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Reading and Writing Dickens (Reading and Writing in…)

What follows is the fictional account of the unraveling of a highly unreliable narrative mind. It is purely fictional.

I have never been a man of imagination. I have, however, always harbored a strong inclination to be a writer. I have spent most of my life in utter awe of the Masters. I have longed to stand in their ranks, or above their ranks, which I say with all due respect. Yet even as I write that word, “respect”, I sense Fear and Envy as they sneakily gaze out from behind that nobler feeling. Amongst that Masterly Rank, it is Charles Dickens who has caused me the greatest grief and has led me into the lengthiest periods of reverential, despairing silence. I ask myself: how could such a man, born into so much pain and poverty and with the whole world against him, become such a supremely gifted and prolific writer? And here I sit, a man of every means wholly lacking in genius and stamina.

Yet, in a way, my fortune has changed. This occurred one night not so long ago. In a dream, a text appeared to me. A whole text, a perfect text so clearly dreamt that upon my awakening I began its transcription. I worked for two weeks straight unencumbered and completely isolated. I wrote from “It was the best of times…” to a “far better rest that I go to than I have ever known”, and then I laid my pen down and slept through the night and the whole next day.

Upon my awakening, I felt a level of elation unknown in my life up to that point. I was filled with a sense of pride and satisfaction as I returned to my desk to review and revise that glorious manuscript. I cannot describe the shock I felt upon the realization that I had written, with no recourse to Dickens at any point during my writing, A Tale of Two Cities word for word and completely without thought or revision. I say word for word, and so it was, yet as I read I knew that there was something more to my version. For instance, in the final scene Dickens writes:

She kisses his lips; he kisses hers; they solemnly bless each other. The spare hand does not tremble as he releases it; nothing worse than a sweet, bright constancy is in the patient face (Dickens 366).

In turn, I composed:

She kisses his lips; he kisses hers; they solemnly bless each other. The spare hand does not tremble as he releases it; nothing worse than a sweet, bright constancy is in the patient face.

It was thus my hand that trembled in the face of my own authorial nuances. I had somehow swept away the dripping sentimentality of the original (one of the Master’s faults, I freely admit) and replaced it with a quiet, understated emotional integrity. I had outdone the Master at his own game.
Since that fateful start, I have begun two more of the Master’s work, yet I have not finished either of them. The one, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was never completed by Dickens, and I am rather afraid of so overshadowing the Master as to write farther than I should. I partially blame this matter for the return of my writer’s block, yet the second unfinished novel has presented me with a far greater crisis. This novel is, and will be, titled Our Mutual Friend, yet even as I say “will be” I fear that I may never see its completion.

And here I must make a confession. Well, two confessions to be precise, and the first may appear innocuous but do not be fooled. During the composition of my novels, I vowed to read nothing: neither Dickens nor anything else. I broke this vow and by breaking it was forced to call my entire pursuit into question. It happened as follows: while strolling along the shelves of my library, not reading but merely fingering the spines of the books there, I landed upon a collection of tales by the Argentine master Jorges Luis Borges. Carelessly I pulled the book from the shelf and in opening it my eyes fell upon the story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. I read it slowly, quickly coming to realization that even my new found gift was not wholly original. As Borges tells us, Menard sets out to compose the Quixote verbatim. He did not wish to copy, which he of course did not do. He wanted to actually write the Quixote. “His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes,” says Borges (91).

Stunned, I quietly set the book down and turned to another lying by, in the hopes that I might forget this discovery. But fate smiled cruelly as I found myself flipping through an essay by the Chilean author Roberto Bolano that he had entitled “Literature + Illness = Illness”. I must admit that I found the title appropriate. However, my fear and confusion were not assuaged as I stumbled upon a quote that nearly froze my heart: “Books are finite, sexual encounters are finite, but the desire to read and to @$%# is infinite; it surpasses our own deaths, our fears, our hopes for peace” (133). It was with these words ringing in my brain, and with my hopes for peace slipping further away, I recalled another quote by the same author from an interview I had once read. There he said: “The truth is, reading is always more important than writing.”

I now admit that I have always been lacking in discipline. Completely and utterly devoid of self-control, I am and have ever been. And so, my will weakened and compromised, I hope it will be forgiven me that I then broke the latter (and greater) half of my vow. A scene from David Copperfield weighed upon my mind, and so my fingers (ever so lightly) found themselves once again dancing over one of my shelves, and I once more found myself rapped in a book; that is, Chapter 62 of the illustrious classic just mentioned. There in, David’s Aunt Betsey comments upon the toiling work of writing and David responds:

“Ah, child, you pass a good many hours here! I never thought, when I used to read books, what work it was to write them.”
“It’s work enough to read them, sometimes,” I returned (789).

