Follow by Email

Monday, 13 June 2011

Bleak House - If It Was Emperor, It Would Be Naked

In recent times, the critical consensus has settled on Bleak House as Charles Dickens's masterpiece. The esteemed Harold Bloom, for example, cites it as Dickens's masterpiece in The Western Canon. According to The Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens, BH received more critical attention in the second half of the 20th century than any other Dickens novel. This is quite an about-turn: I don't think anyone in Dickens's own time suggested BH was his best work. Rather they seemed most of all to enjoy the farcical humour of early Dickens, especially his first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-37), with Martin Chuzzlewit (1842-43) and David Copperfield (1849-50) also scoring high. An early example of "I prefer the early stuff", perhaps? In fact, Dickens's imaginative decline was often dated from Bleak House (1852-53) onwards. And it's clear to a reader even now, that something happened to Dickens between finishing Copperfield in 1850 and beginning BH two years later. The former is basically joyful and exuberant, the latter bitter and dark (though Dickens's notorious sentimentality is fairly equally prevalent in both), and with a marked emphasis on social and political satire.

Henry James, for example, was among the critics who thought Dickens lost it after Copperfield. In a 1865 review of Our Mutual Friend, James wrote: "For the last ten years it seems to us that Mr Dickens has been unmistakably forcing himself. Bleak House was forced. Little Dorrit was laboured, etc." This was a fairly standard criticism, but later critical opinion has reversed it: Pickwick Papers and the other early novels are no longer much read, but the later novels are treasured for their seriousness of purpose. Dickens was once read for fun, but nobody wants fun from Dickens anymore. And read Bleak House, and not-fun you shall certainly get.

Because Dickens is a classic, part of the canon, farcical humour and whimsy is incongruous with our expectations. We now read him to be edified, educated, to have our mind broadened, to commune with a great mind, and, to course, to have read Dickens. If Mark Twain hadn't said "A classic is a book that everybody wants to have read, and nobody wants to read", then I certainly would have, but he did, so I can only repeat it.

We want to feel like we've read something important, something BIG. Not a romp, this is serious business. A great novelist can be funny and entertaining as a by-product, but these do not produce greatness. If we call him great - and we have to, because he's 141 years dead and still widely read and some of his stories universally known - we have to justify it under more serious criteria. Bleak House is perhaps the easiest of Dickens's books to take seriously. It's very long, obviously; it can be seen to be tackling important social issues; it is plotted, rather than rambling, like Pickwick Papers, et al.; and it takes itself seriously.

We can read Bleak House and then we can talk about the treatment of the poor in Victorian London, about the operation of the legal system, about the treatment of illegitimate children. It no longer matters to us whether Dickens's critiques were accurate or relevant or not, because that society is gone, and only the book is left. Some of Dickens's contemporaries considered him a singularly ill-informed social critic: "he seems to get his first notions of an abuse from the discussions which accompany its removal" said Fitzjames Stephens in 1856. But now, it's not the accuracy that counts, it's the intent: Is it serious? Is it ambitious? Is it grand in scope?

Yes, BH is all of those things. But is it an enjoyable read? I'd have to say no. It's long-winded, it's dry. Its first-person narrator, Esther Summerson, is insufferably annoying, and its third person narration is stilted and all in the present tense. Just for comparison, let's take the opening lines from Bleak House, and then the opening of David Copperfield. The contrast is notable.

Bleak House:
LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

David Copperfield:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighbourhood who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits; both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.

On my first reading of Copperfield, I was immediately drawn in by the tone of these opening lines. The several instances of elegant and unobtrusive wit, particularly concerning the "sage women". The opening of Bleak House is, obviously, very different. It's in the present tense. The verbs are all gerund. It's heavy, man. Really hard to read. It doesn't rise above the murk it's describing, seeming to be infected with the lethargy of the London scene. To me, the lines from Copperfield just pulse with a life and energy that's missing from those of BH -  and from most of that book, in fact.

