Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Whirling Sound of Planet Dickens

by Verlyn Klinkenborg

New York Times

January 14, 2012

In death, Charles Dickens still keeps his greatest secret to himself — the essence of his energy. None of the physical relics he left behind betray it. The manuscripts of his novels — like Our Mutual Friend at the Morgan Library — look no more fevered or hectic than the manuscripts left behind by other novelists.

The handwritten words on the page, round and legible in blue ink, are the marks of a mind that has already settled itself to composition.

Dickens, who was born 200 years ago, wrote a long shelf of novels, 14 in all, not counting The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which lay half-finished at his death. They sit plump and bursting with life, spilling over with the chaos of existence itself. It’s easy to imagine writers working the way Dickens’s prolific contemporary, Anthony Trollope, did — steadily, routinely, knocking off his 2,000 words a day until, by the end of his life, he had written 47 novels. But this is not how Dickens wrote.

Find the tumultuous heart of your favorite Dickens novel, the place where 19th-century London seems to be seething, smoking, overcrowded, in a state of vulgar contradiction. Then imagine Dickens working in the midst of it — a small, brisk figure rushing past you on a dark and dirty street. He is lost in a kind of mental ventriloquism, calling up his emotions and studying them. Every night he walked a dozen miles, without which, he said, “I should just explode and perish.”

Under the pseudonym Boz, he wrote, “There is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy,” walking through London as though “the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind.” Yet there was nothing remotely solitary about Dickens. One person who saw him in the highest spirits at a family party wrote that he “happily sang two or three songs, one the patter song, The Dog’s Meat Man, and gave several successful imitations of the most distinguished actors of the day.”


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