What makes a sport a good subject for a novel? On American shelves, baseball is king: it often feels disproportionately represented in literature, especially with football and basketball taking up so much space in the cultural landscape. (Not to mention car racing, the most-watched sport in the country—though I’m not clamoring for that Great American NASCAR Novel just yet.) But books and baseball feel like an easy fit: after all, the sport has essentially fictionalized its own history, creating a big, century-long narrative that often serves to whip up equal parts nostalgia and excitement for the modern game. It seems that the most successful sports novels are those that can exist within these big narratives, regardless of the relative popularity of the sport: horse racing—a dying industry propped up by its own history—sits at one end of the spectrum, while soccer—living, breathing, and still rapidly growing—sits at the other, but great novels have been written about both.
It’s not particularly surprising, then, that great novels have been written about cricket. Cricket fans hate lazy comparisons to baseball, but the literary analogy is an apt one here: if baseball is America, then cricket is—or rather, was—England. From Dickens (the All-Muggleton versus Dingely Dell match, in The Pickwick Papers) to P. G. Wodehouse (who played amongst remarkably impressive literary company on an XI that sometimes included Arthur Conan Doyle, J. M. Barrie, A. A. Milne, G. K. Chesterton, H. G. Wells, and just about every other late Victorian writer who went by his first two initials), cricket served as a means to celebrate—or criticize—something intrinsically English: a game fashioned in the image of a nation. British culture has moved on in the intervening years; these days, soccer is clearly the ruling game. Cricket now belongs to the nations of the Commonwealth: the sport has huge international appeal and is dominated by the former colonies of the British Empire, from the Indian subcontinent to the West Indies to southern Africa to Oceania.
The literary history of cricket, in turn, is a lesson in colonialism and post-colonialism. Cricket enthusiasts began building the sport’s narrative in the Victorian era—they wanted it to represent the idea of a near-fictional England, with an emphasis on the rural and the ancient, a construction that they exported to the farthest reaches of the British Empire. The sport was—and still is—imbued with a deep sense of morality. In 1909, Ford Madox Ford wrote, “‘playing cricket’ is synonymous with pursuing honourable courses.” “Not cricket” was code for unsportsmanlike and ungracious conduct; abroad, the same phrase evoked a sense of disorder that the colonizing British felt the need to conquer and set right, however misguided (and extraordinarily harmful) those impulses may have been. As cricket circumnavigated the globe, its narrative began to splinter and grow in different ways, but the idea of cricket as a gentlemen’s game remained. By the mid-twentieth century, cricket was being used as a metaphor and an argument for self-rule in the colonies. Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James’s Beyond a Boundary, equal parts memoir and treatise, is politics by cricket—and considered one of the greatest sports books of all time.
In the twenty-first century, these legacies remain. We’re left with two wonderful post-colonial novels in which cricket plays a central role: Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 critical darling, Netherland, and Shehan Karunatilaka’s extraordinary Chinaman, published that same year in Sri Lanka and the winner of this year’s Commonwealth Book Prize. It was released this spring in the U.S., re-titled The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. Reading these books side by side, you see more differences than similarities: old world versus new, and old styles versus new, as well, the occasionally stifling “lyrical Realism,” to borrow Zadie Smith’s critique of Netherland, versus the beautifully erratic—Michael Ondaatje rightly said that Pradeep Mathew was “a crazy ambidextrous delight.” Stylistically, structurally, and thematically, Netherland and Pradeep Mathew are wildly divergent. But the story of cricket is embedded deeply in both narratives, along with the code of ethics that rules the sport, however constructed those ideas might be. To read these novels as “cricket books” is to attempt to understand the story of cricket; without that shared narrative, we’d be left with a pair of books about lonely guys who can barely handle the reins of their own lives.
Cricket’s exact origins are somewhat contentious, but the first recorded matches of the game as we recognize it today took place in England in the mid-1500s. Two centuries later, it was the national sport. The game was considered a “rough” one then, known for its violence and played for large sums of money, which invariably attracted the sort of spectator looking to turn a quick profit. By the nineteenth century, cricket had evolved into a deeply classist affair: “gentlemen,” amateurs mostly from the upper classes who learned to play in public schools, were pitted against “players,” professionals mostly from the lower classes. Gentlemen were widely known for batting, and the best among them were celebrated for their elegance and their economy of movement; players, meanwhile, were the workhorses, saddled with the less-glamorous and more physical task of bowling. (A woman was rumored to have invented the overarm bowl—her hoopskirt got in the way of overhand tosses—because in mixed-gender games, men would always bat, while women would always bowl. In reality, the overarm bowl was invented by a man, but the stratified imagery remains.) In the colonies, as the British taught the game to their new subjects, colonists would inevitably be cast in the role of players, bowling to their batting colonizers.
