Sunday, December 07, 2008
Notes on Dickens 9
Sinyavsky writes of Gogol: his language shifts from the object of speech to speech itself… that is why we perceive Gogol’s prose so distinctly as prose, and not even as a form of putting thoughts into words… it has its content and even if you wish, its subject in itself - this prose which steps forth in the free image of speech about facts worth mentioning, speech in a pure sense about nothing. Substitute Dickens for Gogol, and you have the most accurate description of Dickens’s language as any I have read.
Bayley writes comparing the two: Unlike Dickens’s, Gogol’s words are never interested in exploiting emotion or in their own luxuriant freedom and sentiment; they are much too absorbed in themselves. The Dickensian interest in exploiting the emotion of words (a contentious issue in itself) aside, Bayley puts up a false dichotomy between words' own luxuriant freedom and sentiment and their self-absorption: but to me these two qualities of words define each other, and they are the qualities that both writers share. What else is the self-absorption of Gogol’s words but a luxuriating in their freedom and sentiment/what else is the self-absorption of Dickens's words but a luxuriating in their freedom and sentiment?
Here is Dickens in 1836 describing the morning streets in Sketches by Boz:
Rough sleepy-looking animals of strange appearance, something between ostlers and hackney coachmen begin to take down the shutters of early public houses, and little deal tables, with the ordinary preparations for a street breakfast make their appearance at their customary stations. Numbers of men and women, (principally the latter), carrying on their heads heavy baskets of fruit, toil down the park side of Piccadilly, on their way to Covent Garden, and, following each other in rapid succession, form a long straggling line from thence to the turn of the road at Knightsbridge…
And here is Gogol in 1835, describing the morning streets in Nevsky Prospect:
At that time Nevsky Prospect is empty: the stout shop owners and their sales clerks are still asleep in their Holland nightshirts or are soaping their noble cheeks and drinking coffee; beggars gather near the pastry shops, where a sleepy Ganymede, who yesterday was flying about with chocolate like a fly, crawls out, tieless, broom in hand and tosses them stale cakes and leftovers. Down the streets trudge useful folk: Russian muzhaks pass by occasionally, hurrying to work, their boots crusted with lime that even the Ekaterininsky Canal, famous for its cleanliness, would be unable to wash off…
There is the same accumulation of very specific and digressive detail, the same energy in the telling and bustle in the seeing, the same metonymic use of a single swift gesture to delineate a character or an object, the same caricatured sharpness of vision, the same acute awareness of food and drink and their economic ramifications, the same urbanity and wit, the same ironic observations spoken to the side; those noble cheeks and the pastry boy flying about, are very Dickensian, very Gogolian…