How could David respond thus? I thought. How was I connecting this to the quote from Bolano, a writer separated by a century and an ocean? I further thought from my place in my chair in my study. Why do I feel as though this is all unraveling? I thought and then stopped.
I mean, I stopped thinking for the duration of my trip back to my shelves and then back to my chair with the 22nd volume of the Dickens Studies Annual clutched to my chest. Now I think, I should have stopped thinking altogether [full stop, period] then and there. But an article was in mind: an article in which this scene was discussed, and of which “metafiction” was the subject, and from which I could not dissuade myself of perusing. Kenneth M. Sroka, the author of the essay, supplied me with this:

David finds more truth in the words of fiction and so returns to his early love by becoming a novelist himself […]. Although writing can’t literally bring back the past, writing his own story people’s David’s past by substituting ink and paper existences for what were David’s flesh and blood realities.

And then, a paragraph down:

Books –like people—are mysteries we seldom exhaust (44).

Here, the connection first made in my mind became clearer. I thought. This is the fate of the greatest of readers: they must turn to writing with the hope of better unraveling the mystery, yet they know all along that reading is more important (and even more difficult) for being all the more transitory. Sex is transitory and books are transitory, yet we engage people and books with a lust that longs for the demystification of each that only more deeply speaks to our desire for mystery. Who will remember the readings of Dickens or Bolano now that they are gone? Who will remember me reading their novels? Even as I have been gifted the task of writing, my works (that are Dickens’, as well) may become fodder for the book-lust of others yet that lust will also fall into oblivion.

I can now see the fable behind Borges’ story of Menard and the Quixote. To even read the Quixote is to finally rewrite it. Reading, in its way, is the ultimate creation as it enacts the text itself. There is more “truth in the words of fiction” as long as it allows us to populate our world with the double-mystery of characters written and read. With this in mind, I again turned to my A Tale of Two Cities and Our Mutual Friend, as I began to think of the populaces therein and the way they spoke truth (if they did in fact do such) through their writing and reading.
In Sroka’s essay, I also came upon this quote regarding the role of reading in Our Mutual Friend:

in its most positive redefinition, reading, is an indirect, secondary instrument for the fictional reader, a talisman of sorts, which affects the character, but depends, in turn, upon that character’s direct action to effect catharsis in some other character. [The] reading experience depends on direct human action to actualize its potential (51).

Yes, I thought: the text is always a talisman. And how better to state the relation between writer and reader… and the catharsis and actualization of potential.

Thus my mind’s eye turned to Silas Weggs. As a hack and a charlatan, I was slowly coming to feel a connection to old Weggs (as, yes, I admit I am playing at games). I could not help but to think that Weggs was himself the author of Gibbon and an elaborate (re)writer of texts. Hired by Boffin, as a “literary man”, Weggs is given the chance to read to his employer, as Boffin feels a bit of literature is in keeping with his new social status (49). Boffin of course presents Weggs with the immortal classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Gibbons, which Boffin calls the “Decline-and-Fall-of-The-Rooshan-Empire” (a bit of comedic genius on the parts of both the master and myself). When asked if he is familiar with this title, Weggs responds: “Aye, Indeed!” (52). Already, the literary man has admitted into existence a non-existent text! However, when later forced to correct Boffin, Weggs refuses to explain the difference between the Roman and “Rooshan” empires and again through the weaving of fiction the literary man keeps the rewriting of the text firmly in his grasp. Then as soon as he off into the text, Weggs begins the recreation of Rome, “stumbling at Polybius (pronounced Polly Beeious and supposed by Mr. Boffin to be a Roman virgin, and by Mrs. Boffin to be responsible for that necessity of dropping it)” and so on and into a whole new text (59). Personally, I could never imagine taking such liberties whilst rewriting a text, but I have never been as courageous in my conniving as Weggs (perhaps this is why I had to write him).

At this point, I had once more returned to my collection of Dickens Studies Annuals to seek out further commentary. Having selected a number of volumes, I again returned to my chair and opened one to an essay by Richard T. Gaughan entitled “Prospecting for Meaning in Our Mutual Friend”. Therein, I found the author commenting upon the way in which Weggs’ trickery with the Boffins, an “extortion scheme” he called it, points to the literary man’s “habit of chasing his own phantoms” and “disastrous habit of believing his own fictions” (241). The line between fact and fiction may become so abysmally blurred as to swallow the reader/writer. I do not deny this, not in the least. A ghastly abuse on Weggs’ part, but one that does have an impact of “direct human action” as Boffin in turn enacts his own fiction. I thought.

As Boffins’ literary tastes begin to run towards the “Lives of Misers”, he himself (seemingly) begins to get lost reading and then the rewriting of what is read back onto life. My manuscript reads:

Miserly literature not being abundant, the proportion of failures to successes may have been as a hundred to one; still Mr. Boffin, never wearied, remained as avaricious for misers as he had been at the onset (467).

The infinite desire to read falls squarely upon him, and then comes the curse of rewriting. As Daniel Pollack-Pelzner states in another essay I had found:

Several post-structuralist critics have shown how Dickens surrounds the Boffin plot with challenges to concepts of fixed or “real” identity, developing a representation of fluid, “performative” identity that reaches its most creative, unstable form in Mr. Boffin (268).