For a comprehensive history of cricket and literature, it seems best to start with Anthony Bateman’s Cricket, Literature and Culture, published in 2009. It’s probably one of the most readable and lively academic books I’ve ever come across. Bateman is concerned with the “literaturization” of cricket, the process by which written material fed into and influenced changing perceptions—and eventually, the institutionalization—of cricket over the past two centuries. To introduce links between the sport and literature, there’s Benny Green, a cricket historian: “Not only does cricket, more than any other game, inspire the urge to literary expression; it is almost as though the game itself would not exist at all until written about.” Bateman begins with the Reverend James Pycroft and his wildly popular 1851 book The Cricket Field, which celebrated what would later be known as “Muscular Christianity”—“a doctrine that saw physical weakness as evidence of spiritual shortcomings against which Christian faith, clean living, self-discipline and exercise in the form of team sports was the only cure.” Bateman later describes the book as “overtly xenophobic”: Pycroft wrote, “Hence it has come to pass that, wherever her Majesty’s servants have ‘carried their victorious arms’ and legs, wind and weather permitting, cricket has been played. Still the game is essentially Anglo-Saxon. Foreigners have rarely, very rarely, imitated us.”
As cricket evolved from a rough folk game to the sport of public schoolboys and gentlemen batsmen, it began to take on the pastoral and nostalgic overtones that it carries to this day (though it was celebrated in the Victorian era, in the twenty-first century, this sort of stuff isn’t usually seen as positive—with its white sweater vests and seemingly sleepy pace, cricket often feels anachronistic and stuffy to outsiders). But more importantly than all of that, it was an English game—the same celebration of the pastoral as something deeply English was happening across the country, in music, art, and popular literature. Cricket was well suited for the task. Neville Cardus, one of the most celebrated cricket writers of the twentieth century, wrote that “cricket more than any other game is inclined toward sentimentalism and cant.” Cricketing idealism carried the British upper classes blithely into the First World War—“When the sons of old England are all driven from their native land by foreign foes, then—and not till then—will the bat, the ball, and the wicket be laid aside and forgotten,” wrote Nicholas Wanostrocht half a century prior—and nostalgia for the pre-war days in the twenties and thirties featured a great deal of wistful cricket talk: the long, slow afternoons on the pitches of some fantasy Edwardian England stood in for the relative innocence that was decimated by the war.
Far from these mythical fields, cricket was an integral part of the expansion of the British Empire. Bateman writes that the spread of the sport was “often informal, uneven and geographically specific…not part of a straightforward, centrally controlled and consciously executed ‘civilising mission’.” Cecil Headlam (whose racism Bateman later describes as “quite staggering but casually-expressed”) summed up the general trajectory of the invading Britons: “First the hunter, the missionary, and the merchant, next the soldier and the politician, and then the cricketer—that is the history of British colonisation. And of these civilising influences the last may, perhaps, be said to do least harm.” On the surface, there was some truth to that—colonists were being taught a sport, not converted or taxed or conscripted—but these test matches arrived with a rigid ideas about race and class: colonists were relegated to perpetual bowling slots, and when rules were misunderstood or their play was unorthodox or “not cricket”, colonizers would chalk it up to racial inferiority, the idea that no non- (white) Englishman could ever master the game.
