I’ve been reading David Copperfield for the last month or two. I figured Dickens was perfect for the winter, and so far I’ve been happily proven right. Most of my Dickens reading came from a single, great college course, where we read outside of the usual suspects — Oliver Twist and Bleak House, yes, but also Martin Chuzzlewhit and Dombey and Sons, along with some of his excellent, underdiscussed journalism. This is my first time reading Copperfield. I’m about halfway through. I don’t think it’s necessarily better than Bleak House, so far, but it’s more personally moving.
There’s a quality that Dickens has that I rarely ever find: I stop seeing the story as the product of a writer and start seeing it as something that’s happening organically. When a plot development starts playing out that I don’t like — not in the sense that I think it’s bad narrative, but rather something that I don’t want to befall the characters — I never say “don’t do that, Dickens!” I instead simply fear for it the way I fear unfortunate events in real life. (I tell you almost apologetically that I sometimes feel this way when reading the great dingus himself, Jonathan Franzen.) That quality stems from a lot of factors, but in part I think it comes from Dickens’s willingness to introduce characters and situations that have no clear relevance to the plot on the whole. This violates a lot of hoary old writing taboos, but it plays out brilliantly as a reader; these moments, and these characters, enrich the world, making it seem more true to life. I’ve never really been one for the whole Chekhov’s gun thing. After all: we don’t experience real life as a series of people and events that play directly into some overarching story, but as a long collection of disconnected moments and experiences, most of which have no clear “point” or purpose. I think that MFA programs have become unfairly blamed for too many problems with contemporary fiction, but I do think a contemporary novelist would feel much more pressure to cut away at these moments, and the book would suffer.
It’s funny that a writer who is so associated with grotesques has such an ability to make characters seem real. I’m at a stage in the narrative where one character whom David dearly loves has warned him about another character David dearly loves. The care with which these characters have been sketched makes this moment very moving, and is accomplished in a book which is populated with dozens and dozens of people. In particular, I am amazed by how individual David’s many relationships are, how his various friendships each has its own life and plausibility. Add to that the evocative descriptions of Victorian-era England and the wonderful setpieces — the book has maybe the best depiction of being drunk I’ve ever read — and you’ve got such an entertaining brick of a book. The perfect illustrations by Phiz are great too. I’m loving it.
I’m usually a pretty fast reader, but the book is going slow. That’s interesting, because usually this comes from some sort of technical difficulty or because I’m just not feeling it. Here, though, I’m very content to have the book play out slowly over the course of the winter; it deepens the experience and matches the steady, unhurried progression of David’s life. It doesn’t hurt, obviously, that I’m one of Dickens’s many devoted readers who knows what it’s like to experience a childhood marked by fear and uncertainty. David goes through much of the book so far being exploited without realizing it. It would have been easy, given Dickens’s own childhood, for the book to have been something bitter, for all of those moments of petty exploitation to be played as a statement against naivety or in indictment of human beings. But so far, the dominant impression is of David’s inexhaustible good spirit and his ability to find friends among all the monsters.