And, of course, the humour's missing. But BH's lack of humour has served it very well among modern critics. I do verily believe that if BH had been a more chucklesome read, that would have counted against it among the criterati. The absence of that characteristic is part of the reason people can talk about the novel as a comprehensive state-of-the-nation tract. For people who want to have read a classic, it's not important that the work produce an emotional reaction, but that its greatness can be rationalized: Bleak House produces far less emotional reaction than other Dickens books, but it can be neatly rationalized as great because of its scope, its seriousness of intent and its social criticism. But if you want to really understand why Dickens was a massive phenomenon whose books affected people in ways probably no other writer has matched, I don't think BH gives the best picture.

Carey Mulligan as Ada in Bleak House, 2005

On the plus side, the BBC made in 2005 a serial of BH, for those who want to encounter a classic, but not to have to read it - I'm serious, I'm almost certain that was why it was made. It's very faithful, so you can watch it, then pretend you've read it. It's no more engrossing than the book, in my opinion, but it got an excellent reception, so what do I know? It's just I think that the exaltation of BH is doing Dickens a disservice, because it doesn't showcase him at his best, just at his most "literary".

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, wearing that lemon-sucking face she kept up FOR THE WHOLE SERIAL WITHOUT A SINGLE DEVIATION.

Concluding Note:
That said, almost all of Dickens's books are deeply flawed. The only one that is mostly uninfected by Dickens's unctuous sentimentality is Great Expectations (1860-61). This late novel doesn't seem to have been among the most popular in Dickens's lifetime, either, though it has proved among his most enduring. In this case, I think it's deserving of the accolades. But the best of the best of Dickens is found, in my opinion, in David Copperfield, particularly the early chapters. Sadly, there's some cringingly awful stuff in there, too, but at its best it has a power that Bleak House doesn't come close to matching.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Bob Dylan - A Sloppy Lyricist

The most recent edition of Rolling Stone magazine has Bob Dylan as its cover star. It is his 70th birthday, after all, so what better time to celebrate his unique contribution to popular music in the second half of the 20th century and to indulge in unrestrained eulogizing of the great man's songwriting. The Rolling Stone piece opened with "All sorts of people can write a great song. It took Bob Dylan to rewrite our idea of what a great song can be." Even more generously, they described Dylan's 2003 film Masked and Anonymous as "underappreciated", when really anything short of scornful ridicule is overappreciation where this turkey is concerned.

The thing about much of Dylan's most acclaimed work is that it is so oblique of meaning that it's hard to judge. Is "Desolation Row" a wide-ranging state-of-the-world address or a string of broken images? Did Dylan's innovation consist in a facility with juxtaposing unexpected images or was he engaging with something beyond his own mental processes?

Some of Dylan's writing is rather sloppy and lazy, undoubtedly. One example of this for me is in "All Along the Watchtower", one of Dylan's most famous and most covered songs. The last lines go:

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

Hendrix's version, as Dylan's isn't on YouTube.

It's always struck me that a wildcat growling in the distance is not what Dylan actually means. A growl doesn't carry, and a distant one would be inaudible. What he actually means is that the wildcat howled, but he can't put that in, because the next line ends in howl. So he sticks in growl because it rhymes. Problem solved, but when you think about it, it doesn't make sense, and may cause you to wonder just how much Dylan was paying attention to his words.

It's also worth noting the criticism folk musician Dave van Ronk made of the title of "All Along the Watchtower": "a watchtower is not a road or a wall, and you can't go along it." Spot on. Van Ronk strikes a blow for the pedants among us.

Or how about in "One More Cup of Coffee" from 1976's Desire. Specifically the line "Her eyes are like two jewels in the sky". I guess Dylan was taking his influence here from children's rhyme "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", which shines "like a diamond in the sky". The children's rhyme makes sense: the little star is in the sky, and it shines like a diamond.

Dylan's version not available on YouTube, so I went for Roger McGuinn's (and Calexico).

But Dylan's line doesn't make sense. Her eyes are like jewels in the sky? What are jewels in the sky like? Perhaps her eyes shine like jewels, but why do they have to be jewels in the sky? Are her eyes "in the sky"? Again, I think it's just sheer carelessness. The image is childish enough as it is, but also totally nonsensical.