But modernity arrived, and before long, white and non-white colonists alike were sending their best players for tours of England—and the English began to lose. (The 1932 Bodyline affair, in which the English, tired of losing to Australia, resorted to some largely “not cricket” tactics to take down Australian great Donald Bradman, is still known as one of the most infamous and important events in the sport’s history.) It was under the changing landscape of international cricket that C.L.R. James emerged. “Cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it,” he wrote in Beyond a Boundary, published in 1963. “When I did turn to politics, I did not have too much to learn.” Bateman writes that James works within the tradition of English cricket writing—“part of a broader discourse of Englishness that functioned…[by] rendering culture no longer a construct to be fought over”—and turns that tradition on its head, arguing for Caribbean sovereignty within England’s own prescribed set of terms. This echoed throughout all cricket-loving nations in the decades that followed: the former colonists took cricket and expropriated it for themselves, though in the process, they overlaid their own cultural concerns and political conflicts on the game. In Netherland, we find a mix of cricket refugees, Commonwealth immigrants exiled in cricket-averse New York City, navigating the politics of America while trying to uphold the ideals of the sport. And in Pradeep Mathew, all of Sri Lankan politics are wrapped up in all of Sri Lankan cricket, played under the thumb of a decades-long civil war—one in which the eponymous cricketer has inevitably gotten tangled.
To most Americans, there is something inexplicably foreign about cricket. On the surface, it is pretty similar to baseball, at least compared to just about any other sport: bats and balls and runs and innings—like baseball, cricket is heaven for statisticians. But perhaps the similarities throw us off: we watch a few minutes, expecting it to be perfectly analogous and comprehensible, and are irreparably jarred by the differences. (The funniest example of our perceptions of cricket might be a sketch that, despite coming from the Dutch comedy show “Jiskefet”, is entitled “What playing cricket looks like to Americans” on YouTube, and involves a giant chessboard, a freestanding set of swinging doors, and commentary full of gibberish.) Halfway through the nineteenth century, baseball and cricket were on equal footing here—if anything, cricket was the more popular of the two—but during and after the Civil War, baseball’s “national pastime” narrative was constructed and spread. Baseball was supposedly more egalitarian—it could be played in any open space, rather than cricket’s proscribed pitches—and its promoters sold the game on a national level as a uniquely American sport. Cricket stayed local, largely in the big cities of the Northeast, and faded from the American consciousness.
But when immigration laws were loosened in the sixties, members of the Commonwealth nations began to arrive, and cricket quietly came back to America. Today, an estimated 200,000 people play the sport in some organized way in the U.S., mostly in amateur leagues and casual games on weekends. It is within this slow cultural turn that we can locate Netherland, Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 novel which, according to the sticker affixed to my paperback copy, President Obama has described as both “fascinating” and “wonderful” (he turned to it when he was “sick enough of briefing books” in the spring of 2009). Netherland was a big hit: broad critical praise, prestigious awards, and a firm place in the pantheon of very-recent post-9/11 fiction—the subject is dealt with quietly but pervasively, a heavy undercurrent running through the entire anxiety-laden narrative. Irish-born O’Neill’s protagonist, Hans van den Broek, is a Dutch financial analyst living in New York City before and after September 11, trying to mend a disintegrating marriage and searching for a metaphorical and metaphysical place in both the city and the country.
He finds the Staten Island Cricket Club, the oldest in America and an organization that is today largely frequented by these Commonwealth immigrants—Hans is the only white man on a team that is made up of Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, and West Indians, “nominally, three Hindus, three Christians, a Sikh, and four Muslims.” On a foreigner’s map of New York City, these are growing but often largely invisible groups, relegated to enclaves at the far ends of subway lines: in the early pages of Netherland, Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian who is Hans’s closest friend through most of the book, makes an impassioned speech to this effect, which starts with the “not cricket” expression—he is discussing some poor behavior on the field prior to that evening’s game. He then draws some fairly unsubtle but potent metaphors about cricket and those who play it in America:
“In this country, we’re nowhere. We’re a joke. Cricket? How funny. So we play as a matter of indulgence. And if we step out of line, believe me, this indulgence disappears. … What this means is, we have an extra responsibility to play this game right. We have to prove ourselves. We have to let our hosts see that these strange-looking guys are up to something worthwhile. I say ‘see.’ I don’t know why I use that word. Every summer the parks of this city are taken over by hundreds of cricketers but somehow nobody notices. Now that’s nothing new, for those of us who are black or brown. As for those who are not”—Chuck acknowledged my presence with a smile—“you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I say that I sometimes tell people, You want a taste of how it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of the cricketer. Put on white to feel black.”
