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The Reading Room: December '22
The Dickens list expands
Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens
Less, Andrew Sean Greer
Imperium, Christian Kracht
The Dead, Christian Kracht
Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens
Kaputt, Curzio Malaparte
It’s been a real journey, Machinists, as I make my way through the immortal Dickens classics, all read to me by narrator nonpareil, Simon Vance. For the last couple months, his voice — or rather the voice of one of Nicholas’s nemeses as interpreted by Vance — has been clamoring in my head as I step out of my car.
“Nickleby!” it shouts. “Nickleby!” I shout, in my best Ralph Nickleby impression — or rather, my impression of Vance’s impression of Ralph Nickleby, to my family’s chagrin. I’ve got us all doing it now.
I enjoyed following the adventures of “Knuckles” Nickleby as he muddled his way toward his fortune. We were good companions, he and I. I found myself often questioning his particular tact in certain circumstances (must you always be attacking people, Knuckles?) but for the most part, I found Nicholas to be a charming guy, if somewhat impulsive. I think Nicholas sets himself apart from other Dickens characters in that impulsivity — he seems flawed in a way that no many of Dickens’ other protagonists tend to be. We are meant to shake our heads at Nicholas, I think, from time to time. “Oh, Nickleby,” we say to ourselves (and to our family, in a vaguely Yorkshire accent).
I found the plot splintering a bit nearer the end, as if I was suddenly thrust into a different novel altogether — whither Squeers? Whither Sir Mulberry Hawk? And who’s this Arthur Gride fellow? — but once acquainted with these new members of the family, I was away again. But where does it stand on Colin Meloy’s list of best Dickens novels that he’s read, I’m sure you’re dying to know. Well, Machinists, in order to discover that, we must revisit it:
Our Mutual Friend
A Tale of Two Cities
I don’t know; it’s starting to get a bit blurry as we go forward. That top eight are pretty unfuckwithable — each are brilliant in their own right. I’m not sure why Copperfield continues to rate so low with me, other than I have a memory of walking away from it underwhelmed. I believe it was Dickens’ own favorite — and is obviously so beloved in the English-language canon — that I might’ve gone into it with… wait for it .. Greater Expectations than it could possibly satisfy. All I know is this: Hard Times is just plain not good. There is a constellation of ellipses between the eighth spot and the ninth.
The frightening thing: I’m coming to the end of the available Vance-Dickens collabs. I’ve begun The Pickwick Papers; there seems to be only Barnaby Rudge waiting for me in the wings. What will I do? Simon, you’ll have to start reading more.
(On that note: Pickwick is amazing — so funny!)
Finally got around to reading Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Less. I really loved it; it’s a breeze of a novel — you are really carried along with it — but is landed so sweetly and perfectly at the end, it’s kind of astonishing. It’s an admirably crafted book. Don’t quite know how he did it. Arthur Less feels like a Dickensian character in his own right — or that might be because I was finishing up Nickleby as I read Less. Arthur is buffeted along by prevailing winds created by the world around him, by his friends and enemies, as he tries to arrive at some kind of contented end. We are rooting for him from the get-go, as we are Nicholas, but knowing that it will be some time before he finds satisfaction, if ever. Poor Arthur, poor Nicholas.
I can’t remember exactly how I came upon Christian Kracht — a short story in a recent issue of The Paris Review? — but I was really taken by his writing. It seemed so crisp and austere, so very Swiss; it seemed up my alley. I sought out his novels and found only a few in English translation; there were two at Powell’s. I grabbed them both and read the first of them, Imperium, in a flash. I really loved it! It’s a real picaresque, Imperium, the story of a true-life early twentieth century German utopian: a vegetarian set on creating a colony on a remote island near Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, one that would subsist entirely on coconuts. Of course, along the way we are introduced to a diverse cast of characters: a hypochondriac musician, a villainous Tamil, a entrepreneurial plantation owner named Queen Emma, and a host of wild, seafaring types — some of whom are real, some fictitious. All packed into what is a very slim novel. Kracht’s writing (here translated by Daniel Bowles) is artful and quick; both this and The Dead, his follow-up, are a very dense kind of novel. Very little dialogue; a lot of chunky, speedy prose. You are carried along at a breathtaking brisk pace in both these books — is that what all his novels are like? I don’t know; these were the only two I could get my hands on. And fellow Kracht fans out there? Give me your two cents in the comments.
I wasn’t as taken by the…ahem…picaresqueties of The Dead as I was Imperium: though the novel shared the same wild-eyed scope as its predecessor. I’m holding out for more translations (get on it, Mr. Bowles) before I’m decided on whether or not to be a die-hard Krachtian.
I grabbed a copy of Lolly Willowes because I wanted to acquaint myself with the work of Sylvia Townsend Warner — she was a contemporary and friend of T.H. White’s; she wrote the forward to The Book of Merlyn. The subject matter attracted me: a spinster who gives up married life for witchery. I started reading it aloud to Carson a few weeks ago; hopefully we’ll take it up again soon. We’re way behind on finishing Ulysses in time for the end of its centennial year. Alas.
Till next time, happy reading!