Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The voice of Charles Dickens

 On the subject of Charles Dickens, I can unequivocally state that we, meaning the general reading public, seldom devote our leisure in making a study of his work. We have writers more jaunty than Dickens, pastimes that glitter with dashing prosperity and make the writer look old and emaciated in comparison. Yet, on such celebratory eves as the Christmas or when encountering travails in the face of our great expectations, we recall his baritone, a voice that booms with surprising warmth from the crevasses of his yellowing masterpieces. 

Recently, I have taken it upon myself to compose an article of Charles Dickens for a journal celebrating the bicentenary of his birth. This activity requiring a thorough study of Dickensian texts enabled me to walk back into the jorum of the past when the novel in the hands on such masters like Dickens, Trollope was growing up. I re-read the Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol in that order and appreciated them now more than ever. The voice of the author was what struck me more than his stories; the warm tone that modifies itself to suit the perspective of the speaker, to suit the movement of the text and the narrated incidents is as natural as it comes. 

While reading Kingsley Amis my appreciation of Lucky Jim was somewhat detracted by Amis’s circumlocutory descriptions, over-vivid, over-English; in Dickens, however, we see a transmogrification of such genteel Englishness; here we have the boisterous, garrulous friend of a writer who puts his warm hand on your shoulder and makes you see the England he himself saw and through it the world at large. And you can never miss the vision, which at the end of the story is sure to give you some new perspective on life, an end which all books hope to achieve and few do. And I am glad that in an age of stark reality when the society was undergoing a shift from the idyllic to the modern Industrial era once and for all, the irrealist Dickens painted life in such a way that despite the bleakness of society wherein they had been  begotten, their outlook is surprisingly refreshing and creative.  

Despite the structural incoherence, directional fallacies and miscellany of characters, it is Dickens’ voice, unique, immanent that comes out disconcertingly amplified and acts as a appeasement for all the drawbacks one must encounter in quintessential Dickensian creations. Vladimir Nobakov, to whom Dickens meant a study of his voice and its inflections, suggested: ‘We just surrender ourselves to Dickens’s voice—that is all [. . .] the enchanter interests me more than the yarn spinner or the teacher [. . .] this attitude seems to me to be the only way of keeping Dickens alive, above the reformer, above the penny novelette, above the sentimental trash, above the theatrical nonsense.’ 

It could be the serialization of the novels that led to this reality-imagination-correlation that is evident in almost all of Dickens’ novels. The serialization allowed readers to enjoy a stave or two of his stories and then return to their normal livelihood and then comeback in a week or two to the next imaginary installment. The feeling that the writer was a friend who came on a visit once in a fortnight or so to update them on the goings-on in the lives of some protagonist and his friends and foes gripped the public. And even now as you read Dickens you cannot escape the writer’s presence “at your elbow” directing and guiding the proceedings. 

We may remember that most of Dickens’ novels are oriented in such a fashion that their succulence can be best tasted when heard rather than read. The audible capacity of Dickens’ work is, at least to me, best pronounced in A Christmas Carol wherein every episode be it the visits of the ghosts or the end when a modified Scrooge opens the window on Christmas Day with a heart brimming with celebratory excitement. Such moving scenes vibrant as if painted by hand are best appreciated when some voice adding its emotional inflections utters them to a group. Dickens himself well appreciated this audial quality of his works and may have intentionally oriented them in this special way. Dickens’s readers were, from the start, his ‘auditors’, who virtually heard the stories as reiterated to them by the author who later took it upon himself to make his real presence fundamental in the lives of his readers by embarking on his professional Reading tours in 1858. His devotion to his readers found  reciprocation such that in all provincial cities and towns wherever his Readings were held people came in millions to catch a glimpse of the supreme actor who devoted his life like a suited thespian to the entertainment of the masses. The fact that all tickets were sold for the first New York Reading, amassing over $16,000 in receipts substantiates his popularity even in the USA.  

Like Shakespeare Dickens’ appeal encompassing the learned few reached the masses, who embraced him not as a guest in their house but as their inmate. The view is supported by Charles Eliot Norton, the Harvard Professor of Fine Arts, who wrote in 1868: ‘No one thinks first of Mr. Dickens as a writer. He is at once, through his books, a friend. He belongs among the inmates of every pleasant-tempered and large-hearted person. He is not so much the guest as the inmate of our homes.’

Finally, we can conclude our discussion on the myriad minded Charles Dickens with the observation that even though the author-reader relation has overtime become abstract and formal such that many of us regard our readers as either an hostile, unappreciative group or people who are totally unreachable because of virtual noise and several other factors that render reader-writer communication implausible if not impossible.  We do, however,  have the option of walking back into the jorum of the past and let ourselves by inspired by the voice of Dickens who regarded any labor of communication with his readers as a labor of love and spared no efforts, however daunting they may be, to woo and win his public. May be the fullest and complete communication between an interlocutor (writer) and a receiver (reader) can only be possible when both parties work together towards that goal. In Dickens’ case both parties did work and that nexus lead to the creation of prose pieces that still shine with exquisite glitter among literary tchotchkes and masterpieces in the bijou shoebox of English literature.