Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Finally Loving a Classic

Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens, read by Flo Gibson, Recorded Books, LLC, 1987

My own particular feeling for the works of Charles Dickens is complicated by early experience. Forced in high school to read him, I was brought to believe that the man was terribly dull and long-winded. This sentiment was aggravated by the knowledge, later gained, that many authors of the time, including Dickens and my beloved Dostoyevsky, were paid by the word. Where was the incentive to use one word where seven would do? Hard Times, one of Dickens’ shortest works, was our classroom text and it set the stage for an early loathing of the man. Growing older, I adopted Oscar Wilde's snickering tone towards Dickens’ sentimentality without having any real experience reading him.

As it turns out, Hard Times, pound for pound, is one of Dickens’ least regarded novel, chosen only for our classroom using a word count metric. Mostly polemical about the Utilitarian movement (about which little was explained to my high school English class), there were very little of the traits, the idiosyncratic characters, the wit, the fleshed out portraits that make other Dickens’ novels such a pleasure to read. Yet it is odd that such a short novel would strike me as long-winded and tedious, but this was and is the case.

For a full disclosure, I have to say that casting back to my high school reading, I also loathed Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and most of Shakespeare, works which I’ve since come to admire and even love. Yet, the difficult feelings for Dickens persist. My first actual adult reading, not under any compulsion, was Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens’ third novel, which seemed to have an extra long third half appended to it, marring my enjoyment of the first two-thirds of the book. This was followed by the timeless A Christmas Carol which, while short, was witty and to the point, yet carried along by a great deal of familiarity.

And now comes along Dickens’ second novel, the well-known classic Oliver Twist, the basis for the brain paining musical Oliver as well as the recent Roman Polanski adaptation. To be honest, it was the idea of a recent adaptation by such a fine director as Polanski that made me throw myself again into the maw of Dickens.

And I’m glad I did. Oliver Twist is a delight, an enjoyment nearly all the way through. I figure I can spare the general plot synopsis of such a well-known and well-loved novel, though as is common for the time, we have all the familiar elements. Lost foundlings who are actually the inheritors of great wealth, the Victorian acceptance of wildly implausible coincidences, and a kind of benevolent universe in which no bad deed goes unpunished, though many a good heart break along the way.

But this is part and parcel of the reading of any novel from a time period vastly different than your own. Previous eras had previous preconceptions, commonly held prejudices generally accepted even by the most open-minded members of society, and ill-considered views repugnant to the mores of today.

Yes, I’m talking primarily about Dickens constant repetition of the phrase “the Jew” when he means the character of Fagin. It is offensive, it reads today like the ravings of an anti-Semite (which Dickens was most assuredly not), and, most importantly, it is unnecessary. No plot point is advanced by making the character of Fagin Jewish, no insight is provided for his character by this element of it, and no greater point about Jewish identity or place in British society is advanced by it.

So why do it? Why write, when Fagin moves down the street “the Jew shuffled” or any formulation approximating that? I’ve looked around for some kind of evidence as to Dickens’ motivation for it and I have to admit I’m stymied. My best guess is that Dickens based the character on a real person, a real Jewish leader of street thieves, and left that aspect of his characterization “true to life.”

However, the first thirty eight chapters, according to critic Norman Lebrecht, contain “257 references to ‘the Jew’ against 42 to ‘Fagin’ or ‘the old man.’” This is insultingly gratuitous, even if Dickens did go back, according to some, and alter the last fifteen chapters.

Every other aspect of the novel, however, is perfect and entrancing, sucking me in without any jarring note to wrench me out of the narrative. Bill Sikes is perfectly menacing, Nancy is counter-intuitively loyal to a fault, the boys are loyal to themselves and creative and cunning, the action is thrilling at times and moving at others. The climactic scene of Bill Sikes flight from the law is frightening, pulse-pounding, and satisfying in a very visceral way. This follows close on his murder of Nancy which approaches Shakespearean in its Othello-like presentation.

All in all, notions of race aside, Oliver Twist is by far a better choice for high school reading than many another Dickens’ novel. It has characters kids can relate to, is filled with action and incident, and has the kind of melodrama that appeals to youth, regardless of book length (see Harry Potter for proof of this). Even the novel’s appeal to a certain kind of racist assumption is fodder to get the kids talking about preconceived notions of racial identity if approached right.

Narrator Flo Gibson has an annoying habit of delivering every characters' laugh in the same rapid "huh huh huh" Beavis fashion, a small enough complaint if she didn't also have a creaky grandma's voice. But her voice has the creaky kind of almost old lady quality that can go well with older works, even if a man might better have read this nearly exclusively male story.

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