Book Reviews

David's Book Club: David Copperfield

05.29.12 12:15 PM ET

I re-listened to David Copperfield as I was applying the finishing touches to my own novel, for the same reason that I watched a lot of pro-tennis when I was struggling to master the game. (I've since redeployed my athletic energies to less hopeless endeavors: it's a lot more fun to be a mediocre skier.)

David Copperfield tends not to head the Dickens canon, for reasons I accept. The female romantic leads are insipid even by Dickens' standards: Copperfield's first wife in particular seems to have been the sadly unironic inspiration of P. G. Wodehouse Madeline Bassett. The plot finale is almost defiantly unconvincing. The autobiographical element in the novel seems also alas to be the product of a writer in the grip of a dangerous bout of self-satisfaction.

But, you know … so what?

Dickens' genius for the creation of comic characters is worked almost to rococo excess in David Copperfield: Here is where he created Wilkins Micawber and family, Uriah Heep, Miss Moucher, and the ferocious Betsey Trotwood. Here are his satires of Victorian funeral culture, boarding schools, landladies, and the archaic church courts that took jurisdiction, weirdly, over marriages, divorces, wills—and admiralty cases. Here is his most scorching attack on the refusal of the British upper class to acknowledge the humanity of working people, even as they seduce and destroy them.

Every character is given his own distinctive and instantly recognizable voice. That sounds hard enough, until you try it yourself. Then you realize: it's god-damn hard! Yet Dickens does it again and again and again through this big book, and then again and again and again through all the vast rest of the bibliography. 

How does he do it?

Innate genius, sure. An acute mimic's ear, also part of it.

But there is something else too, available to him, and generally unavailable to those who come after:

The artistic movement known as "modernism" is notoriously hard to define, but one of its identifying features is its dislike of any kind of excess; excess description, excess characterization, and (above all) excess emotionalism. Dickens himself was identified almost as Public Enemy #1 by English-language modernist writers, best exemplified by Evelyn Waugh's gleefully cruel conclusion to A Handful of Dust, in which his doomed antiquarian-loving protagonist, is captured in an obscure Brazilian village and condemned to spend the rest of his life reading Dickens aloud to his captor.

Dickens' achievement rested in large part on his confidence that he had hundreds of thousands of words (and the corresponding number of hours) available to him to tell his stories. Minor characters cannot be introduced once to occupy a cameo role and then forgotten: they must be summoned back for at least a second appearance if the first is not to feel gratuitous. That takes space and time. Chop down the scale of the canvas, and the picture must accordingly simplify. And by the time post-modernists reassert the right of authorial sprawl—David Foster Wallace, case in point, but many others too—they have changed their idea of what the sprawl is for: no longer to tell a big story abounding in many interesting characters (we have TV mini-series for that now!), but to extend their style and magnify their own presence. 

Rob Long of National Review wrote a very funny (and short!) memoir of his life as a TV writer titled Set Up, Joke; Set Up, Joke. TV humor is all about jokes, and modern humor lives on TV. Dickens doesn't tell jokes, and even the quips are funny through multiple layers of irony and double-understanding. Micawber is most famous for his summation of human life: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery." That's funny on its own, funnier in the deep context of the book, but it's not a joke—in large part because it is funny only to the extent, and precisely because, it is simultaneously deeply sad.

In his autobiography, the British journalist Claud Cockburn told a story that should haunt any contemporary writer. He had started as a young writer on BBC radio, producing short humorous sketches. (Cockburn was a communist and in many ways a very bad man, but he was also notwithstanding a very funny man.) He presented his first script. His producer said something like, (I'm quoting from memory) "Cockburn, this script is everything a BBC script should be: pithy, lively, and entertaining. But always remember: you are competing for the attention of an elderly woman in the north of England against her four cats. And this time"—and here the producer threw the script in the trash—"the cats have it."

In the age of TV, Facebook, and Twitter, Cockburn's struggle is the struggle of us all.