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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: May 2004

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: May 2004

Nick Hornby
14 Snaps

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx—Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
  • What Narcissism Means to Me—Tony Hoagland
  • David Copperfield—Charles Dickens (twice)

BOOKS READ:

  • David Copperfield—Charles Dickens

Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress. What’s that chinking noise? It’s the sound of the assiduous creative-writing student hitting bone. You can’t read a review of, say, a Coetzee book without coming across the word “spare,” used invariably with approval; I just Googled “J. M. Coetzee + spare” and got 907 hits, almost all of them different. “Coetzee’s spare but multi-layered language,” “detached in tone and spare in style,” “layer upon layer of spare, exquisite sentences,” “Coetzee’s great gift—and it is a gift he extends to us—is in his spare and yet beautiful language,” “spare and powerful language,” “a chilling, spare book,” “paradoxically both spare and richly textured,” “spare, steely beauty.” Get it? Spare is good.

Coetzee, of course, is a great novelist, so I don’t think it’s snarky to point out that he’s not the funniest writer in the world. Actually, when you think about it, not many novels in the Spare tradition are terribly cheerful. Jokes you can usually pluck out whole, by the roots, so if you’re doing some heavy-duty prose-weeding, they’re the first things to go. And there’s some stuff about the whole winnowing process that I just don’t get. Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to sixty or seventy thousand words—entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, the minimum length for a publishable novel? I’m sure you could get it down to twenty or thirty, if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at twenty or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that? The truth is, there’s nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound like manly, back-breaking labor because it’s such a wussy thing to do in the first place. The obsession with austerity is an attempt to compensate, to make writing resemble a real job, like farming, or logging. (It’s also why people who work in advertising put in twenty-hour days.) Go on, young writers—treat yourself to a joke, or an adverb! Spoil yourself! Readers won’t mind! Have you ever looked at the size of books in an airport bookstall? The truth is that people like superfluity. (And, conversely, the writers’ writers, the pruners and the winnowers, tend to have to live off critical approval rather than royalty checks.)

Last month, I ended by saying that I was in need of some Dickensian nutrition, and maybe it’s because I’ve been sucking on the bones of pared-down writing for too long. Where would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes? Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where. (Did you know that Dickens is estimated to have invented thirteen thousand characters? Thirteen thousand! The population of a small town! If you want to talk about books in terms of back-breaking labor, then maybe we should think about how hard it is to write a lot—long books, teeming with exuberance and energy and life and comedy. I’m sorry if that seems obvious, but it can’t always be true that writing a couple of hundred pages is harder than writing a thousand.) At one point near the beginning of the book, David runs away, and ends up having to sell the clothes he’s wearing for food and drink. It would be enough, maybe, to describe the physical hardship that ensued; but Dickens being Dickens, he finds a bit part for a real rogue of a secondhand clothes merchant, a really scary guy who smells of rum and who shouts things like “Oh, my lungs and liver” and “Goroo!” a lot.

As King Lear said—possibly when invited in to Iowa as a visiting speaker—“Reason not the need.” There is no need: Dickens is having fun, and he extends the scene way beyond its function. Rereading it now, it seems almost to have been conceived as a retort to spareness, because the scary guy insists on paying David for his jacket in halfpenny installments over the course of an afternoon, and thus ends up sticking around for two whole pages. Could he have been cut? Absolutely he could have been cut. But there comes a point in the writing process when a novelist—any novelist, even a great one—has to accept that what he is doing is keeping one end of a book away from the other, filling up pages, in the hope that these pages will move, provoke, and entertain a reader.

Some random observations:

1) David Copperfield is Dickens’s Hamlet. Hamlet is a play full of famous quotes; Copperfield is a novel full of famous characters. I hadn’t read it before, partly because I was under the curious misapprehension that I could remember a BBC serialization that I was forced to watch when I was a child, and therefore would be robbed of the pleasures of the narrative. (It turns out that all I could remember was the phrase “Barkis is willing,” and Barkis’s willingness isn’t really the book’s point.) So I really had no idea that I was going to run into both Uriah Heep and Mr. Micawber, as well as Peggotty, Steerforth, Betsey Trotwood, Little Em’ly, Tommy Traddles and the rest. I’d presumed Dickens would keep at least a couple of those back for some of the other novels I haven’t read—The Pickwick Papers, say, or Barnaby Rudge. But he’s blown it now. That might be an error on his part. We shall see, eventually.

2) Why do people keep trying to make movie or TV adaptations of Dickens novels? In the first issue of this magazine, Jonathan Lethem asked us to reimagine the characters in Dombey and Son as animals, in order to grasp the essence of these characters, and it’s true that only the central characters in a Dickens novel are human. Here’s Quilp, in The Old Curiosity Shop, terrifying Kit’s mother with “many extraordinary annoyances; such as hanging over from the side of the coach at the risk of his life, and staring in with his great goggle eyes….; dodging her in this way from one window to another; getting nimbly down whenever they changed horses and thrusting his head in at the window with a dismal squint….” And here’s Uriah Heep: “hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep… high-shouldered and bony… a long, lank skeleton hand… his nostrils, which were thin and pointed, with sharp dints in them, had a singular and most uncomfortable way of expanding and contracting themselves; that they seemed to twinkle instead of his eyes, which hardly ever twinkled at all.”