Chuck often speaks in big, sweeping metaphors. (Later, he tells Hans: “‘The noble bald eagle represents the spirit of freedom, living as it does in the boundless void of the sky.’ I turned to see whether he was joking. He wasn’t. From time to time, Chuck actually spoke like this.”) Playing cricket, living by cricket’s values, becomes a metaphor for quiet assimilation. In the first cricket scene, Hans describes the pitch on which they play, where the grass is never cut properly. On a traditionally kept pitch, with its trimmed grass, a skilled batsman will try to bank bouncing shots along the ground. In tall grasses, this is rendered impossible: “Consequently, in breach of the first rule of batting, the batsman is forced to smash the ball into the air…and batting is turned into a gamble.” Hans later realizes that he is going to have to change his batting style if he wants to play cricket in America, so to speak. But as the only person of privilege on the team—white, wealthy, Western—Hans consciously separates himself from his teammates. “But it was, I felt, different for them. They had grown up playing the game in floodlit Lahore car parks or in rough clearings in some West Indian countryside. They could, and did, modify their batting without spiritual upheaval. I could not.”
Hans’s friendship with Chuck reorients that map of New York both physically and spiritually—traveling the long stretch of Coney Island Avenue, in South Brooklyn, or across Hillside Avenue, in the far reaches of Queens. Chuck pushes him forward, however slightly, towards action; Hans is the sort of passive and permissive character whose lack of movement becomes a plot point. But cricket remains an undercurrent, as the plot meanders: Chuck wants to start a cricket club in New York, to plow out an old Brooklyn airfield and open a cricket stadium, to reignite an American passion for the sport that died more than a century ago. He has other schemes, lots of schemes, and these are the least life threatening (we learn within the first pages of the book that he has turned up dead in the Gowanus Canal). But for Hans, cricket in America is a moral dilemma: “on the one hand, my sense of an innings as a chanceless progression of orthodox shots—impossible under local conditions—and, on the other hand, the indigenous notion of batting as a gamble of hitting out.” When he finally makes the leap, and smashes one out of the park, so to speak (only to be called out soon after): “And everything is suddenly clear, and I am at last naturalized.”
If Netherland is a book of cricketing outsiders, what does the sport look like from the inside, from the heart of the cricket-loving world? We can turn, then, to Sri Lanka: the narrator and hero of Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is a washed-up, alcoholic sports writer named W.G. Karunasera—Wiji to his Sri Lankan friends, “WeeGee” to the English ones, and Gamini to his long-suffering wife. He himself longs to be known by his initials only—“W.G. May not roll of the tongue, but I like how it sounds. Come W.G., let’s put a drink. W.G. at your service madam. I’m sorry, Mr. W.G., but we cannot refund your bet. Sadly, the only place my initials appear is where I place them myself.” Wiji is an extraordinarily charming narrator—and a suitably unreliable one. Cricket isn’t merely a metaphor here, as it is in Netherland, though it often serves as one: Wiji treats cricket as he does alcohol—his passion for both is painful and debilitating, and he cannot live without either. He doesn’t waste any time getting into the details of it, to both his amusement and the bewilderment of the uninitiated reader. From page 6, “Clean Bowled”:
The simplest dismissal is when the bowler knocks over the batsman’s wickets. Mathew did this with most of his victims. He sent left-arm chinamen, googlies, armballs and darters through pads and feet. Here is a not-so-random sample of batsmen whose balls he dislodged. Border. Chappell. Crowe. Gatting. Gavaskar. Gower. Greenidge. Hadlee. Imran. Kapil. Lloyd. Miandad.
You are shaking your head. You are closing the book and frowning at the cover. Rereading the blurb at the back. Wondering if a refund is out of the question.
On the surface, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is about the search for Pradeep Sivanathan Mathew, a Sri Lankan cricketer who seems to have slipped from the record books, even though peoples’ vague memories and sketchy stories paint a portrait of one of the greatest and most mercurial players in Sri Lanka’s history. (The original title, Chinaman, refers to a common type of bowling style.) In the opening lines of the novel, another list: “Why, you ask, has no one heard of our nation’s greatest cricketer? Here, in no particular order. Politics, racism, power cuts, and plain bad luck. If you are unwilling to follow me on the next God-knows-how-many pages, re-read the last two sentences. They are as good a summary as I can give from this side of the bottle.” Politics, racism, power cuts—in a few words, the story of Sri Lankan cricket, and, in turn, Sri Lanka, unfurl: Mathew is Tamil, and, unrelated or not, seems to have made some shady deals. But the entirety of the novel takes place within the long, bloody stretch of the Sri Lankan Civil war, which began in 1983 and ended just three years ago. This book couldn’t exist without that context. Like C.L.R. James, this is politics by sport, though Karunatilaka often muddies these waters; the analogies aren’t nearly as cut and dry.
