait for the afterlife; they can just take his works down from the shelves and start reading.



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