So who would you cast as these two? If the right actors ever existed, I’m betting that they wouldn’t be much fun to hang out with on set, what with having no social lives, or girlfriends, or prospects of working in anything else ever, apart from Copperfield 2: Heep’s Revenge. And once these cartoon gremlins take corporeal form, they lose their point anyway. Memo to studios: a mix of CGI and live action is the only way for-ward. True, it would be expensive, and true, no one would ever want to pay to watch. But if you wish to do the great man justice—and I’m sure that’s all you Hollywood execs think about, just as I’m sure you’re all subscribers to this magazine—then it’s got to be worth a shot.

3) In The Old Curiosity Shop I discovered that in the character of Dick Swiveller, Dickens provided P. G. Wodehouse with pretty much the whole of his oeuvre. In David Copperfield, David’s bosses Spenlow and Jorkins are what must be the earliest fictional representations of good cop/bad cop.

4) I have complained in this column before about how everyone wants to spoil plots of classics for you. OK, I should have read David Copperfield before, and therefore deserve to be punished. But even the snootiest critic/publisher/whatever must presumably accept that we must all, at some point, read a book for the first time. I know that the only thing brainy people do with their lives is reread great works of fiction, but surely even James Wood and Harold Bloom read before they reread? (Maybe not. Maybe they’ve only ever reread, and that’s what separates them from us. Hats off to them.) Anyway, the great David Gates gives away two or three major narrative developments in the very first paragraph of his introduction to my Modern Library edition (and I think I’m entitled to read the first paragraph, just to get a little context or biographical detail); I tried to check out the film versions on Amazon, and an Amazon reviewer pointlessly gave away another in a three-line review. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d been looking for a Grisham adaptation.

5.) At the end of last year, I was given a first edition David Copperfield as a prize, and I had this fantasy that I was going to sit in an armchair and read a few pages of it, and feel the power of the great man enter me at my fingertips. Well, I tried it, and nothing happened. Also, the print was really small, and I was scared of drop-ping it in the bath, absentmindedly putting a cigarette out on it, etc. I actually ended up reading four different copies of the book. An old college Penguin edition fell apart in my hands, so I bought a Modern Library edition to replace it. Then I lost the Modern Library copy, temporarily, and bought another cheap Penguin to replace it. It cost £1.50! That’s only about ninety dollars! (That was my attempt at edgy au courant humour. I won’t bother again.)

There was a moment, about a third of the way through, when I thought that David Copperfield might become my new favorite Dickens novel—which, seeing as I believe that Dickens is the greatest novelist who ever lived, would mean that I might be in the middle of the best book I’d ever read. That superlative way of thinking ceases to become very compelling as you get older, so the realization wasn’t as electrifying as you might think. I could see the logic, in the same way that you can see the logic of those ontological arguments that the old philosophers used to trot out to prove that God exists: Dickens = best writer, DC = his best book, therefore DC = best book ever written—without feeling it. But, in the end, there was too much wrong. The young women, as usual, are weedy. Bodies start to pile up in uncomfortable proximity—there are four deaths, if you count drippy Dora’s bloody dog, which I don’t but Dickens does—between pages 714 and 740. And just when you want the book to wrap up, Dickens inserts a pointless and dull chapter about prison reform, twenty pages from the end. (He’s against solitary confinement. Too good for ’em.)

What puts David Copperfield right up there with Bleak House and Great Expectations, however, is its sweet nature, and its surprising modernity. There’s some metafictional stuff going on, for example: David grows up to be a novelist, and the full title of the book, according to Edgar Johnson’s biography (not that I can find any evidence of this anywhere) is The Personal History, Experience and Observations of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery, which he never meant to be published on any account. And there’s a point to the metafictional stuff, too. The last refuge of the scoundrel-critic is any version of the sentence, “Ultimately, this book is about fiction itself/this film is about film itself.” I have used the sentence myself, back in the days when I reviewed a lot of books, and it’s bullshit: invariably all it means is that the film or novel has drawn attention to its own fictional state, which doesn’t get us very far, and which is why the critic never tells us exactly what the novel has to say about fiction itself. (Next time you see the sentence, which will probably be some time in the next seven days if you read a lot of reviews, write to the critic and ask for elucidation.)

Anyway, David Copperfield’s profession allows him these piercing little moments of regret and nostalgia; there’s a lot about memory in this book, and in an autobiographical novel, memory and fiction get all tangled up. Dickens uses the tangle to his advantage, and I can’t remember being so moved by one of his novels. The other thing that seems to me different about David Copperfield is the sophistication of a couple of the characters and relationships. Dickens isn’t the most sophisticated of writers, and when he does attain complexity, it’s because subplot is layered upon subplot, and character over character, until he can’t help but get something going. But there’s a startlingly contemporary admission of marital dissatisfaction in Copperfield, for example, an acknowledgment of lack and of an unspecified yearning that you’d associate more with Rabbit Angstrom than with someone who spends half the novel quaffing punch with Mr. Micawber. Dickens eventually takes the Victorian way out of the twentieth-century malaise, but even so…. Making notes for this column, I find that I wrote “He’s from another planet”; “Was he a Martian?” David Gates asks in the introduction. And to think that some people don’t rate him! To think that some people have described him as “the worst writer to plague the English language”! Yeah, well. You can believe them or you can side with Tolstoy, Peter Ackroyd, and David Gates. And me. Your choice.

For the first time since I’ve been writing this column, the completion of a book has left me feeling bereft: I miss them all. Let’s face it, usually you’re just happy as hell to have chalked another one up on the board, but this last month I’ve been living in this hyper-real world, full of memorable, brilliantly eccentric people, and laughs (I hope you know how funny Dickens is), and proper bendy stories you want to follow. I suspect that it’ll be difficult to read a pared-down, stripped-back, skin-and-bones novel for a while.

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