Monday, October 30, 2017

Naturals: Dickens Fatigue and The Kid Bats First

Having recently finished reading Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend--his last completed novel and one of the long ones--and being part way through his earlier (and shorter) A Tale of Two Cities, I observe that Dickens is a bold writer.  With a reputation for sentimentality, he does not shrink from confronting the unromantic realities of everyday life in the 18th century (in "Tale") and his own 19th.

He forthrightly describes the harsh material conditions of the non-wealthy (and more generally, in the 18th century) as he exposes the pretensions of the rich exploiters without compromise, and often with a tone combining ridicule with an undercurrent of anger.

He seems to write naturally, with as much confidence in these last decades as when he began.  This may be partly due to his popular success and literary accolades from the start.  Though he had relative ups and downs, he never knew failure.  His very first story was immediately accepted for publication.

As Andrew Maurois notes in his study published as Dickens in English,  "The man whose course is thus shaped gains by being spared the pangs of the soured artist, and self-confidence allows him to write with that attractive freedom which perhaps is one of the secrets of beauty."

A Tale of Two Cities, celebrated as a romance, begins with the horrors of a coach journey in winter, after brief reference to other horrors in both England and France.  The novel begins with the famous line "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." but Dickens starts with the worst.

Our Mutual Friend is bold in a different way.  It begins with aggressively satirical portraits of the newly rich with their "bran-new" furnishings and their "bran new" oldest friends, and those on the lower edges of polite society whose avarice compels them to cultivate these suddenly fashionable folk.  ("Bran new" was a version of "brand new" in Dickens day, and some editions change it to this spelling.  The expression does not refer to the brand name on a label of a new garment or such, as I always assumed.  The expression goes much further back, and the "bran" refers to a hot piece of wood fresh from the fire, which in turn became the basis for cattle brands etc.)

While Bleak House portrays a society in transition from the landed aristocracy to the industrial barons, Our Mutual Friend takes place in a society where fortunes and careers to be made from deals, stocks and political relationships.  There is a certain contemporary familiarity in this passage, for example:

“He goes, in a condescending amateurish way, into the City, attends meetings of Directors, and has to do with traffic in Shares. As is well known to the wise in their generation, traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world. Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners, have Shares. Have Shares enough to be on Boards of Direction in capital letters, oscillate on mysterious business between London and Paris, and be great. Where does he come from? Shares. Where is he going to? Shares. What are his tastes? Shares. Has he any principles? Shares. What squeezes him into Parliament? Shares. Perhaps he never of himself achieved success in anything, never originated anything, never produced anything? Sufficient answer to all: Shares. O mighty Shares! To set those blazing images so high, and to cause us smaller vermin, as under the influence of henbane or opium, to cry out, night and day, ‘Relieve us of our money, scatter it for us, buy us and sell us, ruin us, only we beseech ye take rank among the powers of the earth, and fatten on us!’”

I read the Penguin Classics edition of Our Mutual Friend with an introduction and copious notes by Adrian Poole.  I found the notes (all in the back) very helpful, and kept a bookmark in the notes section as well as the chapters as I read along.

I also read the aforementioned book by Maurois, and among other items of interests, I was pleased with his observation that he too couldn't remember much of the story of a Dickens' novel afterwards.  However, I was convinced by Geoffrey Tillotson in his foreword to Bleak House that Dickens paid more attention to structure than most critics--including Maurois--acknowledge.  Poole also includes Dickens' outline or plan for the plot of Our Mutual Friend, which as usual was written for periodical publication (in this case, over two years) and on deadline.  The notes are skeletal but clearly he wasn't utterly improvising.

I read Our Mutual Friend with great pleasure, all 797 pages (plus another 35 or so of notes.)  I lost track of a few characters but basically followed the story, and noted Tillotson's guide to Dickens' many literary references, chiefly fairy tales and the plays of Shakespeare, plus nods to contemporaneous events, as well as the themes of death (including near and false death) and resurrection.

I am reading A Tale of Two Cities with less enthusiasm.  I don't know why exactly. It has all the elements, including those startling turns of phrase ("the abolition of eagles"), the pointed observations. Maybe the characters or some of the dialogue. Maybe it's Dickens fatigue. I will be on the lookout however for some biography or edition of this work that tells me how Dickens came to write it, since it is so different in setting and time from his other novels.

Not So Natural

I just finished The Kid From Tomkinsville, the baseball novel for young readers by John R. Tunis, referred to in my "The Boy of Summers" piece.  I'd read (and recently re-read) the sequel, The Kid Comes Back, and made myself curious about this first book centered on Roy Tucker.

It's even more of a baseball book than the sequel, and had small pleasures for me, such as references to Brooklyn Dodgers players staying at the Schenley Hotel across from Forbes Field when they play the Pittsburgh Pirates, and where I saw my first major league games.  There indeed was a Schenley Hotel there, and visiting baseball players stayed there, including Babe Ruth on the night before he hit the last two home runs of his career, at Forbes Field.  The Schenley Hotel building is still there, and for years has been used as the student union for the University of Pittsburgh.  Forbes Field itself is gone, and the Pitt Library sits where it once did.

But what struck me most was how closely the plot of Bernard Malamud's famous novel The Natural follows The Kid From Tomkinsville.  Malamud's novel (and the even more famous Robert Redford movie from it) is renowned for treating baseball as a mythic stage.  The wikipedia entry for example stresses its use of the Fisher King myth and the Arthurian legends.  Those are clearly present, as are elements from baseball history: the shooting of a Philadelphia Phillies player by a deranged woman targeting baseball stars, as well as such lore as Babe Ruth at personal appearances in the hinterlands challenging local pitchers to strike him out.

But The Natural (published in 1952) is about a young baseball player named Roy from the hick heartland who breaks in as a phenomenal pitcher, is shot, returns as a great hitter, makes the decisive play in a game for the pennant, surrounded by (at least in the movie) thunder and lightning.  The Kid From Tomkinsville (1940) is about a young baseball player named Roy from the hick heartland who breaks in as a phenomenal pitcher, is injured (in a non-mythic but realistic baseball way, as the consequence of players jostling in the shower after a game) and returns as a great hitter, to make the decisive play in a game (not a strikeout as in Malamud's book nor a home run as in the movie but a leaping fence-crashing catch) for the pennant. With thunder and lightning.

Seems like somebody should owe the Tunis estate some cash.

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