The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


I've read the following Dickens novels: HARD TIMES, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, DAVID COPPERFIELD, TALE OF TWO CITIES, and now BLEAK HOUSE. And while I am increasingly able to appreciate just why people like Dickens--for the first time, in reading BLEAK HOUSE I really enjoyed those "grotesque" characters he's so often praised for creating--I'm just going to have to admit that I probably will never be a big fan. I'm a modernist at heart, and I've apparently internalized that stripped-down, streamlined aesthetic. And while nobody could mistake ULYSSES or JR or GRAVITY'S RAINBOW for a streamlined read, there's something that differentiates those books from the big Victorian novels. For one, in Dickens the subplots and subcharacters seem to exist for the reader's pleasure, not because they form an integral part of the plot at any of its levels. Victorian readers, we understand, liked that sort of thing; novels had main courses and amuse-gueules and desserts. But I'm less patient.

BLEAK HOUSE will forever remind me of Baby 2's birth, though, because it was the book that I brought to the hospital when my wife was laboring. I stalled on it for a while, as I often do with Dickens (somewhere under the bed is my copy of PICKWICK PAPERS that I gave up on after about 150 pages), but this week I pushed through it and finished it. It's good, of course, with a tone of high moral seriousness and some really interesting critiques of the British legal system. The Penguin edition I had also included a 50-page introduction by arch-deconstructionist J. Hillis Miller, who unsurprisingly reads the novel as a 900-page story of people trying to decipher texts. Oy. I'm glad those days are over. Penguin has reissued this one recently, though, with an intro by the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton, and now I'm curious to read what he has to say about it--I suspect he'd shed some light on how Chancery Court worked, although the press release notes that he primarily talks about the book as an early piece of detective fiction.


  • At 3:00 PM, Blogger anna said…

    How funny- that you just read it. I did a half-assed job reading it recently. A friend kept on making jokes about Jaundyce vs. Jaundyce, and Miranda was raving about the BBC miniseries, so I did an all out attack on trying to read it. First, tried to get book club to pick it that month: failure. Then, listened to the abridged book tape. Finally, watched the BBC miniseries. The thing that got irritating about Dickens is his high handed sentimentality. And the pale fairness and purity of some of his characters- Ada namely. Just finished a Thackery and I like him far better, then got all interested in their rivalry.

  • At 7:08 PM, Blogger mantooth said…

    it took a long time, but I guess it was worth it. Now at least I can say I know what people mean when they talk about Mrs. Jellyby.


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