The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on November 10th, 2014

Yesterday I opened the novel, LITTLE DORRITT, by Charles Dickens (1812-1870), and was shocked. I had been casting around for a good fiction read for months, but trips to regional bookstores had thus far proved fruitless, despite the extravagant critical accolades inscribed on and just inside the jacket of every book I picked up. I had only to wade into the first few pages of the initial chapter of most volumes to begin to feel rapidly growing disappointment with what I was reading. What I was looking for was evidence of an author’s talent, originality, and craftsmanship in
  • Choice of subject matter
  • Creative development of a tale
  • Sophisticated, intelligent use of language
  • Writing style beguiling enough to draw me into the story
  • Evidence of depth of thought, perception, and feeling in the author sufficient to illuminate aspects of the human condition
  • The exercise of discrimination and good taste
I don’t think these things are too much to ask for in what is considered to be good literature, but one or more of them seemed to be conspicuous by its absence in even the most promising of titles. So after one particularly frustrating foray, I gave up and went home. And surprisingly there, lying forgotten at the back of a lower shelf of my bookcase, I discovered Little Dorritt, which seemed almost to jump into my hand and open for me to the first chapter --- and I was shocked.

I was shocked by how readily it dwarfed the other more contemporary efforts I had been exploring. From the very first line it was clear that this was truly remarkable writing, writing  that easily satisfied my standards and to which I could surrender myself with the confidence that I was in good hands. I had read Dickens in the remote past, but had somehow forgotten or perhaps never fully recognized the magnitude of his talent. The writing is witty, perceptive, accurate in its observation of human nature, picturesque, artfully constructed, and the experience of reading it is so vivid that it is much like attending a good play or a film --- a fact that has motivated many a filmmaker to transfer one or another of his works into cinema.

Here is the opening of Little Dorritt. In reading it, please don’t hurry. Writing of this caliber does not reveal its full potential to those who are in a rush. Instead, try to inwardly slow your pace so that the words have a chance to achieve their utmost effect in your imagination.

Sun and Shadow

Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.

A blazing sun upon a fierce August day was no greater rarity in
southern France then, than at any other time, before or since. 
Everything in Marseilles, and about Marseilles, had stared at the
fervid sky, and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had
become universal there. Strangers were stared out of countenance
by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white
streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which
verdure was burnt away. The only things to be seen not fixedly
staring and glaring were the vines drooping under their load of
grapes. These did occasionally wink a little, as the hot air
barely moved their faint leaves.

There was no wind to make a ripple on the foul water within the
harbour, or on the beautiful sea without. The line of demarcation
between the two colours, black and blue, showed the point which the
pure sea would not pass; but it lay as quiet as the abominable
pool, with which it never mixed. Boats without awnings were too
hot to touch; ships blistered at their moorings; the stones of the
quays had not cooled, night or day, for months. Hindoos, Russians,
Chinese, Spaniards, Portuguese, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Genoese,
Neapolitans, Venetians, Greeks, Turks, descendants from all the
builders of Babel, come to trade at Marseilles, sought the shade
alike--taking refuge in any hiding-place from a sea too intensely
blue to be looked at, and a sky of purple, set with one great
flaming jewel of fire.

The universal stare made the eyes ache. Towards the distant line
of Italian coast, indeed, it was a little relieved by light clouds
of mist, slowly rising from the evaporation of the sea, but it
softened nowhere else. Far away the staring roads, deep in dust,
stared from the hill-side, stared from the hollow, stared from the
interminable plain. Far away the dusty vines overhanging wayside
cottages, and the monotonous wayside avenues of parched trees
without shade, drooped beneath the stare of earth and sky. So did
the horses with drowsy bells, in long files of carts, creeping
slowly towards the interior; so did their recumbent drivers, when
they were awake, which rarely happened; so did the exhausted
labourers in the fields. Everything that lived or grew, was
oppressed by the glare; except the lizard, passing swiftly over
rough stone walls, and the cicala, chirping his dry hot chirp, like
a rattle. The very dust was scorched brown, and something quivered
in the atmosphere as if the air itself were panting.

Blinds, shutters, curtains, awnings, were all closed and drawn to
keep out the stare. Grant it but a chink or keyhole, and it shot
in like a white-hot arrow. The churches were the freest from it. 
To come out of the twilight of pillars and arches--dreamily dotted
with winking lamps, dreamily peopled with ugly old shadows piously
dozing, spitting, and begging--was to plunge into a fiery river,
and swim for life to the nearest strip of shade. So, with people
lounging and lying wherever shade was, with but little hum of
tongues or barking of dogs, with occasional jangling of discordant
church bells and rattling of vicious drums, Marseilles, a fact to
be strongly smelt and tasted, lay broiling in the sun one day.

Now, I fully realize that I am hardly the first person to find merit in Charles Dickens’ writing (colossal understatement). In fact, I feel a bit impertinent even writing this. Nor do I wish to suggest that there are no good authors around today, though they may seem to be in the minority. But it is my hope that sharing this experience will stir someone else to rediscover Dickens' works, certainly including but also looking beyond the compulsory school-assigned readings of A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist. Dickens turned out a considerable body of works besides these, almost all of which contain great rewards for the dedicated reader (although many of them may now be languishing in libraries rather than residing on bookstore shelves). Revisiting Dickens only serves to underline the ancient observation that all that is new is not necessarily improved. We can only be thankful that such rich reading experiences are still available.

Posted in POETRY AND LITERATURE, GOOD WRITING    Tagged with charles dickens, literature, Little Dorritt, good writing


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