Wiji is a poor detective, though what he lacks in focus and skill he makes up for in enthusiasm. To reduce this novel—either of these novels—to books “about cricket” is to take away from all the amazing things that Karunatilaka does here: the entire book, with its brief episodes, lists, and anecdotes, is sleight-of-hand, but the sort that leaves you feeling gratified in the end, rather than cheated. But to say that Pradeep Mathew isn’t “about cricket” is also a gross misrepresentation: there are diagrams, photographs, statistics, random asides, and all the rules of the sport in what seems like the completely wrong order, so that a cricket novice might close the back cover and say, “I still don’t really understand how this game is basically played.” It’s as though your drunk uncle set out to explain something to you, giving you all the wrong information at the wrong time and getting far too excited about minor details or non-sequiturs—which, I suppose, is exactly what’s happening here. In Pradeep Mathew we come at the sport from the most unusual angles, but luckily, our understanding of the game deepens in turn.
Running beneath all of this is politics. Wiji sees it, acknowledges it—in some ways, he’s internalized it long ago—but he stops every so often to lay it out, and to explain some basic things to a non-Sri Lankan, which is helpful to a Western reader trying to sort out cultural differences from cricket talk. Like when Karunatilaka revisits the rebel South African tours: in the eighties, South Africa was banned from international cricket as a result of Apartheid, but test matches were still organized and staged by South Africa, luring players desperate for money and able to overlook any political or moral misgivings. Or when he’s talking with his English friend, Jonny, about the British ability to set aside conflicts of nationality and culture on the sporting field, something, he says, Sri Lankans didn’t manage to inherit:
Sri Lanka is filled with many shades of brown…It is not so much the colours as the ideas that these colours spawn that I find objectionable. The united super-race of Britons may have started it when they, among other things, segregated our cricket clubs. Though it is perhaps unfair and inaccurate to lay the blame for our racial problems on the streets of Downing or the palaces of Buckingham. Despite the existence of a Sinhalese Sports Club, a Tamil Union, a Moors SC, a Burgher Recreation Club and a perversely christened Nondescripts Cricket Club, cricket as a sport refuses to be segregated. Clubs grab talent regardless of vowels or consonants or moustaches or chalk. So much for divide and conquer.
In the end, at the heart of The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is a deep, unwavering love for cricket—and just as we inevitably fall for the story’s narrator, we come to love the sport itself, despite its history or its faults. In a world where facts and statistics are painstakingly recorded and often celebrated, we find just as much joy—maybe more—in something less tangible: the idea of the game, and the people devoted to it. Early on, Karunatilaka snags us easily, seducing even the most skeptical reader. From “Sales Pitch,” we’re hooked:
If you’ve never seen a cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can’t understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
What was Charles Dickens’s best novel? It depends whom you ask of course. G.K. Chesterton thought Bleak House represented the mature peak of Dickens’s skill as a novelist, although he went on to remark, “We can say more or less when a human being has come to his full mental growth, even if we go so far as to wish that he had never come to it.” This past February, on the occasion of Dickens’s 200th birthday, The Guardian put together this mesmerizing chart ranking 12 of Dickens’s 16 novels on a scale of most to least Dickensian. Bleak House came out first, Great Expectations was last, yet those two titles occupied the top two spots when Time issued its own Top-10 Dickens List for the Dickens bicentennial.
Searching for clarity, I decided to pose the question to a handful of leading Victorianists. In June, I sent out emails to select scholars asking them if they’d be interested in choosing a novel and making their case. I noted that of course there is no such thing as a singular best, and that really the exercise was meant to be fun. Just about everyone I reached out to was game. And, in recognition of how obsessive many Victorianists are about Dickens, one added that after debating his best novel, perhaps I’d be interested in curating a more esoteric discussion: Best Dickens character for a one night stand, or maybe which Dickens character you’d most like to have as your own child.
Saving those conversations for another day, here then are six impassioned, knowledgeable opinions on the topic of the best Dickens novel. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them, and that when you’re through, you’ll share your own views in the comments section.