I've always been puzzled, too, by the line in "Just Like A Woman": "When me meet again, introduced as friends". How can two people be introduced as friends? "Hey, Bob, this is Edie [or whoever]. You two are friends." Does he mean introduced by friends? That would make sense, especially in the context of the next line: "Please don't let on that you knew me when I was hungry and it was your world."

Or how about "Tombstone Blues" from Highway 61 Revisited. It includes the lines:

The hysterical bride in the penny arcade
Screaming she moans, “I’ve just been made”

This implies simultaneous screaming and moaning. She moans "I've just been made" while screaming. This is of course, impossible.

Dylan's version of this isn't available either (damn, his record company is assiduous in preventing free access to Dylan tracks), so I've gone with Richie Havens's.

At this point, the extreme pedantry of my complaints may have irritated some. All I can say is that this is quite important, for me, and revealing of a guy who's writing from the top of his head and isn't paying attention to what he's saying, because sometimes he's not saying anything. I find it offputting to listen to lyrics where one comes across such evidence of the writer not bothering to express himself properly. And they're asking for the Nobel Prize for Literature for this guy? I'm afraid I'd have to demur: powerful as his compositions, at their best, are, on the printed page their faults are more clear, so as literature they're not worthy of such an accolade.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Voice of a Generation Syndrome: Alex Turner and Bob Dylan

Alex Turner has been talked up as a "voice of the generation" type lyricist since the Arctic Monkeys' debut appeared in 2006, and it's no surprise to hear that he isn't that comfortable with the description. "I just don't think I'm equipped to soundtrack the times," he insistsed in a recent interview with the Observer Magazine. And so his more recent lyrics have moved in the opposite direction, all of his lyrics on new album Suck it and See are love/ relationship songs, but it's a mystical and somewhat surreal sort of love. What with the topless models doing semaphore, the wrecking ball gown in the damsel-patterned alley, and the library pictures of the quickening canoe, the unexpected juxtapositions of Turner's Suck it and See lyrics are reminiscent of Dylan's mid-60s output. You know, "The sun's not yellow it's chicken", or "The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face." That sort of stuff. They just lapped that shit up in the 60s.

- "Absolutely Sweet Marie", from Blonde on Blonde, 1966. Dylan at the height of his "here's some deep shit off the top of my head" period. Persian drunkard, check. Yellow railroad, check. Actually, there are better examples: "Tombstone Blues" and "Desolation Row" come to mind, but the Highway 61 Revisited songs aren't available on YouTube.

My point, really, is that Dylan's increasingly fractured, surreal and nonsensical lyrics came about as a reaction to the same thing. People were calling him the voice of a generation, even the voice of the civil rights movement, after "Blowin' in the Wind", "The Times they are A-Changin'", et al., and he had to get away. It didn't work, mind: Dylan's words were still taken as oracle. It was like that Life of Brian scene:
"I'm not the messiah"
"Only the true messiah would say he's not the messiah."
"All right, then, I am the messiah!"
John Lennon saw through it, though; speaking about The Beatles' famous masterpiece of gibberish, "I Am the Walrus", Lennon said: "Dylan got away with murder. I though, 'Well, I can write this crap, too.' You know, you just stick a few images together, you thread them together and you call it poetry."

Not comparing Turner to Dylan, or calling him the new Dylan, but he seems to have come down with a similar case of Voice of a Generation Syndrome, and that's why his new lyrics make about as much sense as a rat fucking a grapefruit, to quote Marlon Brando (talking about a film he was in). People were taking his small vignettes of teenage life in Northern England too seriously, and rather than become paralyzed by the attention, he's taken refuge in nonsense. To live up to people's impressions of his lyrical genius is next to impossible. He's learned an important lesson in a poet's education: IT'S MUCH EASIER TO SOUND IMPRESSIVE WHEN YOU'RE SAYING STUFF THAT DOESN'T MAKE SENSE. Try saying something that's true, but also that isn't trite or cliched. Can't do it, can you? So, repeat after me: "Library pictures of the quickening canoe, The first of its kind to get to the moon." Now that's what I'm talking about.