Not having the fortitude for post-structuralism (must we all be playing games?), I have taken the author’s word on this point. And then my own thoughts added: is not this “’performative’ identity” merely an aspect of reading, writing, and rewriting texts? Is it not natural that one lacking in literacy must be even more reliant upon a “perfomative identity” to engage in and recreate a text? I thought so, and think so still.

Thus thinking of reading and writing outside the realm of “literal” text, my mind wandered to Lizzie Hexam. Lizzie Hexam and her flame! One of the tropes I am most glad to have rewritten! I saw again poor Lizzie Hexam before the open flame and her brother Charley sweetly saying: “You said you couldn’t read a book, Lizzie. Your library of books is the hollow down by the fire, I think.” Oh! If only my library where in the hollow of the fire! Then the smoke that is reading would be seen as it is. Fleeting, ever fleeting. Yet, I thought, even here does human action lead to a potential. I was then thinking of Charley’s confrontation of Eugene Wrayburn. Confronted with both a brother’s wrath and the thought of the sister, Wrayburn “turned his face towards the fire and looked down into it”, and there he read the same book Lizzie reads (and perhaps even wrote) hoping to unlock the mystery of both the book and the girl (289).

From there my mind wandered to the streets of Paris, and to an equally powerful and symbolic text. Yes, I thought of Parisian streets and the book of a prophet and the way the two met in A Tale of Two Cities. One of the more wondrously ominous moments in our work (mine and the Master’s, that is), which reads: the ghastly Gaspard did “scrawl upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine-lees—BLOOD” (38). From the bursting of a cask, a text born to tell of the future, I thought. Still thinking myself right worthy (and the Master, too), I was flipping through an essay by another aspiring critic who likewise did point to the prophet Daniel. The critic, one Jim Barloom, had written, and I read: “Gaspard’s scrawl is, literally and figuratively, the writing upon the wall” (262). And I thought, yes, and what gave Daniel his authority? The ability to read (ever more important than writing, that), the ability to read the ever present text writ large by his God (the greatest of literary Masters, perhaps). Still in my chair, the shelves on the walls were beginning to shrink in upon my perch, as my thoughts continued to resound like an infernal symphony, and I read on in Barloom. I read from the critic: “Dickens insists upon the inevitability of the events which the novel depicts. It had to be—or, one might say, the future was embedded, implanted, within the past” (263). This could also be said of the text, I thought. The great text of God, always already holding our performances, our readings, our maddened attempts to rewrite, waiting to be read by Daniel, writ by Gaspard, and seen by Lizzie in the hollow of the flame.

Then what of Madame Defarge and her ghastly knitting? I thought, what of the ghoulish knitting that created a text “in her own stitches and her own symbols, […] plain to her as the sun” (174)? That text ticking off the lives of men, the list “implanted, within the past”, which could not have been so plain as the sun, for if Madame could have read that “embedded” text that is always present and presenting the fates of all helpless characters (me and the Master included) how did she not see her own petty demise? She wrote it out blinded by vengeance, with blood in her eyes, thinking herself the creator of a raw textual truth, and she could not read what was writ on the wall to save her life. Like all, I thought, she is swallowed by the text she reads and thinks she writes, except there is never any end to the book. We can never reach it, and we go on reading and writing. Even rewriting, I thought, even surpassing the master, yet each of us wanders blindly in the labyrinth of text. I stop thinking now, at last. I have looked to the fire place of my study and seen it to be darkened all this time. I will stop thinking, close my eyes, and pray to God that he writes me no dreams.

Work Cited

Barloom, Jim. “Coded Sings and Signals in A Tale of Two Cities.” Dickens Studies Annual. Vol. 42. New York: AMS Press, 2011.

BOlano, Roberto. Interviewed by Carmen Boullosa. Trans. Margaret Carson. BOMB, vol. 28/Winter 2002.

Borges, Jorges Luis. Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Bolano, Roberto. The Insufferable Gaucho. Trans. Chris Andrew. New York: New Directions, 2010.

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. New York: Penguin, 1996

___. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Signet Classic, 1980.

___. Our Mutual Friend. Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2008.

Gaughan, Richard T. “Prospecting for Meaning in Our Mutual Friend.” Dickens Studies Annual. Vol. 19. New York: AMS Press, 1990.

Pollack-Pelzned, Daniel. “Reading and Repeating Our Mutual Friend.” Dickens Studies Annual. Vol. 39. New York: AMS Press, 2008.

Sroka, Kenneth M. “Dickens’ Metafiction: Readers and Writers in Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Our Mutual Friend.” Dickens Studies Annual.

Vol. 22. New York: AMS Press, 1993.

One Comment
  1. You always go somewhere unexpected as a writer. I value that creativity very much. It means you are thinking and allowing multiple texts and multiple meanings of those textual experiences to influence you and push you places you might not have even known you could go. You start one place, explore one thing, one topic, it leads you to another, and then deeper into yet another. Ah. That’s scholarship.

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