1. Bleak House
Kelly Hager, Associate Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies, Simmons College
“Not to put too fine a point upon it,” as meek Mr. Snagsby is wont to say, Dickens’s best novel is Bleak House. It might not be everyone’s favorite (that honor might go to Dickens’s own “favourite child,” David Copperfield, or to the newly-relevant tale of a Victorian Bernie Madoff, Little Dorrit, or to that classic of 10th grade English, Great Expectations), but Bleak House is absolutely his best: in terms of plot, characters, pacing, social relevance, readability, and its possibilities for adaptation, just to cite some of its virtues.
The BBC’s 2005 version brought to the fore the pathos of the heroine Esther Summerson’s plight and the hypocrisy of the world that produced that plight. Brought up by a guardian (actually her aunt) who led her sister to believe that her (illegitimate) baby was born dead, Esther does not learn who her mother is, or even that she is alive, until she has been so disfigured by smallpox that she no longer poses the danger of incriminating her (now married and ennobled) mother by their resemblance. The scene of their first (and only) meeting is heart-rending but not maudlin, revealing just how far Dickens has moved beyond the sentimental portrayal of Little Nell’s deathbed (in The Old Curiosity Shop) and his precious depiction of the orphaned Oliver Twist. The emotions the scene calls up are honest, earned, poignant.
Similarly, the anger John Jarndyce feels at the Chancery suit that occupies the novel is not the self-righteous ire of those who uncover the educational abuses of Dotheboys Hall (in Nicholas Nickleby) or rail against the inequities of the law of divorce (in Hard Times), but the heartfelt anguish of a man who has seen friends and relatives destroyed by the red tape and bureaucracy of the Court of Chancery (a court that relies not on common law statutes but solely on precedents and was abolished in 1875). Dickens mounts a comparable attack on the aptly named Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, where the important thing is to learn “how not to do it,” but there, the depiction is comic. He does the more difficult and subtle thing in Bleak House, relying not on humor but on sad case after sad case to reveal the evils of the system. He writes with empathy; he doesn’t poke easy fun. In Bleak House, written between two national epidemics of cholera, in 1849 and 1854, Dickens also draws attention to the need for sanitary reform (specifically for a regulated, clean supply of water for the public); Bleak House is, in fact, one of the earliest fictional engagements with the field of public health.
Engaged in social issues, moving, and full of characters we love (the unflappable army wife, Mrs. Bagnet; Jo, the crossing sweeper; Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock’s loyal husband) and characters we love to hate (the selfish parents Mrs. Jellyby and Mr. Turveydrop; Vholes, the vampiric solicitor), Bleak House is Dickens at his very best.
2. Bleak House
Anna Henchman, Assistant Professor of English, Boston University, and author of The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature
Bleak House begins in sooty obscurity: swirls of fog, snowflakes black with grime, indistinguishable masses. Movement is circular — “slipping and sliding,” — without progress. The laws of this world are quickly established: There is rigid separation between classes. Characters are moving parts in a system that consumes them. Separate realms coexist with little contact with one another.
But then the novel explodes when gauche Mr. Guppy presumes to call on the cold Lady Dedlock. She agrees to see him, and even more strangely, betrays in his presence a quivering vulnerability, a longing to know that echoes our own perplexity as readers of this novel. “What connexion can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury with the powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom…?” After Mr. Guppy’s visit, a new sequence of events unfolds, and Lady Dedlock’s life rearranges itself before our eyes. Later, on the open grass, another extraordinary meeting brings us even more closely into her consciousness.
Like us, Mr. Guppy has been playing detective, putting together the pieces of the book, and at this point he’s doing it better than we are. Bleak House is a novel full of detectives with whom we sit in uneasy intimacy because their inquisitive state of mind mirrors our own.Their “calling is the acquisition of secrets.”
Two distinct narrators take us through this increasingly comprehensible world. The omniscient narrator can enter anywhere, taking us from foggy London to Lincolnshire. He floats through walls, moving from the airless chambers of one house in town to the greasy interior of another that stinks of burnt flesh. Esther, by contrast, is a timid outsider, for whom everything is new and strange. Some of the greatest effects of the novel occur when Esther takes us through spaces we’ve visited many times and thought we knew. Right after Esther talks with Lady Dedlock, for instance, she walks through the fragrant gardens of Chesney Wold. “Grostesque monsters bristle” as she thinks about the lives they lead inside, and for the first time we feel attached to the stately home.
