28. (Charles Dickens)

He flickers through other writers, Doestoevsky (Smerdyakov begot by Uriah Heep) and Kafka, and reading The Trial I had convinced myself, in throes of pleasure, that I could return to Dickens and see him anew, afresh, with like pleasure, if only I could hear in him, or hear him in, the accent of K. But alas. In the work of the author who does the police in different voices I could not find the subdued, educated, clerical note of manners and restraint. Maybe one reason that Kafka and, to a lesser extent, Doestoevsky, could make Dickens live in their work in a way that makes it easier (for some) to appreciate Dickens more than Dickens’ own novels do, is that they read him in translation; something is lost, and probably it’s the tone. Dickens writes as entertainer (just as Faulkner and his prodigy, Cormac et al, write “as novelists, grrr.”), whereas Kafka writes as a man of business; the exception is Great Expectations, where Pip is crushed by defeat, giving us the most subdued Dickens narrator. Even he would be louder if he could. The tone is a consequence of Dickens’ peculiar preference–I won’t call it a shortcoming, since it brings great advantages–as a novelist: a refusal, maybe incapacity, to surrender narration to the perspective of a character, without going into first-person narration. This is a matter of technique and not that tired old toothless concept, Sympathy. We are told he is a theatrical novelist; but it’s not theater and he doesn’t seem to attempt compensate on the page for the work that the actor would do in a dramatic production, which would involve in some way getting into the character. The point isn’t that the characters have no psychological depth; of course they are driven by all sorts of fetishes and kinks that fascinated Dickens; they have layers of motives and desires; they are bashful and ashamed and proud. There are enormous gains: the characters can swing, or switch, from insects to heroes, each inaccessible at the opposite end of the scale. Mrs. Gradgrind in Hard Times, with her tragic death, a case-in-point; Old Dorrit another. Both alternate with astonishing rapidity between the poles. A concomitant upside: at times, the strongest, most perturbed, wasted, corrupted and demented of these characters, because Dickens relentlessly stares at their edifices, carapaces, or shells, are made to seem inaccessible, even to him. And so Kafka could find in them the exemplars for the incomprehensible devotees of, and attendants to, the Court.

(Dickens and Kafka are both neurotics, craving order and control; but they are also, as a result, terrified by those structures and situations that expose order as arbitrary, as making irrational demands for perpetuation, under the guise of common sense that excludes and dominates life; they are morbidly fascinated with the point where the urge to order reveals itself as a disorder and source of corruption and waste.)

When Dickens is most successful, he is most the curious, unaware reporter of his own creations: describing what is before him, without the pretense of being in possession of the conscious mind that made it move, and feeling sometimes awe, sometimes horror, but not the delight of a second-grading showing off his pet worm. On these occasions, he most resembles Josef K., as Kafka follows his gaze and perplexed thought. But Dickens, more than any other great novelist in the realist tradition, can be trusted to follow only his own gaze, his own thoughts, and much of the time he does not seem to inhabit the world of his creations, to meet them eye to eye, or at a hazy distance, as a narrator among characters, but instead presides above them, arranging them, chuckling over their play. Sometimes then the narrator’s feeling, or the feel of the narration, is self-delight and self-satisfaction. It is feeling that I’ve been talking about: by saying he is unable to surrender himself to the characters’ perspective, I mean he is unable to surrender himself to their attitudes and feelings, not that an entire loss of self is necessary, but a commingling or, as with Milton’s angels, interpenetration, would make for a different sort of narration. Between the casings of insects and the armors of heroes, there are varieties of fleshly existence, vulnerable and needy, that Dickens recognizes but will not open himself to engaging; the casings and heroes at least provide him an excuse, provide him the justification for distance, disgust and wary awe. This because Dickens is not only the sociological novelist–for whom character exists as a relation between individuals and institutions–but also the sociopathic novelist, for whom tender feelings of love, and even friendship, are only ever ideals, and who succeeds with these most when they warp to obsession, envy and hatred. It might be that everyone in Kafka’s The Trial is deficient in a romantic or sixties-psych notion of refined compassion and empathetic capacity…but Kafka knows it and doesn’t pretend there is an alternative. What’s more, there is still the idea of an average Joe, Josef K., whose perspective, and whose attitudes and feelings of doubt, disbelief, anxiety and neuroses Kafka latches onto as a container–genuinely containing–his own energies; a dull narrator is of great benefit to novelists of such teemingly materialistic imagination. Esther at times allows Dickens a happy medium, when she forgets that she must constantly debase herself for narrating a story, and when she buoys to a neutral account, so that her first-person somewhat resembles a third-person by a tempered Dickens. There are so many characters of such strangeness issuing from Dickens’ mind that he could not or would not (among the Victorians certainly) write from their perspectives; but a dull clerk? Without adopting his voice so as to fatally compromise the reportage of the world that third-person affords Dickens, it would have dyed Dickens’ narration with some of the mundane feelings and affects that it usually lacks, would have allowed him to narrate released from the burden of his personality as entertainer. Maybe it would not have been possible for him. But how stunning to have seen Chancery this way, too.


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