Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bleak House. Moody. Noir-ish.

Ever read Dickens' Bleak House? Me neither. I've wanted to, ever since my mother told me that someone in the book dies of spontaneous combustion. Being aware that my one-time literary hero Vladimir Nabokov admired the book and wrote about it in his Lectures on Literature, (something else I never got around to reading) only added fuel to the fire.

I resisted until I saw the recent BBC adaptation (excellent, except for a bizarre use of melodramatic jump-cuts) via Netflix, which inspired me to overcome my lifetime of Bleak House-related sloth. I mooched an old hard-bound copy from someone in Australia (it was originally owned, according to the pencil signature on the flyleaf, by one A. Beange in Wellington, New Zealand, who bought it in September 1918). Once I finally started it, I was startled to discover that Dickens opens the book with reams of incomplete sentences:

London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes -- gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers ... Fog everywhere.
I almost felt I was reading a moody contemporary thriller. Was Dickens deliberately pushing the form, or was he writing fast, in shorthand, and decided later it could stand? Either way, I sure wish I could've used it in my never-ending arguments with my high school English teacher, who was trying to force me to abandon sentence fragments. (Never did. Loved 'em.)

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