The great pleasure of this novel is the pleasure of plot — of retroactively putting events into sequence. Like detectives, novelists construct patterns out of disparate fragments. This novel more than any other Dickens novel feels both ordered and dynamic. Characters who flash past us — a man from Shropshire, a crossing sweeper — resolve into detail, acquire names, and fill out in time and space. As the lines between networks of characters thicken, the world gets smaller, more recognizable, but also more dangerous for the ones we love most.
3. David Copperfield
Maia McAleavey, Assistant Professor of English, Boston College
“Of course I was in love with little Em’ly,” David Copperfield assures the reader of his childhood love. “I am sure I loved that baby quite as truly, quite as tenderly, with greater purity and more disinterestedness, than can enter into the best love of a later time of life.” Loving a person or a book (and “David Copperfield” conveniently appears to be both) may have nothing at all to do with bestness. The kind of judicious weighing that superlative requires lies quite apart from the easy way the reader falls in love with David Copperfield.
To my mind, David is far more loveable than Pip (Great Expectations’ fictional autobiographer), and better realized than Esther (Bleak House’s partial narrator). And it does help to have a first-person guide on Dickens’s exuberantly sprawling journeys. David, like Dickens, is a writer, and steers the reader through the novel as an unearthly blend of character, narrator, and author. This is not always a comforting effect. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show,” David announces in his unsettling opening sentence.
Here he is, at once a young man thoroughly soused after a night of boozing and a comically estranging narrative voice: “Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains…We went down-stairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.”
Is the novel nostalgic, sexist, and long? Yes, yes, and yes. But in its pages, Dickens also frames each of these qualities as problems. He meditates on the production, reproduction, and preservation of memories; he surrounds his typically perfect female characters, the child-bride Dora and the Angel-in-the-House Agnes, with the indomitable matriarch Betsey Trotwood and the sexlessly maternal nurse Peggotty; and he lampoons the melodramatically longwinded Micawber while devising thousands of ways to keep the reader hooked. If you haven’t yet found your Dickensian first love, David’s your man.
4. David Copperfield
Leah Price, Professor of English, Harvard University
“Of all my books,” confessed Dickens in the preface, “I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.”
David Copperfield fits the bill for a “best of” contest because it’s all about who’s first, who’s favorite, who’s primary. It’s one of Dickens’s few novels to be narrated entirely in the first person; it’s the only one whose narrator’s initials reverse Charles Dickens’s, and whose plot resembles the story that Dickens told friends about his own family and his own career. (But Dickens takes the novelist’s privilege of improving on the facts, notably by killing off David’s father before the novel opens in order to prevent him from racking up as many debts as Dickens senior did over the course of his inconveniently long life.)
That means that it’s also one of the few Dickens novels dominated by one character’s story and one character’s voice (This stands in contrast to Bleak House, say, which shuttles back and forth between two alternating narrators, one first-person and past-tense, the other third-person and couched in the present). As a result David Copperfield is less structurally complex, but also more concentrated, with an intensity of focus that can sometimes feel claustrophobic or monomaniacal but never loses its grip on a reader’s brain and heart. Its single-mindedness makes it more readable than a novel like Pickwick Papers, where the title character is little more than a human clothesline on which a welter of equally vivid minor characters are hung. Yet at the same time, it’s a novel about how hard it is to be first: Can you come first in your mother’s heart after she marries a wicked stepfather? And can your own second wife come first for you after her predecessor dies?
On David’s birthday, he tells us, “I went into the bar of a public-house, and said to the landlord: ‘What is your best — your very best — ale a glass?’ ‘Twopence-halfpenny,’ says the landlord, ‘is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.'” David Copperfield is the genuine stunning: there’s nothing quite like it, in Dickens’s work or out.
5. Little Dorrit
Deb Gettelman, Assistant Professor of English, College of the Holy Cross
There’s a different best Dickens novel for every purpose. Even though Dickens’s peculiar characters with their tic phrases sometimes appear interchangeable, his novels as a whole are surprisingly different from each other in their focus of interest, narrative structure, and in some cases, length. The best Dickens novel to read? Bleak House. To teach? Oliver Twist. To boast that I’ve read? Martin Chuzzlewit (really, I have). To understand Dickens’s consciousness as a writer? Little Dorrit.
