I’m back from my annual Lewis & Clark Cultural tour of Montana and Idaho. The only news is that Becky did not try to drown me this year. It was, to tell the truth, a little disconcerting. It’s the best journey of the year–the river, the cottonwoods, the pines up on the Nez Perce trail….
But that is not the subject of this essay. On Saturday evening I finished reading Dicken’s Bleak House. I’m 61 years old and I had never finished it before, though I have started to read it at least a dozen times over the years. The first two pages are among the finest in all of English literature, and the central trope–the endlessness of the law case Jarndyce v. Jarndyce–is one of the most enduring of Dickens’ critiques of British society in the mid-nineteenth century.
It’s a glorious thing to read through an immense great book like Moby Dick or War and Peace. As I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I sped up, and I stopped taking routine breaks because I wanted to finish the novel, see how Dickens wrapped it all up, and not lose my momentum so close to the finishing line. But I have now turned, immediately, to Nicholas Nickelby, because Bleak House was at times too dark for me, and–surprise–too plot driven.
What I love about Dickens is his rich comic exuberance, his capacity to tease out the mechanical reflexes in the human detritus he writes about–hobby horses, fixed ideas, quirks, little streaks of madness, unselfconscious selfishness, neuroses that find their way into verbal and physical ticks and habits; and the dark underworld of London life, with its thieves, hucksters, pickpockets, artful dodgers, pimps, fences, and even prostitutes, though Dickens has a hard time when he reaches the sexual frontier.
There is some of all that in Bleak House, but infinitely more in Great Expectations or Oliver Twist or David Copperfield.
My main concern about Bleak House and books like it is that the attention span of the English speaking world is no longer sufficient to bring enough readers to long hard books. I’m a lifelong reader of serious books, an English major, a lover of Dickens, but at about the 2/3 mark of Bleak House I wondered if I could ever finish it, wondered even why it had to be so long, wondered frankly if I would have read it at all if I had calculated in advance that it would take 50-60 hours to read. Think of the works of literature that are likely to drop out of the pantheon or even English course curricula given the pace of life in the twenty-first century: Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Paradise Lost, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Middlemarch, the Mill on the Floss, the Brothers Karamazov, East of Eden, even The Grapes of Wrath. And what’s to be done? In a time when the sound bite has shrunk well under ten seconds, and people are communicating their deepest feelings 144 words at a time, how can immense works of great literature attract more than an elite readership? Do we need David Copperfield and Bleak House or were they “constructs” to use the cultural studies term of a certain time and place, in the early industrial era when women were confined to the domestic sphere mostly and there were no television, radio, internet, or texts? Is that era now decidedly over and the constructs of that time and place therefore mere fossils of culture?
There is not much point in wringing one’s hands about this. I remember teaching Light in August at a Nevada university; and on the first day making the mistake of saying that the students would have to devote between 30-40 hours of time to read the novel. Well, the minute I said those words, I looked out on a sea of derision, defiance, and disbelief. If I had just kept my mouth shut there may have been students who began Light in August, found it compelling, and then finished because of Faulkner’s greatness. But by warning them in advance of what they were up against, I probably convinced half the 200 students in the class to throw up their hands. And that was before the internet made it possible to seem to know great books that you have no intention of reading.
A few words about Bleak House. First, Dickens seems to have run out of creative steam. He wraps up the novel in really lame ways. Richard dies (of what? he’s in his early 20s), apparently heartbroken when the great suit fails to fulfill his great expectations. John Jarndyce nobly relinquishes Esther to Dr. Woodcourt in the best “far far better thing” sentimentality of Dickens at his worst. Lady Dedlock dies clutching the iron fence that walls her off from her youthful love Captain Hawdon. The great suit “melts away” because the costs of adjudicating it have eaten up the entire estate. The novel actually ends (eventually) in mid-sentence. Not sure what to make of that, but almost all readers are tired of Esther’s self-effacing goodness long before she gets to marry Allan Woodcourt.
One last thing. Do you ever read a book and know that some revelation is coming on this page or the next, and you try not to glance ahead, but for some reason you cannot resist? And then you jump down and find out that Esther is indeed Lady Dedlock’s daughter–but this makes you angry with yourself that you did not have the discipline to wait, to read through the preliminary prose? This happens to me again and again, and makes me think I am an adolescent reading in bed with a flashlight.
The best of Bleak House is the first two hundred pages. The worst of it is the last 35. But it is a mighty pice of fiction, and I am sorry to say, it probably cannot survive the post-literate era in which we find ourselves. I have never actually got through Nicholas Nickelby either, but I feel certain that by this time next week I will have read it in its rollicking entirety.
Oh, I will return to the Iliad, book seven, this week.