I’d like to think a writer’s best novel is the one that, if it had never been written, would cause the greatest difference in how much we think we understand about that writer’s overall work. It might be predictable, but for me the later, darker, reflective books often suit this purpose best: Persuasion, Villette, The Wings of the Dove. For Dickens’s readers it is Little Dorrit, his deeply personal novel of middle age that reveals the author’s consciousness as an artist at its most mature, reflective, and darkest stage
Little Dorrit is Dickens’s moodiest novel, and comparatively little happens in it. There are the usual plot complications — and what Dickens called the novel’s “various threads” often seem to hang together by a thread — but at its heart is the stasis of a debtor’s prison, where Amy, or Little Dorrit, has grown up tending to her self-deluding father. The novel’s many psychologically imprisoned characters mostly sit around brooding about their thwarted lives, especially the hero, Arthur Clennam, who is older and more anguished than Dickens’s other heroes and heroines. Elements familiar from Dickens’s other novels — satiric portrayals of bureaucrats and aristocrats, the self-sacrificing young woman, even a murderous Frenchman — seem more sinister in this novel because they are the cause of so much melancholy.
At one point Dickens summarizes Clennam’s thoughts in a way that seems emblematic of the novel: “Little Dorrit, Little Dorrit. Again, for hours. Always Little Dorrit!” As Lionel Trilling observed, Little Dorrit is the most interiorized of Dickens’s novels. Shortly after writing it Dickens made a spectacle of breaking up his family, and characters in the novel torture, contort, misrepresent, and stifle one another’s feelings in spectacularly awful ways. In a game of word association, ‘Dickens’ would readily call to mind words like ‘comedy,’ ‘caricature,’ and ‘satire.’ ‘Little Dorrit’ would yield ‘interiority,’ ‘psychological depth,’ ‘angst,’ and all the inventive strategies Dickens uses to achieve these qualities. It enables us to see the fullest possible psychological and artistic spectrum of his work.
Our Mutual Friend was my Dickens gateway drug. The opening sequence plays like a Scorsese tracking shot on steroids. A body fished out of the Thames becomes gossip at a nouveau riche banquet, from which two lawyers slip out to a dockside police station, where they meet a mysterious man who runs off to take lodgings with a clerk, whose daughter becomes the ward of a dustman, who hires a peg-legged balladeer to read him The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And I haven’t even mentioned the taxidermist.
It’s the Facebook fantasy: everyone is connected — though in the darkly satiric world of late Dickens, this is less an accomplishment than an indictment. The surprise comes from how much fun it is to navigate his corrupt social network. Conventional wisdom asks you to choose Dickens savory or sweet: the ineluctable fog of Bleak House or the bibulous conviviality of The Pickwick Papers. Our Mutual Friend, his last completed novel, gives you both an intricate web of plots and a cast of delightfully scurrilous plotters.
Its particular tickle comes from the recognition that everyone’s an impostor, and a gleeful one at that. People who dismiss Dickensian eccentrics as fanciful caricatures miss how much the fancies are the characters’ own insistent projections. As the narrator says of the self-important balladeer: “His gravity was unusual, portentous, and immeasurable, not because he admitted any doubt of himself, but because he perceived it necessary to forestall any doubt of himself in others.” The self we perform is the self we become.
And everyone’s performing in Our Mutual Friend. A lawyer pretends to be a lime merchant for an undercover job in pub, and after the sleuthing concludes, he’s so enamored of the role that he offers the potboy a job in his fictional “lime-kiln.” When the orphan Sloppy reads the newspaper, “he do the police in different voices” — a line that T.S. Eliot pinched as his working title for the The Waste Land.
This literary legacy, along with the novel’s sustained imagery, have led some critics to call it proto-modernist. Dickens shows us as well that the insights we call post-modern (personality as performance, fiction as artifice) have Victorian roots. The creators of The Wire declared their debt to the 19th-century master of serial narration, and it’s no surprise that a season finale of Lost revolved around a copy of Our Mutual Friend. This is the book you want on a desert island.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.
I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.
Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?
There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.
And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)
And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.
I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:
Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.
If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.